As a transplant living in Nebraska, the summer months are often brutal. I'm not talking about the heat and unrelenting humidity. I'm talking about the annual ritual of the Nebraska Cornhusker football fan base, where passion wraps itself in a Big Red cocoon during the spring and hatches into a big beautiful butterfly of great expectations during the summer months.
For the better part of the 20th century, those expectations were often met. If the team failed to meet them, even if by only a game or two, it did a temporary number on the morale of those who root for the program. Be that as it may, pride has always been a pillar of resiliency for Husker Nation. They leaned on their passion and pride, dusted themselves off, and headed into the next season as one of college football's blue blood programs.
We're now approaching two decades since that was the norm in Nebraska.
It's been over 15 years since the Miami Hurricanes rolled over the Huskers in the 2001 BCS Championship Game. Ever since that night, when it was quite apparent that Eric Crouch was the only player on the field talented enough to hang with a Miami team that may have been the greatest of all-time, Nebraska fans have been waiting for their beloved team to get back to that place.
Waiting. Hoping. Sometimes even praying.
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After being in the mix and nationally relevant for so long, the Husker faithful just figured it would only be a matter of time before Nebraska was on top of the mountain again. Nebraska was on par with the likes of a Miami, Florida State, Florida and USC. Texas was an equal. Alabama was trying to emulate Nebraska.
Of course there was a sense of entitlement.
Back then; the average Nebraska fan could not fathom a competitive rivalry with the likes of Kansas State. The notion that one day, Northwestern would be considered a serious threat on the schedule was laughable. Those teams had no business being compared to the Huskers outside of a run-of-the-mill upset.
And then came the Bill Callahan years.
While Nebraska fans watched in horror as Callahan installed a high-powered passing attack, all but ignored the defensive side of the ball and subsequently ran the program into the ground, they didn't notice how the game itself was changing around them. Conference-specific networks began popping up. Mid-major programs were playing in prime time three or four times a week. Name brands started to mean less and less every season.
By the time Dr. Tom Osborne stepped in to stop the bleeding, the schools in the most talent-rich regions had already postured themselves for sustained success over the long term. The SEC had grown into a monster. The Big Ten figured out that getting your brand into as many living rooms as possible was key. Texas figured out that it ran the Big 12.
When the dust settled and an angry man from Youngstown, Ohio, had taken over the program with intentions of righting the ship, Nebraska was already on the wrong side of relevance. The days of getting to the top of the mountain by simply waiving that Big Red banner were gone — forever.
Full disclosure: sports writers are in the business of reads and clicks. In that regard, I've done very well for myself over the years by simply reminding Nebraska fans that the climb back is actually going to always be a climb. No more ski lifts or cable cars to the top. The landscape has changed. The extra work that programs like Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State have had to do over the years in order to be serious players on the national scene every couple of seasons is now the blueprint for any success Nebraska is going to have.
For a long time, that's been a tough pill for Husker Nation to swallow. And then came 2015.
Mike Riley won the press conference. He won the offseason. He sold Nebraska supporters on the idea that his mediocrity throughout his college coaching career was the result of circumstances beyond his control at Oregon State. He convinced Husker Nation that things would be different at Nebraska. The money, resources and support would be all he needed to build the winner that he was never able to build in Corvallis.
And then came a five-win regular season.
Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois all notched wins over the Huskers. It didn't matter — even as much as Husker fans tried to convince everyone otherwise — how the losses happened.
For the first time in close to 60 years, it was apparent to everyone inside of Nebraska that Husker football did not matter outside of Nebraska.
Finally, the pill was swallowed.
Living in Nebraska in 2016 has been a little different so far. Sure, the heat and humidity are still brutal during the summer months, but something is missing. Reading the local newspapers and listening to local sports talk radio; you can tell that the mood has changed. The fans and media seem to have collectively come to grips with the fact that Nebraska football is now a rebuilding effort. There has been more emphasis and excitement in terms of recruiting this season than in any I can remember since I started calling myself a Nebraskan 16 years ago.
Every once in a while, you'll hear a local talking head say something like "I don't think they'll lose to Purdue or Illinois again." But that's as far as it goes. There isn't that old entitled confidence there once was — whether in the voices of the media or the fans. Nobody is to be overlooked. The "now" is no longer the primary focus. It's all about tomorrow. It's all about building toward being relevant again as opposed to taking nine-, 10- and 11-win seasons for granted.
Riley is as humble as they come. The word "entitled" is the last thing you'd associate with him, and I think that's having a trickle-down effect on the Husker fan base. He knows that winning games in today's college football world is hard and winning consistently is harder. Slowly but surely, he's quietly convincing Nebraska supporters to openly acknowledge both of those facts.
From what I've seen, it's working. There is a lot of excitement — as always — surrounding Husker football. The difference in 2016 is the excitement is about legitimate hope for tomorrow as opposed to unrealistic expectations for today.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.