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Parting the Sea of Red
Photo Credit: Quentin Lueninghoener

Parting the Sea of Red

April 10, 2018

The following story by Cody Nagel appeared in Volume 6 Issue 12 of Hail Varsity, and was recently accounced as a top-10 winner in sports writing in the 58th annual William Randolph Hearst Foundation's Journalism Awards Program. Nagel, currently a senior at UNL, set out to capture what life was like for the Class of 2018 as it supported Husker football through one of the lowest stretches in program history.

Nagel's story was selected from 121 entries in the sports writing category, and appears here for the first time online. Congratulations, Cody. – Ed.

For Nebraska football, as of late, it’s been The Horror: 23 losses in four seasons – one more than the program had in all of Tom Osborne’s final 13 years as the Cornhuskers’ coach.

From the final years under Bob Devaney in the 1970s to the first few years under Frank Solich in the early 2000s, Nebraska always had a seat at the national championship table.

But no more.

Remember, Nebraska has more wins than any other school in the country since 1970 and is tied for second in national championships since 1970 with five.

The Huskers last won a national title in 1997. Their starting quarterback was some guy from Wood River, Nebraska, named Scott Frost.

Although the past 16 seasons were far from spectacular, it’s been over half a century since Nebraska had a stretch as putrid as the past four.

Hail Varsity
The cover of Volume 6 Issue 12 (Dec. 2017) of Hail Varsity

Yes, the past four years surpassed the previous program low during the four Bill Callahan seasons. He lost 22 games during his tenure, one fewer than the 23 recently piled up. This wretched stretch is difficult for Husker Nation to stomach, but has it affected the support of UNL students? The ones who walk past Memorial Stadium each day, who make up the southeast corner of the “Sea of Red” on Saturdays each fall?

“It has been very frustrating seeing schools consistently doing great things while we’ve been mediocre,” senior Logan Jurgens said after Iowa clobbered Nebraska 56-14 in the season finale on Nov. 24.

Jurgens, along with thousands of others in the 2018 senior class, had the sad fate of wandering the Death Valley of Nebraska football since they arrived on campus four autumns ago.

Now imagine what the view was like from college football’s Mount Everest during the mid-1990s.

UNL graduate Christy Farnstrom, who was a freshman in 1994 doesn’t have to imagine it. She lived it. “I don’t think we really had any idea that our teams would be the dynasty that they were,” Farnstrom said. “I think it has taken these last few hard years for some of us to realize how unique of a time it was to be a student and fan of Nebraska football from 1994 to 1997.”

During those four seasons, the Huskers had a remarkable record of 49-2. Oh yeah, they also won three national championships. The dynasty established by Nebraska football during that time is still considered by many to be one of the greatest in college football history.

“This is what I wanted to be a part of during my time here at UNL,” Jurgens said.

UNL graduate Jon Braaten said being a student for four years and having the Huskers win a title in three of them is something that no other graduating class will witness again. “We never even considered us losing a game,” he said. “If we did, people went home and didn’t surface until the next day.”

Braaten, who still lives in Lincoln, was an undergraduate student at UNL from 1994 until 1998. To him, and other students and fans during that time, Nebraska football was anything and everything.

“Back then, (Lincoln) was a ghost town during the games,” Braaten said. “If you did not go to the game, you watched the game.”

Jeffrey Ohlmann, a classmate of Braaten’s, said there was a sense of pride among the entire student body.

“Our school, our team, they may not have been flashy, but they represented many of the ideals of the state: work ethic, persistence and toughness,” Ohlmann said. “Football is a gladiator sport, and we had a team of Maximuses.” 

Jim Vance, another UNL graduate and freshman in 1994, said he is blessed to have seen a winning culture up close, adding it raised the standards he set for himself not just in a competitive setting, but in an academic and professional arena as well.

“I think people are just now really looking and appreciating what we had back then,” Vance said. “The excellence it brought to all the state, the local community, the students and campus.”

There’s a hint of proof in Vance’s comment. A championship-caliber football program can, in fact, have an enormous effect on the university itself. Just look at Alabama.

An October article published by USA Todaydiscussed how Alabama Coach Nick Saban and the success he has brought to the program have affected the university’s enrollment. “In 2006, the year before Saban arrived, Alabama reports it had an incoming freshman class of 4,404 students (2,926 in-state and 1,478 out of state),” the article said. “This fall’s incoming class, the school says, is 7,407 students (2,406 in-state and 5,001 out of state).”

UNL hasn’t seen a decrease in its total undergraduate enrollment numbers since the football program took a step back in the mid-2000s. The numbers have actually increased by 17 percent from the fall of 2000 to the fall of 2017.

But could the current numbers be higher if Nebraska football was performing better? “Oh, absolutely,” UNL chancellor Ronnie Green said at an introductory press conference for Nebraska football’s third head coach in five years. 

Green said that for so long UNL has been a place of championship athletics. He added that increasing the competitiveness in Husker athletics, including the football program, will have a positive impact on the university’s enrollment.

“We’re on the trajectory of doing that already,” Green said.

Not only does a winning program affect the student body as a whole, it also can have an impact on how fans identify with their team. Carolyn Brown-Kramer, an assistant professor of psychology at UNL, said in some cases, there could be a relationship between people associating themselves with a winning team, and distancing themselves from a losing team. The two concepts are called “Basking in Reflected Glory” (BIRGing) and “Cutting Off Reflected Glory” (CORFing).

According to Brown-Kramer, BIRGing is when fans adopt some of the team’s success as their own, and CORFing is when fans distance themselves from the team’s failure. “People may tend to say ‘wewon’ after a Husker victory and ‘theylost’ after a Husker loss,” she said. 

Without a research study, Brown-Kramer said, she doesn’t know if that has specifically happened with Nebraska football fans.

Eric Francis
The scene at Memorial Stadium at the start of the fourth quarter of Nebraska's 56-14 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 14, 2017.

There is evidence some UNL students have separated themselves from the Huskers’ lack of success on the gridiron. Deep into Nebraska’s season-finale blowout loss against Iowa, a UNL student stood near the pillars at the top of the east stadium, a brown paper bag over her head. Written in black marker above two eye holes were the words “HUSKER FAN.” A frown mouth was drawn in marker, too.

It’s unheard of for a Husker fan to hide their identity under a brown bag. That is not supposed to happen at Nebraska. Maybe in Cleveland at a Browns game or in Kansas at a Jayhawks game, but not at a Huskers football game.

It is clear students are frustrated with the recent trend. Husker Nation as a whole feels the same way – and why not? A handful of stats help tell the tale of woe:

  • Nebraska’s five home losses in 2017 doubled its total from the previous three seasons. The Huskers were a perfect 7-0 at home in 2016. Still, those 10 home losses from 2014 to 2017 are the most in a four-year stretch since 1960 to 1963.
  • Since 1963 – a span of 54 years – Nebraska has failed to appear in the AP poll during a season just four times. In Mike Riley’s first and last seasons as Nebraska’s coach – 2015 and 2017 – the Huskers never entered the rankings. The other two occurrences happened under Callahan in 2004 and Bo Pelini in 2008.
  • Over the past four seasons, Nebraska had six losses by 30-plus points. From 1994 to 1997, the Huskers had 26 victories by that same margin.
  • Lastly, Nebraska’s 2017 scoring-defense and scoring-offense rankings were the lowest among the previous three seasons, an indication the on-field performance has declined. At the conclusion of the regular season, the Huskers ranked 117thin scoring defense and 87thin scoring offense. 

From 1994 to 1997, the Huskers never ranked lower than sixth nationally in scoring or twelfth in scoring defense, according to NCAA archives.

There are plenty more facts and reasons out there that show how bad it was, but you don’t need to tell those to UNL students. They are frustrated enough.

“I have been very disappointed in how the program has done the past four years,” Jurgens, an advertising and public relations major from Watertown, South Dakota, said.

Jurgens said he, like many other students who come to UNL, was excited to attend a university with a historic football program. As the losses stacked up, the interest waned.

Jurgens purchased student season tickets his first two years at UNL, but after Nebraska’s 6-7 record in 2015 it wasn’t worth it to him. “I still watch the games, but my heart is not into them as it would be if we were winning,” he said.

The past two seasons, Jurgens watched Husker games on TV, but if they were losing by a significant margin, say 20 points, he considered flipping the channel to a different game.

UNL senior Ben Fleming, Jurgens’ friend, stopped purchasing student season tickets after Nebraska’s disappointing 2015 season, too. A native of Papillion, Nebraska, Fleming still went to one or two games a year, but he said the on-field performance during the last four seasons has been “unacceptable.”

Fleming doesn’t hold Nebraska football to the high standards of the 1990s dynasty, but a losing season should not happen.  However, “I do expect us to lose no more than two or three games a season, and be a top-25 team,” he said.

Fleming, who was a fan before attending UNL, said he still watches every game but would attend more if the Huskers were winning more games.

According to several former students from the mid-1990s, student season tickets were a “must-have,” and they sold out quickly.

Ohlmann, who was also a freshman at UNL in 1994, had season tickets all four years. “It was imperative to get your student ticket order in some time during the summer,” Ohlmann said. “Picking up your student tickets was one of the first things on the ‘to-do’ list when returning to campus in the fall.”

But despite the Huskers’ recent struggles on the field, sales of student season tickets haven’t been affected, according to a representative for the “Iron N,” a student organization in charge of the Husker athletic student sections.

The representative said student season tickets for football generally sell out a week or two before the season starts. Although it’s been a little slower the past two years, the representative still said there has been no trouble selling out.

There are also upperclassmen who realize how bad the past four years have been, but who aren’t giving up all hope just yet. 

Ben Kiolbasa, a junior finance major from Hastings, Nebraska, purchased season tickets each of his three years as a UNL student.

Despite poor records, Kiolbasa, who stayed in the stands for every second of the 56-14 blowout loss against Ohio State on Oct. 14, remains optimistic. “Years to come, hopefully we’re able to figure out issues within the coaches’ side,” Kiolbasa said prior to the 56-44 loss to Penn State on Nov. 18. “Once they figure that out, I feel like they will perform better.”

Aaron Babcock
By Nebraska's 2017 season finale against Iowa, the desires of the fan base were on open display.

And perhaps the Nebraska football brain trust has taken a significant step in figuring that out.

Frost, the Huskers’ newly hired head coach, appears to be unanimously embraced by Nebraska football fans. The former Husker quarterback has the support of a vast majority of UNL students. Halfway through the 2017 season, shirts reading “FROST ’18 – MAKE NEBRASKA GREAT AGAIN” were selling online and on the streets outside Memorial Stadium. Students purchased a number of those shirts and showed their support by wearing them during games.

At the season finale against Iowa, one student held up a sign that read, “DANGER – FROST ADVISORY WARNING #FrostComeHome #GBR.” That sign, along with everything else, shows UNL students are eager for a positive change in the program after years of misery.

Jurgens, who already watched his final game as a student, wishes he could start over. “I’m jealous that my four years here were some of the worst in the school’s history,” Jurgens said. “I wish I could stay here a few more years and be a student during his hopefully successful run as a coach. I’m optimistic for the future.”

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