The long, red banner on the east wall of the Hawks practice facility lists Nebraska's 43 conference championships, the last coming in 1999.
Eleven months a year, the banner is a motivational tool for the Huskers. But in December (and sometimes late November), the banner is a reminder of a mission failed.
I thought of that banner Saturday night when I saw injured Jeremiah Sirles on the sideline. Back in August, one night after a preseason practice, the offensive tackle was talking about the band of senior brothers on the offensive line — Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez, Cole Pensick, Brent Qvale. They wanted to go out on top. He pointed to the wall.
“We want to put a banner up there that says Nebraska football, conference champions, 2013.”
The hardest day of a football season is the day when offseason goals are no longer achievable. Nebraska returns to the Hawks Center this week, where the red banner — and the empty space next to “1999” — will hang over it.
We missed our opportunity, Qvale told me Monday.
“There's nothing I can do now. It's sad.”
For seniors who have poured five years into the program, it's hard to stomach. For Husker fans who have endured a longer bout of heartache, it feels all too familiar. Truth is, Nebraska hasn't won a really big game since Oct. 27, 2001, when the top-ranked Huskers beat No. 2 Oklahoma.
Look at these figures:
Ľ 59: That's the number of programs with a Top-5 win since Nebraska last achieved one in 2001.
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Only 11 BCS-conference schools have gone longer without a Top-5 win. Florida leads the way with 12 Top-5 wins.
Ľ 57: That's the number of programs with an 11-win season since Nebraska last did it ('01).
Ohio State, Oklahoma and USC lead with seven. LSU has six, Texas five. The list includes programs like Kansas, Wake Forest, Maryland and Rutgers.
Ľ 42: That's the number of programs claiming at least a share of a major-conference title since Nebraska last did it in '99.
Oklahoma leads with eight. USC has seven. Ohio State and West Virginia have six.
Ľ 38: That's the number of programs with a BCS bowl appearance since Nebraska last did it ('01).
Ohio State leads with eight, followed by USC and Oklahoma at seven.
Ľ 36: That's the number of programs with a Top-10 finish since Nebraska last did it ('01).
Ohio State leads the way with nine Top-10s. USC has eight. Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia and LSU have six. Texas has five.
Those numbers, depressing as they are from a Nebraska perspective, aren't irreversible. Take the Top-10s, for instance.
Notre Dame went 11 years (1994-2004) without a Top-10. Oklahoma went 12 (1988-99). Texas went 17 (1984-2000). Each of those programs rebounded and recently made national title runs.
It can happen at Nebraska, too. But it starts with one big win. One signature accomplishment.
It's been so long, I wonder if fans even remember what it feels like. I was a sophomore in college when Mike Stuntz connected with Eric Crouch on 41 Flash Reverse. I can't count how many indispensable life moments have happened since Oct. 27, 2001. How much the world has changed.
Sirles and Qvale were 10 years old. Like hundreds of players over the past 12 years, they wanted desperately to break the streaks. Instead, they'll pass the baton to the class of 2014, hoping next year's seniors carry NU over the hump.
And fill the empty space on the red banner.