Nebraska's Brand Huge in Landing 2021 Game in Ireland
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Nebraska’s Brand Huge in Landing 2021 Game in Ireland

October 15, 2019

Notre Dame went to Ireland in 2012 to play Navy for a game that drew 28,000 Irish fans across the Atlantic to watch American college football in a place dominated by the other kind of football. Then Travis Fisher and Sean Beckton and the Central Florida Knights jumped the pond in 2014 to play Penn State in Dublin to open the season. In 2016, running back Dedrick Mills and his Georgia Tech teammates went overseas to play Boston College. 

The following year, John Anthony, CEO of Anthony Travel and Corporate, a primary partner in bringing those first three games to Irish country, asked for increased support for a five-game series. He got it. So Anthony, a Notre Dame grad, got on the phone with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and wound up with an invitation to an Athletic Directors meeting. 

The first game of the series, slated for 2020, was going to be a rematch between Notre Dame and Navy. That one was already set. Anthony needed to start locking in future games. 

Anthony wanted Nebraska. 

“I was in the stadium for the famous 2000 Sea of Red and I’ve never forgotten it,” he said. “It was enlightening. Even though I went to Notre Dame, because I work in college athletics, I’m watching through a different lens. … I’m intrigued by what tripped the trigger for all these people to make this journey. 

“A lot of Notre Dame fans were just mad at other people for selling their tickets. I chose the other route, I was proud my alma mater was that appealing to that many fans that they would come and make the trip and pay whatever they had to in order to buy somebody else’s ticket.”

When he walked into that conference room in the fall of 2017, Anthony was expecting 15 or so people and commissioner Delany. Instead, 50 were waiting for him. He had five minutes to make a presentation about the 2021 Aer Lingus Football Classic, and as he spoke, he scanned the room but kept coming back to Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos.

Moos was seated near 10:30 to Anthony’s left. He still remembers.

“I felt like I was talking to Bill the whole time,” he said.

Nebraska was the belle of the ball, and a lot of that had to do with Anthony’s experience in 2000.

For the first little bit there was a good deal of “elongated danc[ing],” as Anthony put it. He knew Nebraska wasn’t going to give up a home game, so he needed to find a second team that would before he started getting serious with Moos. Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman was his call. 

Per 247Sports’ Jeremy Werner, Whitman said it wasn’t easy to give up a home game, but the cost/benefit analysis kept coming back green. Anthony said Werner pressed for other opponents, but he would just respond with, “Nebraska. Can we focus on Nebraska?” 

Meanwhile, Moos was trying to figure out who the next head coach was going to be for his football program. 

Because of that (semi) uncertainty, he held off on giving a firm yes. 

“When the conversation came up, I said I’m not in a position to sign off on that until I’ve talked to my football coach,” Moos said. “I’m not going to make the football coach travel and pick his team up and leave if he truly didn’t want to. In the beginning I never even mentioned it to Scott, I don’t think until after signing day of ’18 because there’s too many other things that were more important at the time.”

But when Frost was finally approached with the idea, he said “Let’s do it.”

“I think it’s an incredible educational experience,” the head coach said. “I think our players will benefit from it both from a football standpoint and from a personal standpoint. When they laid out all the details of the trip and the things that our players were going to be able to do, I think it made a lot of sense. I think it’s going to be a special week for us.”

Moos pegged last spring as the point in time when things got serious. Nebraska needed waivers from the conference, schedules needed to be adjusted, plans needed to be made. A logistical mess. UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green was involved on the periphery but said this was an opportunity the program just couldn’t pass up.

When asked what it means to hear someone say their first choice for a game like this is Nebraska, Green said it felt “really good.” 

“I think what it speaks to is it speaks to the reputation of the Nebraska brand. They want Nebraska because Nebraska will be there, and the strength of that brand and the fanbase and the alumni base.”

Moos talks about brand all the time. He thinks about exposure and stresses over what each move does for the perception of the University. This is a recruiting tool. It’s a new market. It’s a chance to play in Week 0 and be the featured game of the week. 

“Week 0 offers some challenges but I think it offers some benefits too if it’s handled the right way,” Frost said. “We’ll start practice a week earlier than other schools … and we’re going to have to manage that well. It’s going to give us another bye week early in the season to try and improve after this game.”

The Huskers were originally scheduled to play Illinois on Nov. 13 of 2021. Now, they’ll play Southeastern Louisiana (from the FCS ranks) at home that weekend. They’ll open the season in Dublin on Aug. 28

Frost said he isn’t sure yet what the practice schedule will look like for that, whether they’ll go earlier than normal to have practice days at the stadium or stay in Lincoln more, but he’s excited for his players to have a unique experience. 

Anthony said one of Frost’s first questions was how the trip would benefit the student-athletes.

“As much time as we can spend over there, particularly with a week off after, we’re going to try to,” Frost said. “I want our kids to get over there and be able to experience Ireland.”

Husker fans set a day-one record for ticket sales already. Travel packages became available Monday. This is a money grab of sorts, with organizers of the event looking for the fanbase that will travel the best, but it’s also an acknowledgment of Nebraska. 

“Where your program is right now and where it’s headed, it just seems like Nebraska football is the place to be,” Anthony said. “We want that whole Sea of Red to take over Dublin and the country of Ireland like you did South Bend, Indiana, 19 years ago.”

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