Of course I'm biased, but I've always felt that the best college football fans in America reside in my home state. I was reminded of this when I traveled to the Middle East last December as part of a congressional delegation. While meeting with our troops in Iraq, I spoke with several soldiers who were Nebraska natives. Instead of talking about the war on terror, all these young men and women wanted to do was chat about the Cornhuskers. Like nearly all Big Red fans, they were knowledgeable and passionate about the team. One soldier even flew a scarlet-and-cream Nebraska flag above his tent. It really touched me that someone halfway around the world whose life was in constant jeopardy would find a way to show his loyalty to the school—but that's a Nebraska fan for you.
It's been six years since I retired as Cornhuskers coach. In 2000, I was elected to represent Nebraska's Third District in the U.S. House of Representatives. I'm often asked what is more gratifying, being a congressman or coaching the Cornhuskers. I tell people that both are gratifying, but in different ways.
There's no question that I miss coaching. I'll always be intrigued by the strategy that goes into football. And college football in Nebraska is unique. We don't have a major pro team, so everybody from Omaha to Ogallala lives and breathes Big Red football. The support is unbelievable, in good times and bad. I miss being greeted by the sea of red when the team takes the field at Memorial Stadium, and I miss the special relationships I had with my players. In fact, probably the best part of coaching was recruiting a young man from a rough background and seeing him do well in school and become a productive member of society. Those were some of the highs, but when things didn't go well and the team struggled, the lows were hard to deal with. Congressional life is much more down the middle; there aren't as many ups and downs. The hours can be just as long—sometimes even longer—but it's all worth it when I can help a constituent solve a problem.
Another thing people often ask about is my favorite memory from my 25 years as Cornhuskers coach. Three moments stick out. The first is the 1995 Orange Bowl, in which we beat Miami 24-17 to win the national championship. This was Nebraska's first title in 23 years, and it was especially fulfilling because we'd had so much trouble over the years playing Miami in the Orange Bowl, in front of their home crowd.
The second memory that jumps out is of the 1984 Orange Bowl. We lost to Miami 31-30 after we failed on a two-point conversion with less than a minute to play. To this day I still think it was the right decision to go for the win—even though we probably would have won the national title if we had settled for a tie. In football you never should play for a tie.
My last favorite memory is of our 17-14 win over Oklahoma in Lincoln in 1978. Barry Switzer had taken over the Sooners the same year I'd become Cornhuskers coach (1973), and this was the first time we beat his team. Looking back, I think that win elevated our program to a new level. I'll never forget how happy our fans were afterward—they stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. But as wild as they were that day, all reports I received said that they remained respectful. That's another thing about Nebraska fans: They are probably the nicest group of supporters in the country. People who come to Lincoln to watch a game are always treated well. It's something our fans take pride in.
What's the future of Nebraska football? I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed when Frank Solich was fired last November. He's a good man and a great coach. I've met with new coach Bill Callahan. He seems like a fine person, and I'm sure he is very capable. Like everyone else in the state, I'm hoping for the best. When Nebraska takes the field in September, you can be sure that all Big Red fans—myself included—will be watching closely. After all, in terms of big-time sports, the Cornhuskers are all we've got.