Big Red Numbers

A few years back, Sports Illustrated dubbed Nebraska’s faithful the greatest college football fans in the land. Writers often describe them as “classy.” This year, and probably over the next few autumns, they finally get to prove it.

Of course, classy is a relative term. For forty consecutive autumns, people clad in red polyester suits and funny little red hats have descended like fire ants on Lawrence, Manhattan, Columbia and other proud college towns, devouring almost every hotel room, parking space and doughnut in sight.

They’ve swarmed the typically quiet streets in packs of four or five or twenty, looking to buy up every game-day ticket they can lay their sticky pincers on. They’ve filled each stadium to capacity with their marching bands, goofy mascots and more fans than the place would see until the next Nebraska visit. Even Notre Dame’s cathedral of a stadium was transformed into a sea of red when the Nebraska hoard arrived en masse last season.

When your team loses about as often as a Kennedy on a ballot, how hard is it to be faithful? Nebraska has averaged 10 wins a season during the past 32 years. They’ve played in 33 consecutive postseason bowl games. There have been only four AP polls since 1969 in which Nebraska was not ranked.

For the first time in a generation, that devotion is being tested. As a Nebraska native, I was seven years old when Bob Devaney came to Lincoln in 1962 and revived a dormant football program. I’ll be 48 next month and have yet to experience Nebraska suffering through a losing fall.

But there are about to be quite a few more of those polls.

Nebraska is not simply bad this season; it is XFL bad (minus the XFL cheerleaders). In their past four games against ranked teams, the Huskers have been blown out before halftime. The lopsided final scores have college football fans across the country rubbing their eyes, leaping from their La-Z-Boys and high-fiving the ceiling fan. The Big Red bully of the Big 8/12 has been castrated in front of the nation and made to run through the rest of its conference schedule naked and bleeding.

“I am loving the snot out of this,” Kevin Kietzman snarled into his 810 WHB microphone after Iowa State destroyed Nebraska 36-14 in Ames. Kietzman is a K-State alum who watched his Wildcats lose to Nebraska for thirty years. Kietzman is not alone. There may not be a fan outside of Nebraska’s extended family who not only doesn’t feel sorry for Nebraska’s sudden plight but also isn’t dancing and reveling in it.

Nebraska and its fans have forged this chain of hate link by link since 1962.

Nebraska has cherry-picked some of the best high-school recruits from Kansas, Missouri and Iowa over the past four decades and used them to run up the score against their home-state universities. “Watching an All-American like Grant Wistrom and his brother Tracey leave Webb City to play at Nebraska doesn’t sit real well with Tiger fans like me,” says Rob Vaught, a Missouri native and Kansas City resident. “I’d like to watch Nebraska suffer through the same coaching carousel that Missouri has and see those prime in-state Missouri recruits head to Columbia instead of Lincoln.”

The nation will be watching how Nebraska fans handle losing, a reality every other football power has eventually faced. In one of the storied traditions at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium, the crowd stands and applauds as the visiting team leaves the field — even after rare Nebraska losses at home.

It’s easy to be generous with your applause for an opponent when you know that opponent isn’t going to beat you again for twenty years. But how will the “best fans in the nation” react now that Nebraska looks as vulnerable at home as Brian Griese?

Categories: A&E