Column: Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska

Cornhuskers might leverage football to boost academics
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Today, for only the third time in almost a century, the Big Ten will officially admit another university to the league. Nebraska left the Big Eight conference to start playing Big Ten football this fall.

The Cornhuskers will receive a slice of the much bigger Big Ten TV pie, but that might not be the best reason to join.

To celebrate Nebraska joining the nation’s oldest conference, the Big Ten Network will be kicking off three days of non-stop programming. Now I’m the kind of guy who might actually watch three days of non-stop programming about the Cornhuskers, but you might have other priorities this holiday weekend.

So, I’m here to tell you what you need to know in three easy minutes.

Adding Nebraska is nothing but good for the Big Ten, which needs 12 teams to host a lucrative conference championship game. Nebraska’s football program is one of the most successful and respected in the nation, and their fans are gracious in victory or defeat. They have class.

They’re based in Lincoln, and their most famous alum is a guy named Warren Buffett, who still sits with the common folk in the cheap seats.

The Bo Schembechler of Nebraska football is Tom Osborne. He took over in 1974 1973, after his mentor retired with three two national titles in his last four three years. But Osborne had to wait a decade for his first chance at a national crown. He finally got it in the Orange Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes, the anti-matter of the conservative, corny Cornhuskers. The ‘Canes engaged in toxic levels of trash talk, and were led by Jimmy Johnson*, who now shills for a “male enhancement” product called ExtenZe.

The Cornhuskers, in contrast, celebrate their touchdowns by handing the ball to the referee. Whether ahead by thirty or down by three, Osborne looked about as animated as a flight attendant explaining how to buckle your seatbelt. When Osborne retired, he skipped pitching for ExtenZe to become a Congressman – though, given recent Congressional photo scandals, maybe that’s a wash.

But under the surface, Osborne was surprisingly bold. In the final moments of that 1984 national title game against Miami, he decided not to kick the easy extra point for a tie – which would have secured his first national title – and instead went for the riskier two-point conversion to win. It failed, they lost, and Osborne had to wait another decade to win his first national title. But recently he explained that playing for a tie would have been insulting to his players and the people of Nebraska, who appreciate good football, and he would never vote for a team that played for a tie. In my book, that’s pretty cool.

By joining the Big Ten, Nebraska will get more money, more fans, and more visitors. David Byrne of Talking Heads once wrote that no one pays money to see flat landscape – and Nebraska is so flat, you can see three state capitols just by standing on a park bench. But people will pay to see great football.

Nebraska is a solid school, but ranks in the Big Ten’s lower half academically. Fewer than half its students graduate. This gives rise to an old joke: What does the “N” on Nebraska’s helmet stand for? Knowledge.

But, in joining the Big Ten, Nebraska’s faculty is automatically admitted to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, or CIC, which provides a big boost to the Big Ten’s big research universities. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten twenty years ago, its research income has tripled, to $780 million.

Nebraska is not the first school to leverage football to improve its academics. Chicago, Notre Dame, and Michigan State, among others, have all done it, and done it quite well.

Twenty years from now, the N on Nebraska’s helmet might stand for Nobel laureates – and the joke will be on the Big Eight schools Nebraska just left behind.

*Correction: The Miami Hurricanes were coached in that 1984 Orange Bowl game by Howard Schnellenberger, not Jimmy Johnson.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.


  1. July 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm | permalink


    The Miami coach in 1984 was not Jimmy Johnson. It was Howard Schnellenberger.

  2. July 1, 2011 at 3:19 pm | permalink

    Mr. Max is correct. The January 2, 1984 Orange Bowl was Schnellenberger’s last game at Miami before Jimmy Johnson took over. Thanks for the correction.


  3. By JayJay
    July 1, 2011 at 3:51 pm | permalink

    Tom Osborne took over in 1973, not ’74, and his mentor (Bob Devaney) had two national titles in his last three years, not three in his last four.

  4. By HuskerNLawrence
    July 1, 2011 at 5:04 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the write up but we left the Big 12 (not the Big 8). I hope you dig deeper next time, there is a ton of more interesting facts on NU to write about but you have plenty of time now. We are all just happy to be offically in the Big 10!

  5. July 1, 2011 at 6:03 pm | permalink

    Mr. Jay is also correct. I was going off some obviously shaky notes for an upcoming documentary — which serves me right. As the football players say, “Mow your own lawn.” And do your own research. That’s on me.

    As for Mr. Husker, that factoid goes all the way back to 1907 when Nebraska was a charter member of what became the Big Eight, and then the Big 12 in 1995, when all eight Big Eight teams were joined by four from the truly defunct SWC. Yes, they called it a merger, and broke off official ties to the Big Eight, but did so for legal reasons — ending contracts, agreements and the like — not for competitive or statistical purposes. It would be folly to argue the Big Eight’s long history was not the foundation of the Big 12, and it was that century-long tradition Nebraska sacrificed in leaving – which strikes me as a much higher cost than, say, Texas Tech would pay if it ended its 16-year relationship with the Big 12.

    As far as the fun facts everyone will soon be delving into, you might enjoy this snippet from a book I coauthored in 1996:

    “Fielding Yost made his second stop at Nebraska in 1898. Yost’s Cornhuskers beat their arch-rival, Kansas, won the Missouri Valley Championship, and finished with a 7-3 record. According to John Behee’s scholarly biography, Fielding Yost’s Legacy, the Nebraska people could not have been more pleased with Yost, but, as Nebraska’s manager of athletics pointed out, ‘the financial side of football has never been a success with us.’ [The Cornhuskers seem to have gotten better at the beancounting since.]

    “As proof, Yost received only $160 of the $500 promised him.
    ‘I was on the verge of cutting my coaching career short right there,’ Yost said, looking back on his career. But as usual, his former employer gave him a glowing letter and he got a new job — working for his former rival Kansas. In 1899, Yost turned right around and beat Nebraska, plus all nine other opponents on his way to another championship. He also watched Kansas lose money, then took his latest glowing reference letter to Stanford.”

    A year later, he arrived in Ann Arbor, and the two schools have been linked ever since.

    Should be interesting when Nebraska starts Big Ten play this fall.

    -John Bacon

  6. By Marvin Face
    July 1, 2011 at 10:59 pm | permalink

    When Nebraska was admitted into the Big Ten, much was made of their membership in the (oh so prestigious) AAU. It seemed to be a critical criteria in any school’s admittance into the conference. So when Nebraska was recently the first school in the history of the AAU to be expelled, why was their membership in the conference not questioned? Oh, right…it’s not about academics at all, it’s about TV ratings. University presidents are hilarious!

  7. By Dan
    July 2, 2011 at 12:54 am | permalink

    First, the Big XII kicked off play in 1996, not 1995. Second, no one I know in the state of Nebraska thinks that the fact that two former Texas Faculty members led the charge to kick NU out of the AAU is a coincidence. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that NU’s two leading programs, AG and the University of Nebraska Med Center, were not factored into Nebraska’s “score.” If they had been, NU would have scored in the top half of the AAU.

    Oh, and remind me who leads the nation in Academic All-Americans by a huge margin? Oh, yeah that would be Nebraska. Notre Dame is second. Not Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin…

    So Mr. Face, do your homework before you pop off. Cognitive dissonance is not an attractive trait.


  8. By Andrew
    July 2, 2011 at 7:30 am | permalink

    The line in the article “fewer than half its students graduate” is misleading. That’s based on four-year numbers. Six-year rate for incoming classes is 64%. That means students take longer to complete their degrees at UNL (for various reasons) than other Big Ten schools currently, not that Nebraska students aren’t completing school in huge numbers. It needs to be improved, but Mr. Bacon seems to be implying that UNL is some-sort of dropout factory with his following “N is for Knowledge” crack.

    It’s also important to look beneath the surface in the AAU expulsion issue. It was largely a battle over metrics and the AAU’s desire to “thin the herd” in order to become a more exclusive organization. Nebraska improved its research profile significantly since 2001 when it had to fight to stay in the AAU, but that did not sway the organization who saw Nebraska as a prime test-case for expelling schools in the lower-tier. It’s also important to note that Nebraska was only two votes shy of retaining it’s membership. It was an ugly fight and probably has stalled the momentum for expelling other schools from the AAU. The Chronicle of Higher Education did some excellent analysis of Nebraska’s expulsion from the AAU. Pity that so many members of the press have not read it to understand the background of the story. [link]

  9. By Rob
    July 2, 2011 at 10:25 am | permalink

    We also hold records for NCAA Academic All-Americans…….and no, they’re not all Comm majors, either. LOL

    People will learn quickly how great of an addition we are, in academics AND athletics.

    We’re a great school, and we’re joining a great conference. A marriage made in heaven.

  10. July 2, 2011 at 10:32 am | permalink

    Overall an enjoyable article to read, with admittedly a few minor errors. Nebraska is behind in academics, but the point of the article is they won’t be after several years of being in the Big 10. The CIC will undoubtedly help with that. I appreciate Mr. Bacon responding to the critics of his article (most don’t bother). The part about us having the most academic All-Americans has always bothered me a little bit…perhaps if may be a little easier to get A’s at NU than at Michigan? Who know? Thanks for the welcome, and tell Mr. Robinson to get ready, because Mr. Crick and Mr. David will be gunning for him! GBR!

  11. By Mike
    July 2, 2011 at 10:59 am | permalink

    One would think that an instructor at a journalism school of such esteemed reputation as Northwestern would have written a more factually-based article than the one Mr. Bacon wrote. There were more easily-avoidable mistakes and third-grade puns in this article than the worst submission by a freshman in the history of news writing classes. The Big Eight has been dead for 15 years, and it’s a well-known fact that Nebraska officials — including Osborne — were leery of adding the Texas schools, who had killed their own golden goose with all the cheating scandals taking place in the now-dead SWC (and subsequently did the same thing to the Big 12). Three of Nebraska’s five national championships were won with Osborne as the head coach, not his mentor (who won two). Probably the most disturbing one, though, was the lame joke about the N on Nebraska’s helmet standing for “knowledge” — that joke was made famous by fans of the University of Missouri, a school the Big Ten snubbed for Nebraska and one that lacks any kind of athletic or academic prowess that could make it a worthy addition to such an upscale conference as the Big Ten. Did Mr. Bacon REALLY have to drop his quality of journalism down that far just to make that ridiculously lame joke a part of his column? I expect to see such mental diarrhea on anti-Nebraska websites such as the Kansas City Star newspaper’s site or, the official mouthpiece of the Texas (plus nine little sisters) Conference, not a website of a fellow Big Ten institution written by a teacher at one of the nation’s finest journalism schools. Shameful…

  12. July 2, 2011 at 11:09 am | permalink

    Thanks, Patrick, for your kind words — but certainly if a journalist has an error in his piece, major or minor, he should own up. Alas, you are right, however, there is no longer any firm protocol in the field.

    Andrew: My source for that information is the 2011 Edition of The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, put out for 37 years by the Yale Daily News, in cooperation with the editors of each school’s student newspaper. They list Nebraska’s 4-year graduation rate as 22-percent, and its 6-year rate as 42-percent. I think you’ll agree, any way you slice it, that’s less than half.

    For comparison, here are the graduation rates of the other Big Ten schools (though the data for Michigan and Minnesota came from, as their numbers were not listed in The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges).

    SCHOOL-4YR-6YR (Sorry, can’t use tabs in this space)

    Michigan-70-88 (again, from, not TIGTTC)
    Michigan St-73-74
    Minnesota-45-68 (
    Ohio State-46-71
    Penn State-84-88
    Purdue-40-71 (lots of engineers)
    Wisconsin-49-80 (if you visit there, you know why they take their time)
    Chicago-86-91 (charter member, still a member of CIC)

    By this measure — and it’s hardly the only or even most important statistic — Nebraska will, in fact, rank last in the Big Ten, but one of the points of the piece, as Patrick points out, is that joining the Big Ten will likely help improve such numbers dramatically, just as it has for Michigan State and Penn State. That’s certainly my bet.

    Bottom line, as I said, this is nothing but good for the Big Ten and Nebraska.


  13. By Andrew
    July 2, 2011 at 11:22 am | permalink

    John, the University of Nebraska’s numbers are 63.7%, cited by the school itself in this article: [link]

    and the Department of Education here: [link]

    I’ve seen many sources cite the 63-64% figures rather than the single source you used. I would tend to believe the figures publicly stated by the University and the Department of Education. The Yale information does not seem to be available in searchable form, but only in book format. Perhaps you should check the criteria they are using for their numbers.

  14. By Marvin Face
    July 2, 2011 at 11:33 am | permalink

    I appreciate the Nebraska apologists (Dan, Andrew, and Rob) showing up to try and defend their program. There is no ill will, I assure you. I don’t know why Dan got so worked up as I never questioned the academics, research, or general quality of the University of Nebraska. I was questioning the hypocrisy of the Big 10 university presidents that made such a show of stating that academics was the number one priority when choosing a new member of the conference and AAU membership was an absolute minimum. Then when Nebraska was expelled they immediately got selective memory.

    I am well aware of the fact that AAU does not count Ag, doesn’t count the Med Ctr because it is not administratively part of the university, and was so darn close to a passing grade. I give you all that and I’m sure there are lots of fine qualities to the corn-fed students and alumni of the University of Nebraska.

    BTW, faculty members have no say in what the AAU does, Dan. I know Nebraska folks have many conspiracy theories related to the University of Texas and it reflects poorly on you when you air such garbage.

  15. By John Belz
    July 2, 2011 at 11:41 am | permalink

    Even thought Nebraska was one of the first members of the AAU, it was also the first member kicked out. The AAU has many rules bias toward colleges like Nebraska. First the AAU doesn’t count agricultural research, an area where Nebraska spends most of their research money in. Secondly, the AAU doesn’t count research done at a different location, Nebraska’s medical center is located at Omaha (but still a part of the main campus in Lincoln and no connection to Nebraska at Omaha). Also Nebraska has had one of the largest growth in research in the AAU the last decade and is building at new research center at this moment.

  16. By Lou
    July 2, 2011 at 11:41 am | permalink

    Leaving the Big 8 to join the Big 10? Ummm, hopefully that was a typo–the big 8 hasn’t been in existence since 1996

  17. By John Belz
    July 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm | permalink

    I still remember participating a USA Today survey about the potential new members of the Big Twelve over a year ago. Nebraska was never mentioned by the USA Today and I had to vote for “other” because they were not list among the candidates. I would comment how Nebraska was totally sick of how Texas had taken over the Big 12 and had changed many things to favorite it and other southern colleges. Many rules were changed to favor colleges in high population areas in the name of money savings. The locations of all the championship athletic events where being moved south. Everything was big and better in Texas (until the next oil bust). Nebraska was tired of having to widen all their doors so the men from Texas could fit their heads through them. All Nebraska wanted was to be treated as a equal.

  18. July 2, 2011 at 12:07 pm | permalink


    Thanks for that information. I agree, those are generally reliable sources.

    For Mike and Lou, as you can see above, I acknowledge my mistakes — which, you’re right, were easily avoidable, but none of which impact any of the points I was making in this short piece. Likewise, I explain in detail my reasons for citing the Big Eight above, and suspect other readers would rather I not repeat it.

    As for the joke, it was — how shall I say this? — a joke. And the real punchline comes at the end — which, as you’ll note, is a considerable compliment to Nebraska.

    Beyond that, this starts to devolve into one of those internet conversations where no one signs his last name — a tenet of any serious journalism, including letters to the NYT and the WSJ — and therefore feels free to blast off in whatever direction their spleen is pointing, with zero accountability. For such people, corrections, apologies and explanations are never enough — so I’ll respectfully bow out, and let anyone who wants to enjoy the mud.



  19. By Dave B
    July 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm | permalink

    Give the guy a break. One would need to use this “goggle” on the “interweb” thing to get one’s facts correct. That is hard work. He doesn’t realize this information, when you live in Nebraska, is common Nowledge.

  20. By Brad Hillier
    July 2, 2011 at 1:24 pm | permalink

    @Arvin Face
    Its widely known that Texas greed destroyed the SWAC. Even Barry Switzer of Oklahoma warned against bringing Texas into the Big12. The warning should have been taken. Switzer of all people would know slimey and dishonest tactics. But money rules the world and the Big12 was just seeing dollar signs.
    Texas wanted everything their way. And did what ever they wanted/needed to to get it. Then they threaten to leave the Big12. Well then Missouri and Colorado start shopping around. Colorado and Nebraska leave. Their empty threat gets them their own t.v. Network (like the YES Network in NY). All that did was fill their pockets even more. Money that thay won’t share with the other schools.
    Texas has now destroyed TWO football confrences in order to fill their pockets. So all that tradition Nebraska has with Oklahoma, Kansas, KSU etc is gone. People in Nebraska don’t really like change. So for Osborne and the University to leave all of that history and tradition speaks volumes. So maybe those “conspiracy theories” are true.

  21. By Brad Hillier
    July 2, 2011 at 1:27 pm | permalink

    Oh and Thank you for the welcome into the Big10(12).. The mistakes in the piece were noted and you commented on those reasons. By the way the N stands for National Championships (5 of them)… Looking forward to new beginings and new traditions

  22. By Andrew
    July 2, 2011 at 1:52 pm | permalink

    There’s no need to continue to rant about Texas. It’s over. It’s done. Leave them in the rear-view mirror. Just stop, please.

    I should say in all fairness the basic premise and conclusion of the article is completely valid. Nebraska seeks to raise its academic standing and the Big Ten/CIC is a perfect way to do that. It was stated as one of the motivating factors by Perlman and Osborne.

    I do think there seems to be the perception among some in Big Ten country that Nebraska is an “inferior” institution joining its ranks that only brings football to the table – and its rubbing Nebraskans the wrong way. It would explain the knee-jerk reaction from many on this article. That’s why I was so insistent on correcting the graduation rates stated in the article. We have a great opportunity to improve the school with this move, but the “academic gap” is not as huge as the narrative seems to indicate.

    I’m certain that the Big Ten presidents were looking at more than just an AAU membership certificate as proof of Nebraska’s academic qualifications for conference membership. Notre Dame is not an AAU member, after all, and I sense plenty of Big Ten desire to bring them into the fold.

  23. July 2, 2011 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    I promised to leave the dialogue to you guys, but Dave B, that got a chuckle. Bravo.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled conversation.


  24. By Lou
    July 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm | permalink

    Mistakes aside Bacon, as an NU fan I’ll say it’s good to be in the Big 10. I regard most Big 10 schools like Michigan, OSU, Penn St, Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern, etc as classier outfits than Missouri, Kansas St, Texas Tech, Oklahoma St, and especially the greedy hype-machine that is Texas.