The first time Miami and Nebraska played each other in the postseason, nobody cared.
Most of the newspaper coverage leading up to the 1962 Gotham Bowl at Yankee Stadium centered around whether or not the game would even be played. Nebraska was a late addition to the bowl, its invitation accepted a week and a half before kickoff as organizers scrambled to find an appealing matchup. For the next week and a half, it was unclear if the teams would make the trip because of doubts about funding for a bowl game already on life support.
"Nebraska officials held the team's flight to New York on a runway in Lincoln for two hours until they were assured that a certified expense check for $35,000 had been deposited in the bank," wrote The New York Times in 2007.
The game proved to be excellent: Neither team was ranked, but 8-2 Nebraska beat 7-3 Miami by a score of 36-34, and fans should have gone home happy. The problem was that barely anyone showed up. Only 6,166 people paid to brave the 18-degree weather in the 67,000-seat stadium, due to a combination of a New York newspaper strike that limited publicity for the game and doubts that the game would even happen, among other things.
"Certainly there was never a day in the big Bronx ball park when so few watched so much football and went home so bewildered," Red Smith wrote.
The event was so unsuccessful -- the game failed in its first attempt to find two teams in 1960, then matched Utah State and Baylor at the Polo Grounds in 1961 -- that it was, predictably, the last Gotham Bowl, and the concept of playing a December bowl game outdoors in New York wasn't revived until the Pinstripe Bowl at the new Yankee Stadium in 2010.
Many more than 6,000 fans will be in attendance when Nebraska visits Miami on Saturday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium, of course, but this will be the first time since the '62 Gotham Bowl that the Cornhuskers and Hurricanes will meet with neither team ranked in the AP poll. The amount of national anticipation feels depressingly similar to the Gotham Bowl, in that it is almost nonexistent.
Last year, Nebraska won 41-31 in Lincoln behind the running of Ameer Abdullah, and the game was predictably trounced in television ratings by Florida State-Clemson, as well as Oklahoma-West Virginia and Mississippi State-LSU. The interest level was rather low, by Miami-Nebraska standards, but at least Nebraska clung to a ranking of No. 24 in the AP poll and the game had the novelty of being the first meeting between the teams since their run of games with national championship implications from the 1984 Orange Bowl through the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Nebraska and Miami have met 11 times in history. They met twice before the Gotham Bowl, in a home-and-home in 1951 and '53. Then, top-five Nebraska teams easily dispatched overmatched Miami in Lincoln in 1975-76, when the Cornhuskers were a national power and Miami was still a few years away from developing an identity under Howard Schnellenberger. Schnellenberger's arrival, however, set in motion a great postseason rivalry between national powers that owned the 1980s (Miami) and '90s (Nebraska), thus giving a depressing feeling to Saturday's game in which the greatest appeal of the matchup is nostalgia.
Nebraska and Miami met five times in bowl games after the Gotham Bowl: the 1984, '89, '92 and '95 Orange Bowls and the '02 Rose Bowl. Four of those five games featured the No. 1 team in the country and thus decided the national championship, while the other merely featured No. 2 Miami and No. 6 Nebraska. Miami won three of the four national title meetings, including the 1983 season finale, in which Miami won 31-30 when Tom Osborne elected to go for two and the win. The decision failed, and the Hurricanes won their first national championship -- depriving Osborne of his first. Eleven years later, Osborne finally secured his first of three titles when Nebraska beat No. 3 Miami 24-17.
This year, neither team is ranked and the novelty has seemingly worn off. Under new coach Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers are 1-1, with a devastating Hail Mary loss to BYU. The Hurricanes are 2-0 with coach Al Golden on the hot seat, but they were sluggish most of last game against Florida Atlantic. On a busy weekend of college football, Nebraska visiting Miami is barely on the radar beyond discussions like this about its national relevance. Alabama-Ole Miss, LSU-Auburn, Georgia Tech-Notre Dame, Georgia-South Carolina, Stanford-USC and BYU-UCLA all seem more important on Saturday, which is quite jarring when considering that, for two decades, every Miami-Nebraska game was a marquee, must-see matchup.
The on-field prestige of both teams has unraveled since the fateful night of Jan. 3, 2002, when Miami -- with perhaps the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on a college team -- pulverized Nebraska and Heisman winner Eric Crouch 37-14 in a game that wasn't even as close as the final score indicated. Miami led 34-0 at halftime, proving that the Cornhuskers had no business being invited to the BCS title game, and also that the Hurricanes were untouchable.
Nebraska's fall continued the next season, and the Huskers have yet to rebound. They plummeted to 7-7 in 2002, then fired Frank Solich for going 9-3 in 2003, then made the disastrous move of hiring Bill Callahan. Since getting rid of Solich, the Cornhuskers have yet to lose fewer than four games in a season, and they haven't won a conference championship since 1999 -- when they won their seventh Big 8/12 title in nine years.
Miami maintained a fantastic collection of talent for a while, going 23-3 over the next two seasons, but the decline began as Larry Coker's recruiting classes took hold, and now Miami has finished in the AP top 25 just once in the last nine seasons, with zero conference titles since joining the ACC in 2004.
The current home-and-home series was booked in 2008, and while neither team was particularly great that season, there was surely hope that each team would have escaped its run of mediocrity by now. It hasn't happened, and while two major programs staging a nonconference home-and-home is nothing but a positive in this era of neutral-site cash grabs in professional domes, Miami-Nebraska feels like just another game. For any neutral party with an appreciation for the history of the game, it's a strange feeling. The storyline is not who is going to win the national championship; the storylines are Golden trying to get a solid win to boost his case for keeping his job and Riley trying to avoid a 1-2 start after replacing a coach, Bo Pelini, who was fired for going 9-4 every year.
None of this is to say that Saturday afternoon's matchup isn't worth watching and won't be a good game. Last year's meeting provided sufficient back-and-forth entertainment, and this year Miami is favored by three at home, meaning this is essentially a toss-up as both teams try to prove they are capable of rising in their conferences and competing for division titles.
Maybe they are. Maybe this game will prove relevant. But until proven otherwise, Miami-Nebraska no longer creates much history, instead just envoking memories of when times were better for both. For years, attention followed each team, converging on prestigious national championship matchups. Now, both teams are just trying to prove that we should still be paying attention.