Future columnist shows the write stuff
Published Friday, Oct. 3, 2008
LINCOLN — It was cold.
Whenever you ask a Nebraska fan what they remember about the game that took place on Nov. 18, 1978, that's the first thing they say. It was cold. Bitter cold. Wind-whipping, bad-to-the bone cold. Too damn cold.
That's about all they say, too. Really, the word "cold" aptly sums up the entire day for the folks who lived through that experience.
So here comes Missouri again, 30 years later, three decades to the year since the last time the Tigers won a football game in Lincoln. But while this is the topic of the week, Husker fans view this memory like an old shoe box buried in their closet that they don't want to open, lest they see once again the image of James Wilder karate-chopping a Husker safety to the ground or Tom Osborne walking off the field, alone, with his head down.
That's a day I will never, ever forget, but not necessarily for any of those reasons.
It's the day I fell in love with a sports bar, a stadium, a game and a way of life.
That game, along with an editor who hired me, is the reason I'm in Omaha, Neb., writing columns about Nebraska football (and now some of you have two reasons to curse that game).
I was a junior at the University of Missouri that fall, the sports editor of the Maneater, one of three student papers at MU. As I drove my 1969 blue Chevy Nova up I-29 to Lincoln, I had no idea that this would be the weekend I would fall head over heels for college football, or that, on the ride home in the dark, I would decide that writing about college football was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
And wouldn't it be cool to do it in Nebraska, where college football lives and breathes each day?
It would, and it is. And so forgive me, dear readers, for celebrating what amounts to a horrible experience in Nebraska history. As it turned out, historically, the game wasn't as consequential as everyone thought. Nebraska, fresh off Osborne's first win over Barry Switzer, lost a shot at a national title game when it lost to Mizzou. The outcry from that loss sent Osborne to Boulder to look at the Colorado job, but he ultimately stayed almost two more decades and won three national titles. As for Missouri, that game was almost a curse, setting the bar of expectations high, too high. MU would go through four more coaches before beating Nebraska again, in 2003. And, until last year, MU was seen as an underachiever in college football.
Please pardon this melancholy, self-indulgent stroll through my past. Or enjoy.
Last week, I stood on the corner of Ninth and O in Lincoln and looked up. There, on the side of the brick building, was a faded sign for "Sweep Left, 815 O Street." And there were the two lead blockers, followed by the running back.
I got goose bumps.
Thirty years ago, I stood on that same corner, with Don Kausler Jr. and Randy Holtz from the Columbia Missourian and Mickey Spagnola and John McGrath from the Columbia Tribune. It was Friday night. Downtown Lincoln, and O Street in particular, was hopping. Cars streamed by. Nebraska fans walked around town, happy, partying.
We looked up at a neon sign that flashed "Sweep" and then "Left." A bar called "Sweep Left?" We had to investigate.
It was magical. There were helmets and pennants and old black and white Husker photos on the wall. There were television sets, though no sports were on. Everyone was talking football. Nebraska had beaten the Sooners. Now it was on to play Penn State in the Orange Bowl for No. 1.
Missouri was known as a party school, one of the best, according to Rolling Stone. But Mizzou didn't have a football bar with a football name and football players on the sign. That was just too much.
Whatever happened to Sweep Left? According to Kevin O'Hanlon, "It faded away sometime in the '80s."
These days O'Hanlon is the Nebraska news editor for the Associated Press in Omaha and Lincoln. He's also a former World-Herald staff writer. Back then, in 1978, he was the manager of Sweep Left, the bar owned by former Husker offensive linemen Mark Doak and Dennis Pavelka.
"The sign on the side of the building is Doak and Pavelka blocking, and that's Tony Davis running the ball," O'Hanlon said.
I couldn't find Doak or Pavelka for this column. Fortunately, O'Hanlon was available with his arsenal of stories.
"They used to have a health club in the basement," O'Hanlon said. "You'd see guys come up from working out, go right to the bar, order a pitcher and light up a cigar. I guess that's why they worked out.
"Upstairs, they had a restaurant. It started out as a prime rib buffet, but too many ex-players took advantage of the invitation to show up and eat all they wanted and they basically ate them out of that. Next it became a Mexican buffet. After that, they went to exotic dancers."
O'Hanlon said that in its prime, the bar had an eclectic group of young and old patrons and you never knew if Kelly Saalfeld, Mike Knox or Harry Grimminger would show up.
Sweep Left was ahead of its time. They showed sports on TV in the bar, and had ESPN on nonstop when it started in 1979. It had authentic memorabilia on the walls. And it was owned by two former Huskers who gave it a go but couldn't make the bar business last. It was a blast while it lasted.
"The night of the OU win, they carried part of the goalpost to Sweep Left," O'Hanlon said. "The next week, after they lost to Missouri, there were about 400 people in there. When they announced that Nebraska was going to play Oklahoma again in the Orange Bowl, it was like 400 people got punched in the gut."
I walked into the old place last week. There's a small wine bar downstairs. On the second floor, upstairs, there's an advertising firm called "The Minnow Project."
I'm a sucker for history and old stadiums and arenas. So, yes, I was the guy staring up at the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium with his mouth open on Nov. 18, 1978, reading the words, "Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory."
Still the greatest thing I've seen in or on a sports venue.
That stadium, and that game, on that day, was like a movie. Baseball games at Wrigley Field should always be sunny and 75. Masters tournaments should always be played in sunny weather, about 60 degrees with a nice spring breeze.
Football games at Memorial Stadium should be exactly like Nov. 18, 1978: dark, overcast and cold. (Although maybe not quite that
cold: An Arctic front that day dropped wind-chill readings below zero by Saturday afternoon.)
I could not believe the energy there. Missouri games were not like this, plugged in, wired for sound. This was football in high fidelity. Everyone in red. It was overwhelming for a first-time visitor. It was unforgettable.
The game wasn't so bad itself.
It wasn't televised (only one or two games a week were back then). If it had been, Keith Jackson or Dan Jenkins would have called it "The game of the century." It's still the best game I've ever seen, side by side with the 1984 Orange Bowl.
It was high drama, captivating theater. Nebraska workhorse Rick Berns galloped 82 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the game, chased every yard of the way by Missouri defensive tackle Steve Hamilton. That should have been a prelude of what was to come.
Back and forth, they went, across that diamond-shaped Big Eight logo at midfield. Nebraska sprinting ahead, Missouri clawing back. It became a duel within a game, between Berns, who had a school-record 255 yards, and James Wilder, a powerful freight train of a back in the mold of Jim Brown, who went for 181 yards.
It was Wilder's breakout game. He hadn't done anything like that all season for a talented Tiger team that had run hot and cold. The game was punctuated by Wilder's right hand. On his way to scoring the decisive touchdown late in the game, Wilder, holding the ball in his left hand, grabbed a Husker safety with his right hand and threw him to the ground.
Mizzou had had upsets before. It had won in Lincoln in 1974 and 1976. But this was different. This was masterpiece theater. This was one of those games that, if the glory truly is in the deed, you felt privileged to witness.
The MU assistant
I couldn't find Wilder, or a Missouri player from that game. So I called up my local Missouri football expert: longtime Bellevue West High School football coach John Faiman.
You may not know that Faiman was the offensive line coach at Missouri from 1978 to 1983. Sorry, Coach.
"We don't want anyone to know, either," Faiman said with a chuckle. "They (NU fans) threw rocks at us that day. And we (coaching staff) were almost all from Nebraska."
What does Faiman remember most about that game?
"It was cold," he said. "It was colder than crap. We thought we could make it a physical game. We had seen the film of the OU game. There were nine fumbles.
"Kellen Winslow had an unbelievable game. They were playing a cover two with the safeties off the hash and the middle was wide open. James Wilder was a man. We saw that that day."
Faiman didn't have time for many memories. He had a game against Millard North to prepare for. Thankfully.
"Cletus Fischer told me to get out of college football, because everyone was getting fired," Faiman said. "I'm glad I did."
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