LINCOLN — When you first meet Bonnie Burghardt, she apologizes for being a bit out of breath. She's retired now, and can't hustle up the stairs of this old building as easily as she may have in years past. But the alternative would be unthinkable.
If she didn't speed through the doors of the NU Coliseum right when they opened — 90 minutes sharp before a Nebraska volleyball match begins — and forsake the restrooms and concession stand, why, someone could end up in her seat. And how would she break the news to her sister and brother-in-law, who are coming all the way in from Grand Island, trusting Bonnie will save them two places right next to her?
The final days of the Coliseum are playing out this week. When the first and second rounds of the NCAA volleyball tournament are finished this weekend, one of college volleyball's most iconic venue will close its doors as the program moves to its new home in the Devaney Center.
The Coliseum has been home to Husker volleyball since the program began in 1975, and over those 37 years, the building has borne witness to All-Americans galore and conference championships aplenty. Too many memorable matches to count have played out between the building's iconic red brick walls and under its signature barrel-curved roof.
NU coach John Cook compared the Coliseum to a boxing arena for how it directs all the focus and sight lines to the floor below. His predecessor, Terry Pettit, likened it to a theater.
“People walk in when it's empty and the lights are off and say 'I don't see how it's so great,' in the same way as you would when you walked into an empty playhouse,” Pettit said. “The key isn't to get people to look at the walls or look outside the building, but create an environment where the people inside the building are featured.”
When the lights go on at the Coliseum, it's not just the actors who perform. Everyone has their role to play. The final story of the Coliseum is in the people who make the place come alive, bringing the theater to life with the buzzing and sometimes deafening intensity that has given the Huskers an unmatched home-court advantage.
“This is a house of miracles because of the fans in the building,” said John Baylor, the team's longtime radio play-by-play broadcaster. “The way the acoustics work in here, and the sound ricochets everywhere, have propelled Nebraska to some improbable wins — at least one per year.”
Here's a look at some of the fans who pump life into the Coliseum.
Bonnie Burghardt — Section O, Row 8, northwest corner
The retiree from Omaha now has time to do what at one point was unthinkable for fans of a women's sport. She has time to stand in line.
Bonnie, her sister and her brother-in-law have had general admission season tickets for the last 10 or 12 years. She recognizes most of the people who sit around her; they usually stand in line, too. After rushing for the first-come, first-serve general admission seats, waiting 90 minutes for the match to start leaves a long time to get friendly with the folks around you.
That's what makes the Coliseum special, Bonnie said. Its intimate setting, with the fans cozied up right next to the floor, combines with Midwestern geniality to form a sort of good-natured fanaticism.
“Listening to other places, our fans let the girls play their game,” Burghardt said. “They're very respectful of opposing teams.”
Marie and Keith Goering — Section G, Row 3, southeast corner
The exterior of the Coliseum looks largely the same today as it did in the 1920s, when Lincoln architect Ellery Davis designed the building. But the inside looks a lot different than when Marie Goering first set foot in the building in 1957. Or '58, or '59 — the details fade with time.
She sat on the stage in the building's north end, watching her Syracuse High School team play in the state basketball tournament. Where the stage once stood, there are now exercise rooms and racquetball courts that the Campus Rec Center added in the late 1980s.
The building was home to Nebraska basketball until the 1976-77 season when the team moved to the Devaney Center. It hosted some legendary games, including the Huskers' 43-41 upset of Kansas in 1958 when the Jayhawks were led by Wilt Chamberlain.
When the Coliseum's main feature was basketball, the court ran north-south. Now the floor sits east-west with permanent bleachers on the north end. Marie and her husband, Keith, are perched high in the Coliseum's southeast end, where you have to crane your neck just slightly to avoid your view being blocked by the curved steel girders that support the building's roof.
The Goerings have been coming to volleyball matches for nearly 20 years, two of the early converts swayed by Pettit to give the sport a try. Keith read an article about the Husker team one day, and decided to head in to Lincoln along with another couple to see what the fuss was about.
“It was something to do. We thought we'd come in and see the girls play,” Keith said. “We took an interest, and we've been coming ever since.”
Baylor, who has broadcast the team's matches since 1994, said the Goerings' story is a familiar one. Pettit, he said, was a tireless advocate for the sport, and he spoke about his club at every Rotary luncheon and small-town booster get-together he could. As fans heard his gospel and the crowds at the Coliseum swelled, Husker matches began to take on the “main event” status they currently enjoy.
“He was one man who had this vision, and through his personality he made it happen almost single-handed,” Baylor said. “But, could he have made it happen in a state with so few people and with no heritage in the sport without this building? That's a good question.”
Kay and Tracy Flaska — Section 3, Row 1, mid-court
Nebraska has sold out 179 consecutive matches at the Coliseum. The growing waiting list for tickets is the driving force behind the team's move to a renovated Devaney Center.
But Pettit was determined that if fans showed up early to wait in line, their patience should be rewarded. So the former coach always made sure about 300 tickets were held back for those dogged enough to wait for them. That is how Kay and Tracy Flaska ended up sitting in the front row of a late-season match against Iowa.
The mother and daughter left McCook at noon for the four-hour drive to Lincoln. Without tickets.
“It sounds crazy when you say it out loud like that,” said Tracy, the daughter.
Tracy played volleyball at McCook High School in the 1980s and first came to the Coliseum to watch matches as a student at UNL. She said she felt a kinship with, and a twinge of envy for, the current players.
“You really have to appreciate the dedication to a sport and what these gals have gone through,” Tracy said.
The Flaskas waited in line for 90 minutes before getting word there were a few tickets left. They've done this before, and usually their scavenged seats are high above the court. But that night, they were in luck. Their seats put them in the first row, directly behind the scorer's table, for the first time.
Mike and Katie Olsufka — Section 4, Row 1, behind Nebraska's bench
Mike Olsufka didn't have to wait as long for prime seats. Along with his daughter, Katie, Mike found himself right behind the Huskers' bench the first time he went to the Coliseum.
Mike recalled that he had recently started coaching his daughter's seventh-grade travel volleyball team around the time he and Katie went to the match. Maybe if he listened close, he could pick up some tips from John Cook.
The chance came when Nebraska called timeout after its opponent went on a mini-run. The Huskers huddled directly in front of the father and daughter. Mike leaned in close, and heard Cook tell the team to just relax, take a deep breath and play their game. It was advice that sounded similar to what Mike told Katie's club.
“My daughter turned to me and said, 'Dad, he says the same thing to his team that you do!' ” Olsufka said. “With apologies to Coach Cook, he never sounded so smart before.”
When Nebraska says goodbye to the Coliseum this weekend, it will have hosted an NCAA tournament match every year since 1984. The Huskers have gone 52-4 all-time in postseason matches in the building.
The team has compiled home winning streaks of 90 and 63 matches within the red brick walls. An NCAA-record 71 AVCA All-Americans have taken the floor for NU there. The banners of three national championship teams hang in its rafters.
But a building without people is a cold and lifeless thing. It has no memory by itself. Husker fans will pack the Coliseum for the final time this weekend before transfering the spirit of Nebraska volleyball to another place. To grow, to expand. To bring along the memories and add new ones to a living history.
A stage can go dark, but the show will go on.
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