After 30 years helping to make the Big Ten one of college sports' elite conferences, Jim Delany will step down as its commissioner in 2020. Under his watch, Nebraska bid farewell to the Big 12 and entered a unique landscape. While Delany did right by the Huskers — many of those ways being financial — he made a notable misstep when welcoming the Big Red to their new home.
This is a conference where buckets, axes and the random, yet beloved Land-Grant Trophy are held in high esteem. One where the roots of malice run deep into its core. The best parts of the Big Ten are organic. That’s why it's so curious why Delany shone the spotlight on Nebraska the way he did.
When the Cornhuskers came aboard, there was expected pomp, scarlet balloons and a national-televised red carpet treatment on BTN. With the Big Red's blue-blood pedigree, Delany didn’t have to explain his decision. While Nebraska hadn't won even a conference championship in well over a decade, the brand still stood tall. You need not justify buying a share of Berkshire Hathaway’s stock. People know Warren Buffett knows what he’s doing.
Delany, though, made Nebraska's 2011 Big Ten entry feel oddly synthetic, intentional or not. The entire league was part of the Legends and Leaders division re-branding debacle, but it was the Huskers' arrival that prompted it. What capped the Big Red's conference slate was perhaps the least palatable decision.
Rivalries are one thing the Big Ten does best. Nebraska-Iowa didn't need to be dubbed "The Heroes Game" with an uninspired trophy. It's a nice sentiment, and this writer's a happy patron of the game's sponsor. However, this series was robbed of that crucial organic growth. No conference slugfest needs to be wrapped in cellophane and slapped with a Kroger sticker to be sold as a must-see event.
Ask 100 Nebraskans about Iowans and vice versa. There will be jokes, some mild, some downright mean. There are stupid, cliche memes on both sides, including some that are out-and-out explicit. The schools have yet to refer to each other as "that team across the Missouri" in a style their Northern cousins intimate, but the disgust is there.
Many Nebraska fans bristle at calling Iowa a rival. This is understandable as what Huskers deem worthy of that title is what was had with Oklahoma. Yes, the two teams were often in the national championship hunt and the game's winner was usually an eventual conference champion. However, this was a contest built on respect. To the Sooners, the Huskers were like fellow Vikings who shared a love of battling outside the gates of Valhalla before a night of celebratory drinking.
The further Nebraska drifts from Big 12 memories, the values that made it special grow even hazier. The Huskers have yet to earn that recognition from anyone in the Big Ten. That leaves two choices: apathy or contempt. Many Big Red fans point to Wisconsin as the team that should be Nebraska's rival. The Badgers often hover around the top of the division and challenge for the conference crown, much like Oklahoma did and does. But a 1-7 Big Ten series tally and a six-game losing streak vs. Wisconsin does not a rivalry make. Do you remember that those two teams also play for a prize — the Freedom Trophy? Do you even care?
Now, the confetti from the Huskers' arrival has long since been swept away, and the balloons deflated. As Scott Frost works to right the ship, it's time to face reality. Wisconsin will always get the Big Red's best shot, but there's so much ground to be made up before that back-and-forth is evened up.
Right across the Missouri river, Hawkeyes chirp in oddly loud tones about the current four-game winning streak held over a team they affectionately refer to as "Nebby" for fans not interested in rivalry talk. Likewise, Cornhuskers can’t help but pine for victories over Iowa in every single sport for some odd reason. Delany would've been rewarded with a blood feud between these two regardless of how pretty he tried to make it. Nebraska's now as much a part of the Big Ten as any prior to 2011. The Huskers and Hawkeyes are now locked in good old-fashioned hate and it’s close to boiling over.
You don't have to take my word for it, though. After Nebraska returns from its tilt versus Maryland on Nov. 23, read the news clippings, social media, and message boards from the two sides. Watch the game itself on Black Friday. Oklahoma's respect used to be there for the Big Red. Now, Iowa's venom resides.