Standing tall between the Iowa cornfields and Nebraska plains, straddling the mighty Missouri River, sits the Omaha Metro. This Midwestern hub is home to nearly one million people who strive, work and live together to make the area a pleasant place, both to visit or to put down roots. If you ever wanted to show a foreigner an example of a classically American, working-class town with everything the big cities have to offer and without the traffic and hassle, the Omaha metro would be at the top of that list.
Like many places around the country, the people here have a passion — college football. The sport reigns supreme in these parts. While residents pass the time throughout the rest of the year taking in college basketball, hockey and baseball games, it’s the love of college football that keeps their minds occupied and their hearts warm.
For most people in the metro, the college football team of choice is the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers are one of the true blue bloods of the sport — boasting decades of dominance, championships and legendary players and coaches.
As you zoom in on the population, however, you’ll notice sprinkles of black and gold among all that is the Sea of Red. To the east of the Missouri River, particularly in Council Bluffs, those sprinkles become large patches and blotches, blending together with Husker red like the different colors in camouflage patterns. Council Bluffs is in Iowa. In Iowa, they root for the Hawkeyes.
“The Bluffs,” as the town is referred to by many locals, is what transforms Omaha from a city in Nebraska to an entire metro, spilling over into a neighboring state like a smaller version of St. Louis or even New York City. Most who are just passing through the area will only know Council Bluffs for the stretch of truck stops, strip malls, hotels and casinos along Interstate 80. Beyond those traveler-oriented businesses, however, is a beautiful and well preserved city of 60,000 proud Iowans.
In 2015, the bulk of those proud Iowans can’t stop watching, believing in and talking about their beloved Iowa Hawkeye football team.
Normally, Iowa is a football program that hovers around mediocrity. The fans are realists, and they understand who they are and why it is that way. It’s tough to get top recruits to the upper Midwest, leaving their homes in warm, sunny places like South Florida, Southern California and Texas. Instead, like most teams in this part of the country, they get who they can and they make the best of it.
That’s what makes Nebraska’s historical success so remarkable. With all of the same perceived handicaps as Iowa, the Husker football program sustained phenomenal success for an extended period of time. Few college football programs were able to accomplish what Nebraska’s did during the second half of the 20th century. Nebraska was a special place and the Huskers were a special program.
While Nebraska was having their success, their neighbors to the east — Iowans who rooted for Iowa — were powerless and humbled. All they could do was gaze across the river at Omaha — the empire city of Husker Nation — and watch the celebrations from a distance. Omaha-based Husker fans could drive less than an hour to watch their team win, drive home, and still have time to celebrate the victories in the street throughout the night.
In Council Bluffs — roughly three and a half hours from Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City — a trip to an Iowa game is often a two-day affair when all is said and done. In most cases, the on-field result is a coin flip.
Being an Iowa fan is not easy. It takes a lot of resilience.
There was — and still is — a certain jealousy of what was happening on the west side of the Missouri. That jealously eventually planted the seeds of a rivalry amongst fans — destined to be nothing more than a cold war, as the two teams were in different conferences and rarely-if-ever played each other.
In 2011, that cold war got hot in a hurry.
With a handshake and a signature, in the wake of a strained relationship with the Big 12 Conference and an offer he couldn’t refuse from the Big Ten, Nebraska athletic director and former Husker coach Tom Osborne sealed the deal that moved Nebraska to the nation’s oldest conference.
There were celebrations on both sides of the river. Many Nebraska fans had long viewed the caliber of football in the Big Ten as inferior to what was played in the Big 12. Success was inevitable. Iowa fans — on the other hand — were salivating at the chance to play the Huskers every year.
Throughout Nebraska’s tenure in the Big Ten, those Iowa fans have gotten their wish. A real rivalry has been born – at least along the Missouri River.
Those close to the Nebraska program in Lincoln have repeatedly scoffed at the notion of Iowa as a rival. In their eyes, Iowa is the pesky little brother – not worthy of inclusion in a rivalry with a program like Nebraska. On the east side of Iowa, some fans agree for different reasons. Iowa has historic rivalries with Wisconsin and Minnesota — not to mention the in-state rivalry with Iowa State. They didn’t need another rival.
Despite what anyone wants to believe, the Iowa-Nebraska rival is very real in the Omaha metro. The teams play every year on Black Friday — a date formerly reserved for the legendary annual Nebraska-Oklahoma game.
In the Omaha metro, an obvious rivalry exists, and there’s no ignoring it.
If you are outside or have your windows open during an Iowa or Nebraska game throughout the year, you’ll hear cheers around the neighborhood. These aren’t always cheers for one’s own team. Many times, they are cheers for the team that just scored against Nebraska or Iowa.
Mike’l Severe, a journalist for the Omaha World-Herald and host of the local sports radio talk show “The Bottom Line,” is one of the few local media members who openly acknowledge the rivalry.
“It’s definitely a rivalry for the fans around here,” Severe says. “I live in mid-town Omaha and every Saturday there are four houses on my street alone flying Iowa flags. I’ve seen some houses in the neighborhood with those Nebraska-Iowa house divided flags. People come in to work around the city and have to sit and listen to the people next to them brag about the result of the last game. For a long time, Husker fans were usually the ones with the right to brag. Nowadays, especially this season, that’s not always the case.”
Severe told me a story about attending a wedding in Iowa. It was right after Nebraska made the announcement that they were joining the Big Ten.
“Strangers who recognized me — Iowa and Nebraska fans — kept approaching me all day, asking what I thought about the move and what it meant for the rivalry between the two schools”, he said. “These were people I’d never met, and it’s all they wanted to talk about. It was one of the weirdest things.”
Perhaps nowhere in the metro is the Big Ten’s newest and most underrated rivalry so apparent than inside the doors of Barley’s Bar in Council Bluffs.
Barley’s is a true throwback to the traditional neighborhood pub. It’s a place where people from all walks of life come to talk politics and watch sports over a pint or even dinner with the family. It’s the crown jewel of the “100 block,” a stretch of businesses that comprise the main drag in the city’s center. It’s one of the best and most welcoming sports bars in the area, but one foot inside the door on game day is all you’ll need to know where the allegiances of the owner and most of the patrons lie.
Above the bar at Barley’s sit all 14 helmets of the Big Ten teams. Above the tables where the customers enjoy the food and spirits, you’ll usually only see two flags hanging — an Iowa flag and the flag of the team playing Nebraska that week.
At Barley’s, those are the home teams.
I sat down at Barley’s recently to talk with the owner, Matt Johnson, about the relationship between the two programs and the fans. Before we began our conversation, Johnson was thanking Council Bluffs mayor Matt Walsh for his patronage. Before the mayor departed, I quickly asked him where his allegiances lie. In true political fashion, he replied “I cheer for both of them.”
I suppose you don’t want to alienate any of your constituents.
As Johnson and I began our conversation, he was quick to disagree with the notion that Nebraska-Iowa was a rivalry just for the fans. He told me a story from around 15 years ago, when he owned a smaller bar in a different part of the city. Three guys, one of whom he immediately recognized as a member of the Nebraska football team, walked into his bar and were looking nervous. They ordered drinks like anyone else, but never looked comfortable. Even more strange, one of them would repeatedly go to the door and look down the street.
After two or three times, Johnson approached the young man.
“Everything ok?” he asked. “Yes,”, the kid replied. “I’m just making sure my car is alright. We aren’t really supposed to be here. Coach told us to stay away from Iowa. He said it’s dangerous.”
I laughed at the idea that a college football coach would be worried about — of all places — Iowa as somewhere that would be too dangerous for his players to visit on their free time.
As Johnson and I continued our conversation, a cast of characters straight out of a sitcom surrounded us to listen in. One guy named Chris stopped by to offer up his personal reasoning for hating Nebraska fans.
“I could never stand how they just always want to shove their success down our throat.”
That seemed to be a popular sentiment, as most around our table within earshot nodded their heads in approval.
Shortly after Chris joined us, a stocky bald fellow wearing an Iowa State shirt sauntered over to our table.
“Cyclones fan, eh?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied. “I’ve just had this shirt since the week Iowa State beat Nebraska in Lincoln a few years back.”
Johnson eventually introduced this man as “Dale.” I quickly learned that it was Dale who started the Barley’s tradition of hanging the flag (or shirt) of Nebraska’s opponent that week from the ceiling.
“I’ve got a shirt for every team Nebraska plays,” Dale said. “I’ve even got one that says Bye Week.”
The last character to show up at our table was yet another politician. Johnson introduced me to Roger, a newly elected Council Bluffs city councilman. He’ll be sworn in early next year.
Roger, to my surprise, was wearing a Nebraska hat. My first question for Roger was almost “Aren’t you afraid to wear that hat in here?” Then I realized, based on his frame and build, Roger could probably hold his own with anyone who wanted to give him grief over a hat. Instead, I asked him what he thought about the fact that some don’t consider Nebraska vs. Iowa a rivalry. He looked at me like I had just insulted one of his family members. “It’s a rivalry,” he said.
I left it at that.
On the day after Thanksgiving, Dale will reach into his closet and dress himself in the black and gold of his beloved Hawkeyes. Roger will dawn his Husker cap in the face of Iowa fans behind enemy lines. Mike’l Severe’s neighbors will fly their Iowa flags in the faces of Husker Nation, and like every game since 1962; Memorial Stadium in Lincoln will fill up.
In 2015 — if only for one season — the tables have turned. Iowa fans are dancing on their side of the river, ready to celebrate a perfect regular season and the fact that they remain in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. Their neighbors in red can only sit and watch quietly until kickoff.
On Black Friday, Husker Nation will play the unfamiliar role of “little brother” in front of a national audience, hoping to pull off the upset and avoid missing out on a bowl game appearance for only the third time since 1968. Even with those stakes, if you ask most Husker fans — especially those in the Omaha metro — what excites them more: the possibility of becoming bowl eligible or the chance to ruin Iowa’s perfect campaign during the season finale? My money is on the latter.
After all, this is a rivalry.
(Top photo by Machaela Morrissey)