For going on 40 years, though, the rivalry that retired CU coach Bill McCartney once talked into existence has been a theme — even though they moved to different conferences more than a decade ago.
Nebraska coach Matt Rhule said he watched YouTube clips of past games before he was hired and understands the teams’ shared history. “When you have a legacy behind you,” he said, “you have to live up to it and you have to build on it for the future.”
What do Rhule’s players say? Ethan Piper, who grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, said his grandfather told him about the rivalry. Receiver Alex Bullock, from Omaha, said he had heard about it. Defensive back Omar Brown, from Minneapolis, said he’s told teammates this game “is a little more serious.”
For Sanders, he got a feel for the magnitude through conversations with former CU players and alumni who made it clear their disdain for their neighbors to the east.
“I’ve learned the severity, the serious nature of this rivalry, and I’m embracing it 100%,” Sanders said. “This is personal. That’s the message of the week.”
Sanders’ son, starting quarterback Shedeur Sanders, was more direct: “We don’t like Nebraska,” he said.
If young Shedeur only knew.
When the CU-NU series was at its height, it was possibly the most nasty and hateful rivalry this side of Ohio State-Michigan. It also coincided with a down cycle at Oklahoma, the Huskers’ traditional rival. Colorado filled the void.
The Buffs were just 7-17-1 against the Huskers from 1986-2010, but their wins were devastating and a lot of the games were close. They were both ranked in all eight meetings from 1989-96, including six games when each was in the top 10. Colorado shared the national title in 1990, and the Huskers won three from 1994-97.
They were the top two teams in the Big Eight the last seven years of the conference, and they were 1-2 in the Big 12 North in 1996 and 2001. The Buffs’ 62-36 victory in ’01 signaled the beginning of a Nebraska decline from which it has yet to recover.
“The beating we put on them, that will never, ever leave my mind,” said former CU tight end Daniel Graham, a 2002 first-round pick of New England who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots before returning home — he’s from Denver — to play for the Broncos.
Graham’s loathing of the Huskers was baked in by older teammates. He, in turn, made sure the next generation saw red whenever they lined up against Nebraska. The rivalry went dormant when Nebraska moved to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12 before the 2011 season. The teams are in the middle of a four-game nonconference series that ends next year in Lincoln. Colorado won the first two meetings.
Sanders is playing the rivalry thing to the hilt. In a nod to McCartney, he is barring his players from wearing any shade of red around the facility.
“It’s so exciting to see that and hear that,” Graham said, “because someone is telling them what this rivalry means to us, what this game means to us.”
One of the first things McCartney did when he took over the Buffs in 1982 was contrive a rivalry with Nebraska and ban red in the football building. At that point, the Buffs hadn’t beaten the Huskers in 15 years.
“I still remember, as a kid, when he would do the whole outline of the schedule in red and ban the color red and all this other stuff and how we looked at him and just said, ‘Who are you? What is this?’ ” Omaha sports radio host John Bishop said. “That was the heyday of the Oklahoma series. You don’t designate a rival. We were conditioned to the idea that rivalries came about because both teams were really good. Of course, Colorado was not, in the moment.”
Fueled by the local media and McCartney’s lead, Colorado fans hurled insults at all things Nebraska. Huskers fans were outspoken about the inhospitable treatment they’d receive in the Folsom Field stands. Nebraska players weren’t all that keen on the place, either.
Terry Connealy, a defensive lineman from 1991-94, said he and his teammates were hesitant to take off their helmets on the sideline because of projectiles fans aimed at them.
“It was a pretty vicious fan base there,” Connealy said. “When you went to Oklahoma, there was just more respect, I would say, than there probably was from the Colorado fan base.”
No one had it worse than Byron Bennett, the kicker who had snowballs and oranges thrown at him as he lined up to try a field goal in the last seconds of a 19-19 tie in 1991.
“Of course, I’m locked in, but you’ve got to be an idiot not to notice this stuff hitting around you that’s normally not hitting around you while you’re trying to kick a field goal, a game-winning one at that,” Bennett said this week. “I know for sure now a whistle would be blown. But it wasn’t back then.”
Earlier in the game, Bennett said, fans poured beer on him while he was taking care of an equipment issue along the wall separating the seats from the sideline.
“The rivalry was out of this world,” Bennett said. “I know Husker fans like to play it down, Coach (Tom) Osborne liked to play it down, saying they weren’t our rival. But you can’t help but know it was a rivalry. Great athletes on both sides, especially during the ’90s. I enjoyed playing in those games.”
Graham was relaxing in Mexico last Saturday when Colorado knocked off nationally ranked TCU 45-42 as a three-touchdown underdog. He listened to the first three quarters, but had his cousin FaceTime him for the fourth so he could watch it — and then celebrate.
“We were walking through the airport coming back from Cabo, wearing our Colorado stuff, and everyone was like, ‘Go Buffs!’ It’s exciting,” Graham said. “Colorado is back on the map now.”