Thirty Years Later, 35-31 Loss Still Berns, Berns, Berns
For coaches, Tom Osborne says losing is a lot like dying.
For players, Rick Berns says losing is a burning thing and still stings 30 years later.
In 1978, one week after upsetting Billy Sims and top-ranked Oklahoma, Nebraska fell into a 35-31 burning ring of Missouri fire, and, yes, with apologies to Johnny Cash, it still Berns, Berns, Berns. It burns because a win over Mizzou would have given Nebraska, No. 2 before the game, a shot at No. 1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl.
Berns set a then-Nebraska single-game rushing record of 255 yards and an NU career rushing mark of 2,605 yards on a dreary Nov. 18, 1978 afternoon. “I remember how cold it was. The wind chill was near zero,” said Berns, who also remembers the disappointment he felt for his head coach and his fellow seniors. He was so disappointed that he’s never been back for another game inside Memorial Stadium.
Until this week, Berns did not know that Missouri has not won in Lincoln since that fateful afternoon. Somehow, that made the 52-year-old San Antonio construction manager, father and grandfather feel a little bit better.
“That’s kind of hard to believe,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll keep that trend going, so when my family goes to Lubbock for the Texas Tech game next week, there’ll be a lot on the line.”
Berns, one of Nebraska’s most underrated running backs ever, according to Osborne, makes sure he watches the Huskers whenever they play in Austin, College Station, Waco, Lubbock or San Antonio. He’s even been to Miami and the Orange Bowl after his playing days.
“I didn’t even make it back to Lincoln when I was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame (in 1992). They had to ship the plaque in the mail,” Berns said. “I’ve been remiss in not getting back. I have two grown kids. They’ve never been back either, and one was born in Lincoln. They’re telling me all the time that we need to go to Lincoln. I’m busy, but I shouldn’t be that busy.”
Berns’ infectious laugh is proof enough that there are no psychological scars from the ‘78 Missouri game. “There are only fond memories. It was a fun game to play in. We just came out on the wrong end of the score,” he said. “Unfortunately, the loss changed our senior class’s place in Nebraska football history. In a matter of seven days, we went from being Coach Osborne’s first team to beat Oklahoma and having a chance to play on collegiate football’s big dance floor for a national title to just another one of Nebraska’s conference championship teams.”
For Berns, his last game at Memorial Stadium “became almost like a double loss because we learned that we had to turn around and play OU again in the Orange Bowl five weeks later. The Orange Bowl had to take us because we were Big Eight champs. Since they weren’t going to get a national championship game, they had to do something to get their ratings up, but I don’t think the rematch served Oklahoma all that well either.” (OU beat Nebraska, 31-24 in the Orange Bowl rematch).
Penn State’s Millen Called Berns Out of Deep Respect
Berns remembers Penn State All-America defensive tackle Matt Millen calling to console him after his record day against Mizzou resulted in such a gut-wrenching loss. “He said, ‘Man, I truly wanted to play you just to see if I could tackle you,’” Berns recalled. “We both ended up playing for the Oakland Raiders, and we both wish fate had been kinder to us in 1978.”
Top-ranked Penn State lost the Sugar Bowl, paving the way for once-beatens Alabama (AP) and Southern Cal (UPI) to win national championships. The Nittany Lions finished fourth in both final polls, and the Huskers finished eighth in both final polls. Missouri, which beat LSU, 20-15 in the Liberty Bowl, finished 14th in one and 15th in the other.
Thirty years later, it still feels like opportunity lost for Berns, who raced 82 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the Mizzou game. Who would have known what the kind of volcano was building inside the Tigers across the field. Missouri running back James Wilder gashed Nebraska for 181 rushing yards and four touchdowns, including a foot-stomping 7-yarder with 3:42 left in the game. Tight end Kellen Winslow scored Mizzou’s other touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Phil Bradley, who went on to a major league baseball career.
Berns had a great day, but Wilder’s was wilder. “He was great,” Berns said. “Missouri played well. Talk about loaded. They had a lot of NFL talent on the field that day. Some became stars on Sundays and Winslow walked off that field and eventually into the (NFL) Hall of Fame. They had horses. We had horses, too, but we didn’t have any one superstar who captured people’s hearts like some of theirs did.
“We just played with a lot of heart every time we took the field. We had a lot of love and enthusiasm. Really, we were just a bunch of kids who played as hard as we could for a great coach. We had character on that team, and no one felt the need to be a character. We all knew that Missouri was the catapult for us to play on a bigger stage than we’d been playing. It would have been nice to have been known as a national championship caliber team, but it didn’t happen.”
Make no mistake, Missouri was no ambush. “Right after I ran 82 yards on that first play, Coach Osborne gathered the offense on the sideline,” Berns recalled. “He didn’t want that run to lull us into thinking it was going to be easy. He didn’t want us living on what had just happened. He wanted us to be prepared for a grind-it-out war, and, as almost always, he was he right.”
Huskers Entered the Game Somewhat Beat Up and Emotionally Spent
Osborne said it wasn’t like Nebraska overlooked Missouri. “We knew they had a great team and we’d have to play well to win,” he recalled. “We had played very hard the week before against Oklahoma. It was one of the most physical games I’d ever seen. Oklahoma fumbled nine times (and lost six), mostly when we knocked the ball loose. So our players were somewhat beat up and somewhat emotionally spent. Our defense wasn’t the same as it had been the week before, and both teams ran up and down the field on each other. We gave it all we had. We had teams that might have been faster and bigger than our ’78 team, but these guys really laid it on the line every week.”
Berns knows the Huskers have had more prestigious teams and players. “But our ’78 team got us over the hump against Oklahoma,” he said. “We didn’t end up playing for the national championship like we wanted, but we never gave up. We may not get mentioned a lot, but we have a definite place in Nebraska lore and Husker history.”
The ’78 Husker-Tiger tug-of-war was eerily reminiscent of Nebraska’s 35-31 win over Oklahoma in 1971 – a game in which both teams were great, but this time, Nebraska lost.
The Game of the Century made a Nebraska football fan out Berns. “I was a freshman in high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, and I loved watching Johnny Rodgers and Jeff Kinney tear up the Sooners,” he recalled. “In my mind that day, Nebraska became the leader for where I wanted to play college football.”
There was one little problem. “I grew up a Horns’ fan,” Berns said, “so Texas was the leader in my heart.”
Like every Southwest Conference School, Texas offered Berns a scholarship, but, fortunately, he had an inquiring mind for a high school recruit. Darrell Royal, who has won more football games than any coach in Texas history, walked with Berns from Jackson Hall, the athletic dormitory, to visit UT’s Memorial Stadium.
“Coach, will I ever get a chance to play for you?” Berns asked.
“Well son, I’m going to retire, if not this year, then probably next year,” Royal answered.
Halfway to the stadium, Berns stopped in his tracks. “If I can’t play for you, I know I’m not going to come here,” he said. “I don’t want to waste your time. I think I need to head back to Wichita Falls.”
Being his usual gracious self, Royal told Berns that he respected his feelings and wished him well.
“When I turned around and headed back to Wichita Falls, I knew I was going to take Nebraska’s offer,” Berns said.
Interestingly, though, his next recruiting trip was to Boulder, and it went even stranger than the one in Austin. Colorado coaches showed him a highlight reel of Nebraska freshman running back Monte Anthony and told Berns that “No. 49” would be “ingrained” as the Husker starter for the next three years.
Berns knew before he left Boulder that Lincoln was a lock for his signature.
“Rick was a great player here,” Osborne said. “If he had played on a team that was a national champion or even a 2 or 3-time Big Eight champion, he might have gotten more notice. If you look at his statistics and his production, he averaged over six yards a carry. He was 6-4 and had exceptional speed. He’s probably the tallest running back we’ve ever had here. Because he was so tall, he was hard to tackle and because he had such a long stride, people misjudged his speed. He was very coachable, made a great contribution, and we really enjoyed having him here.”
Even though he hasn’t returned in 30 years, Berns still visits Lincoln in his mind.
Berns Can Close His Eyes and Still Smell the AstroTurf
“I love Cornhusker football,” he said. “When I watch games on TV, I can still remember the smell of that old Astroturf, and I can still hear the roar of the people in the stands. My mind still thinks I’m 22 years old.”
Twenty-two years old and on the cover of the Nov. 20, 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated that says “Nebraska Bursts Oklahoma’s Bubble” and “Rick Berns Shreds the Sooners.”
Berns, in fact, rushed for 113 yards against OU’s vaunted defense, and he was named ABC’s Offensive Player of the Game after Nebraska’s 17-14 nationally televised win. Osborne said that Berns’ most important yards came after Jim Pillen recovered a Sims’ fumble at Nebraska’s 3-yard line, and the Huskers had to chew up the final 3 ½ minutes to move the ball to midfield and prevent an OU comeback.
“I still get one or two requests almost every week to sign that SI cover,” Berns said. “I try to remember the OU game more than the Mizzou game because we didn’t win it, and that’s all that really matters.”
Berns paused, then shifted gears.
“There is nothing better for an athlete to experience than Lincoln, Nebraska, on a Saturday afternoon with the weather in the high 50s and not a cloud in the sky,” he said. “I can still feel what it’s like to come out of that tunnel, and I can still visualize all those balloons going up after the first touchdown. I may have had things taken away from me in my lifetime, but you can’t take those game day images away from me.
“It’s been 30 years,” he added. “I need to get my family back to Lincoln as soon as I possibly can.”