When University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Russ Huesman was hired three years ago, he had only one request of athletic director Rick Hart concerning “money” games.
“I didn’t want to play any [BCS] schools that weren’t in our recruiting area,” Huesman said. “I didn’t mind playing Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, schools like that. But I didn’t want to play a Missouri or Iowa, someplace we don’t really recruit.”
So how is it that the Mocs are opening at Nebraska on Saturday, given that not one Moc hails from the Cornhuskers’ state?
“It’s Nebraska,” Huesman answered, breaking into a wide smile. “It’s one of the magical names in all of college football. What have they sold out, something like 311 straight games? That’s football heaven.”
Football royalty, actually. Not only will the Mocs be participating in the Big Red’s 312th straight sellout inside Memorial Stadium — a streak dating back to 1962 — but they’ll also be facing the winningest program in the country over the past 50 years in both winning percentage (78 percent) and total victories (471-122-5 since 1962).
From its initial victory over the Omaha YMCA in 1890, the Huskers have won 837 games, claimed five national championships since 1970 and arguably proven to be the best home fans in the country, given that those 311 straight sellouts have seen more than their share of snow, wind, sleet and temperatures only Santa could love.
Moreover, the Big Red has produced three Heisman Trophy winners since 1971 (Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch).
“Everybody has a Nebraska football memory,” Huesman said. “For me a couple stand out. Johnny Rodgers’ punt return against Oklahoma (1971) and Tom Osborne going for two points against Miami to win the national championship. That took some guts.”
Especially since a tie would have given Nebraska the 1983 national title, while the failed two-point conversion delivered the Hurricanes the first of their five crowns.
But it isn’t just the UTC coach who views this as more than a season-opening road game against the No. 10 team in America.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” said senior defensive back Jordan Tippit, who had a less than enjoyable experience the last time the Mocs opened a season in the Midwest, falling at longtime Nebraska rival Oklahoma by 57-2.
Said senior wideout Joel Bradford: “Just the tradition.”
Added senior tight end Sloan Allison: “Nebraska hasn’t really been Nebraska for the last five or six years, but they’re a top-five program all-time, and they’re back now. It will be a tremendous challenge.”
His father Rodney having coached the Mocs before Huesman, Allison is a typical coach’s kid when it comes to knowing the Cornhuskers’ traditions.
“They’ve got the Blackshirts on defense,” he said, referring to a tradition that began in the late 1960s, when Nebraska defensive starters wore black jerseys against the redshirted offense.
“I remember Eric Crouch winning the Heisman for them. I remember them beating Peyton Manning in his final bowl game.”
He also remembers a play from that Oklahoma debacle that involved him and Bradford.
“I threw it to Joel late in the game,” said Allison, who was a quarterback at the time. “It would have been my first completion and Joel’s first reception.”
Would have been, but Bradford was ruled out of bounds on the play.
“I had to leave my feet to catch it,” he said. “They pushed me out of bounds. I’d have had it otherwise.”
Odds are that the Mocs won’t win this one anywhere but in their bank account, which will swell by six figures.
But being competitors, they also embrace the audacity of hope, as President Obama is fond of saying.
So when asked what souvenir he might bring back from Lincoln, Tippit replied, “We’re not going out there just to take the money and run. A win would be souvenir enough for all of us.”
For Nebraska fans, the souvenir is already set. After being a member of the Big Eight/Big 12 for more than a century, the Cornhuskers will begin their first season as a member of the Big Ten when they take the field at 3:30 Saturday afternoon against the Mocs.
“That’s a trivia question right there,” Huesman said. “Who was the first team Nebraska played as a member of the Big Ten? That’ll be asked and answered 50 years from now.”
Especially if the Mocs can make it the Cornhuskers’ first loss since leaving their old league. Talk about your souvenirs.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...