Today's news that former Oklahoma quarterback Jack Mildren succumbed to cancer at the age of 58 has brought out sadness not only in the Sooner Nation, but with Husker fans as well. In the "Game of the Century", Mildren scored twice rushing and twice passing, including a fourth quarter score to retake the lead before Jeff Kinney and his tattered jersey scored the game winner.
But Mildren wasn't just a football player. He later went on to become Oklahoma's Lieutenant Governor as well as vice chairman of a regional bank.
Some have been surprised by the reaction of Husker fans to Mildren's death. I think it's because the last 15 years have changed the dynamic of the Nebraska/Oklahoma relationship. In the 70's and 80's, the teams were bitter rivalries, and goodness knows how many times "Sooner Magic" pierced the hearts of the Huskers and their fans with a late touchdown to defeat Nebraska.
Barry Switzer resigned, and eventually coaches like Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake sent Sooner football into a tailspin. In the late 90's, the Sooners bore little resemblance to their tradition. Of course, all that changed once Bob Stoops came on board and restored the Sooners to glory.
Nebraska seems to be about ten years behind the Sooners in that respect. Tom Osborne retired, and likewise, a failed coaching experiment sent Husker football back to the days of Sputnik. Husker fans can merely hope that our new coach from Youngstown, Ohio is the secret to a return to glory at this point.
Meanwhile, the formation of the Big XII conference has changed the dynamic. The classic matchups used to be annually on Thanksgiving weekend. Now they only occur two out of every four years, and even then, it's closer to Halloween than Thanksgiving. We now have a shared enemy in the University of Texas.
Has this changed the dynamic of the Nebraska/Oklahoma matchup? I think it has. In the 80's especially, it was a true rivalry (at least on this end) with hate. Now that we've seen the matchup go on hiatus twice, and seen both programs struggle through some lean years, the hate seems lessened.
In many respect, it's almost like we're brothers now. Yeah, when it comes time to butt heads on the field, we want to win, and win badly. But there's a respect there now that wasn't there 15 years ago.
After that 2001 classic matchup, Husker fans and Sooner fans didn't talk smack as much as talk about the great game and that we both expected to meet again later that season in the conference title game. (Which never happened due to upsets later that season, ironically on Thanksgiving weekend...) The hatred that might have been there before, wasn't there anymore.
I know I've read several comments from Sooner fans over the past six months expressing their condolences as to what the previous regime did to this program, with wishes that Husker football get back to some semblance of decency. Much like many Husker fans wished for the Sooners ten years ago when Oklahoma was the team bumbling around on the field.
Is the bitter rivalry dead for good? Never say forever. But right now, it's not a rivalry anymore. I think we respect each other's programs too much to really hate them.