Ahead of Nebraska vs. Northwestern, will the real NU please stand up?

Peter Warren, Gameday Editor


Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, it has developed a burgeoning rivalry with Northwestern on the gridiron. Only two of the nine games the teams have played since 2011 have been decided by more than seven points, including two overtime games over the past three seasons.

But another rivalry between the two fanbases has developed over this time as well.

Northwestern and Nebraska both use NU as a shorthand. And both fanbases vehemently believe their school is the rightful owner of the acronym.

Northwestern’s use of NU is fairly simple: the N stands for Northwestern and the U stands for University.

But on televisions screens across the country, NU is rarely labeled as NU — even when it isn’t playing Nebraska. Instead, the Wildcats are shortened to the dastardly NW, or the more wicked NWU.

That decision is made by the television networks. When there is not enough room on a scorebug to fit “Northwestern,” the networks then decide on how to shorten the name.

Rob Coons, Northwestern’s senior executive director of broadcast operations, said that every couple of years, ESPN reaches out to schools to ask for their preferred abbreviations. However, there are no guarantees the networks will be able to accommodate.

Paul Kennedy, the Northwestern assistant athletic director for communications, said he asked about why the network doesn’t use NU when he first visited the ESPN campus years ago. He remembers being told that the decision regarding acronyms is all about recognition. The television networks believe fans across the country would not recognize NU immediately as Northwestern.

“We’ve asked them to consider changing it in the past,” Kennedy said. “We’re not in a position to be making any sort of demands, and it’s really not that important in the grand scheme of things, but the way it has been explained to me by TV is that when you put NW or NWU on there, there’s no doubt who it’s referring to.”

While the NU acronym goes back over a century, it has not been Northwestern’s only acronym. In fact, NWU was more prominent in the 19th century. Early sports uniforms featured NWU across the chest, and it was the common shorthand for the school in both athletics and academics. While NU overtook NWU over time, the NWU acronym still stuck around in various ways, most notably when the University’s website domain was nwu.edu in the late 1990s.

But now, it’s all NU.

Despite officially being the University of Nebraska, the school in Lincoln also has a long history with NU. In the school’s two main fight songs, fans sing about the heroics of “Nebraska U.” And Cornhuskers’ logos from the mid-20th century feature an interlocking NU, similar to Northwestern’s logo at the time.

Nebraska also isn’t the only school to flip its initials. Many former Big Eight conference schools, such as the University of Kansas and the University of Oklahoma, do the same thing.

For academic purposes, Nebraska goes by UNL, indicating the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. That acronym has yet to make the transition over to sports, though — whenever the team shortens Nebraska, it is NU.

“There’s room to share,” said Keith Mann, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for communications. “From my standpoint, I think both schools have the ability to use it and have and probably will continue to do so.”

There is one area where a definite decision on the true NU exists. On stat sheets across the Big Ten, Northwestern is labeled as NU and Nebraska is labeled as NEB. Mann said that decision was made when the Cornhuskers joined the conference in 2011.

Nebraska and Northwestern are not the only schools that can and do claim NU. At the Division I level alone, there are two other “NU” schools that could very easily get confused with Northwestern: Northeastern and Niagara.

According to Scott MacDonald, Northeastern’s assistant athletic director for communications, the Huskies and the Wildcats are never confused at the national level or in the media. But when Northeastern underwent a brand redesign in 2018, it made sure to not include a Red N in its main logo, so as to not get confused with Nebraska.

At Niagara, whose main color is also purple, Northwestern looms large. Niagara’s deputy athletic director Stephen Butler said the school tries to avoid using a singular N representation so as to not be confused with Northwestern’s main logo.

Yet it still happens, especially when Butler travels outside the Upstate New York area. If he’s wearing gear without Niagara’s eagle head logo, he said, people will occasionally call out “Go Wildcats!” or “Go Northwestern!”

“I’ve always been captivated as I’m walking through the airport or some part of the country that doesn’t necessarily think immediately of NU and associate Niagara University,” Butler said. “It’s just interesting to see a purple NU piece of apparel and someone says, ‘Northwestern.’ Obviously the alumni sizes of Big Ten institutions are so large that folks, whether they attended Northwestern or not, are thinking of those Big Ten institutions.”

Having teams with the same acronyms is not unique across the college sports landscape. But the debate around NU is different. Neither group of fans seem intent on backing down.

It will continue for years to come, as will the consternation that comes with seeing the dreaded NW or NWU used by outlets across the country.

For Kennedy, though, there is only one thing that matters.

“I know it’s something that annoys our fans and our alumni to no end because we see it on social media,” Kennedy said. “But ultimately, if the higher score on the score bug is next to us, I don’t care what they put there.”

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Twitter: @thepeterwarren