LINCOLN — The ball was in the air when Butch Hug saw lightning strike within 8 miles of Memorial Stadium. The Nebraska associate athletic director for events was watching weather radar with a ring on it. A lightning strike within that ring meant a delay in NU’s game with Akron.
It was 7:14 p.m. when he walked out of the Huskers’ weather command center in the south part of Memorial Stadium. He made a beeline for the southwest tunnel that led to the field. Hug walked onto the turf and waved his arms. The Zips had just kicked a touchback, the Scott Frost era was about to begin and storms were going to prevent it from happening Saturday night.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
But there was a brief moment, after 10 p.m., when Hug and NU officials thought they’d be back in Memorial Stadium for a Sunday morning kickoff.
Nebraska wanted to play the game, so much so that officials were considering Nebraska dorms to house the Akron players overnight and trying to figure out logistics for packing another full house in Memorial Stadium.
That Saturday night ticker crawl so many Husker fans saw on channel FS1 of their TVs — that Nebraska and Akron would resume play of their game at 10:30 a.m. Sunday — wasn’t exactly a mistake. It’s what Hug said he and his people — inside the weather center — were hearing from the Big Ten, which was in contact with Fox Sports, the broadcast network for the game.
“We were talking to the conference office, the conference office was talking to Fox Sports about it and there came back an announcement that, yes, we were going to play,” Hug said. “And then all of the sudden we get the other announcement that Akron came by and said ‘there’s no game, we’re leaving.’ ”
Akron Athletic Director Larry Williams declined Nebraska’s offer.
So NU announced the cancellation of the game at 10:28 p.m. Details on Nebraska’s $1.17 million payout to Akron are still pending as the two schools have more discussions, according to Deputy NU Athletic Director Bob Burton, who is chief of staff for Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos.
Late Sunday afternoon, Moos released a statement citing Akron’s “logistical challenges” as the reason the game was canceled, adding that NU is exploring all options for potential additions and adjustments to the schedule going forward and Husker fans are advised to hold on to their tickets.
“Everyone associated with last night’s season opener is disappointed that the weather did not cooperate, and we were unable to play the game,” Moos’ statement said. “We were dealing with a fluid situation, and at all times we were operating with public safety as our number one concern.
“During the delay, there were numerous scenarios discussed for contingency plans for playing the game, including a scenario to play the game on Sunday. Unfortunately, Akron faced some logistical challenges and the decision was made to cancel the game.”
Burton then called select news outlets to answer questions about the statement. He confirmed that NU was considering a Sunday morning game and that Fox gave Nebraska an opportunity to have the game aired on FS1 if it kicked off before 11 a.m. But NU never officially committed to that start time, Burton said, and Akron never accepted Moos’ offer.
“I wasn’t in that meeting,” Burton said when asked why Akron turned down Moos’ offer. “I just know that when Bill came back and we were talking to Scott, he said ‘Akron doesn’t want to play a game tomorrow.’ ”
Williams, the Akron athletic director, said in a statement Sunday that Akron could not find accommodations within a “reasonable distance” from Lincoln that did not require players to stay at multiple locations, “which is not in the best interests of our team and student-athletes.”
Thunderstorms forecast in the Lincoln area on Sunday also made the opportunity to play questionable, he said.
Williams said NU and Akron are in negotiations to play in Week 14 of the college football season should either team need the game to become bowl eligible.
In the week before the game, Nebraska officials discussed the possibility of “weather” but did not discuss moving up the game to earlier in the day, Hug and Burton said. If NU administrators had, Hug probably would have known it, because he was in charge of the event.
“Nothing is impossible, I guess you would say, but I don’t think there was any discussion with anyone — with the networks or the conference — about it,” Hug said.
Burton said NU officials believed that they had a window in which to play the game. A kickoff around 7 p.m. A 90-minute window before a round of storms rolled through around 8:30 p.m. And then another open frame starting at 9:45 p.m., in which Nebraska officials thought they could complete the game.
The weather didn’t cooperate.
“The thing that changed the course was that storm that appeared about the time we kicked the football off,” Burton said. “... When it stalled out, and the one behind it came up, that’s when it was just like, ‘the game is not going to happen.’ ”
» NU uses a WeatherSentry system from DTN to track lightning strikes. The NCAA uses it, Hug said, and “virtually all institutions” use it. Roughly an hour before kickoff, the warmups were briefly delayed by a lightning strike — which pushed back kickoff 8 minutes.
“We got the notice when the ball was in the air,” Hug said. The lightning strike was 7½ miles away from Memorial Stadium.
When Hug called for the delay, NU officials immediately called the Big Ten operations center via a toll-free number to stay in contact with them throughout the night. The Big Ten then worked with the broadcast partner — Fox — to figure out if the game could be played Sunday.
Nebraska called for evacuation of the stadium at 9:09 p.m. because of the high winds that accompanied the storm.
Once the game was called off for the night — at 9:55 p.m. — Hug immediately started talking contingency plans for playing the game Sunday, figuring out staffing and where the Lincoln and UNL Police Departments could help.
“We were thinking about how we could get back into ‘game mode,’ ” Hug said. “There’s a lot of agencies that have to be involved in providing services. We were in the process of making contact with all of our agencies if we had another kickoff.”
Burton said Nebraska officials started calling hotels in the area and also explored using unused dorm space on campus to house Akron players.
“That was one of the options,” Burton said of using dorms.
Then the game was canceled outright. Hug has called off sporting events in other sports — such as baseball — but never a Husker football game. He was at Nebraska when a 19-minute storm delay occurred during the 1991 Utah State game, but Hug imagines that the delay, under similar circumstances, would be much longer today.
“I don’t think we spent a lot of time back then worrying about lightning,” Hug said. “We didn’t have all these different things that could track lightning.”