Aaron Arana remembers his parents spinning him around their Omaha living room after touchdowns.
He remembers memorizing rosters and tearing up during the Tunnel Walk and losing all sense of time for 3½ hours every Saturday.
He remembers applying to only one university, Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned his degree. Now Arana is 23 years old, preparing for another football season, hoping this is THE ONE.
“My dream is for Nebraska to win a national championship in my life,” he says. “They’ve obviously won it while I was alive, but I don’t remember.”
Arana represents a generation of Husker fans — born in the ’90s — with no memory of Nebraska’s dominance. Sure, they’ve had their moments of euphoria. Alex Henery’s 57-yard field goal. T-Magic at Kansas State. Kellogg to Westerkamp. The Michigan State comeback last fall. But those highlights were fleeting, always offset by a dose of misery. (Four doses actually; the Huskers have dropped at least four games each of the past 12 years.)
What a pity to be so young.
This week, I reached out to Husker fans born too late. Absorbing their favorite stories was like hearing someone go on and on about “The Godfather Part III” or the “Star Wars” episodes 1-3 or Michael Jordan’s slam dunks post-Birmingham Barons. Generation Hex is deprived, but to their credit, not the least bit naive. You couldn’t possibly be in this state, where Tom Osborne’s 60-3 run hovers over the landscape like a buzzing drone.
“I can’t really relate when other generations retell the iconic stories of the ’90s and before,” said Chris Crow, a 23-year-old season-ticket holder.
“This sounds bad,” says Blake Schroeder, 20, a UNL student, “but I can’t even imagine Nebraska being a top-10 team anymore.”
That’s an ominous thought as the Huskers open another season in search of national relevance. The longer they go without a significant accomplishment, the harder it is to hook the next generation of boosters, season-ticket holders and fans who build their Saturdays around the Big Red.
Nebraska needs more than a “SportsCenter” highlight. It needs a signature season to stoke imaginations again.
Chris Turley, 24, is a social studies teacher at Lincoln High. “The vast majority” of students, he says, don’t care about the Huskers or don’t like them.
“That would be unfathomable when I was growing up and just makes me sad,” Turley says. “We need to bring some sort of swagger back.”
* * *
Once upon a time, I thought I was born too late, too.
My first memories of Husker football were from Row 2 in the north end zone, late ’80s and early ’90s. Two decades after back-to-back national titles and five-plus years after the Scoring Explosion. The dog days of the Osborne era.
Then ... boom! Three national championships, five straight conference titles, six consecutive seasons without a home loss. Suddenly, we were the silver spoon generation — spoiled rotten.
I remember where I was for every big game. Fans in their early 20s look upon those golden years as fairy tales.
Fans like Bryce Wilson, who was born Valentine’s Day 1996, a month after Nebraska blasted Florida. He grew up in Lincoln and started attending games during the Eric Crouch era, but he doesn’t remember them. His favorite Husker campaign, like most people his age, was 2009, the season of Suh.
Wilson loved that brigade of Blackshirts, who entered Saturdays with little margin for error and refused to break. His dad has season tickets in West Stadium. During the Oklahoma game, the whole section stood for 60 minutes of action — “Even the elderly people,” Wilson says.
And yet ... 2009 was also the year of a gut-punch loss at Virginia Tech, back-to-back toe-stubs against Texas Tech and Iowa State and a hammer-to-the-forehead against Texas.
“Sadly, my generation is sort of conditioned not to get too excited during the season because we’ve always been let down,” Wilson says.
He, too, dreams of a national championship, but he’d gladly celebrate an intermediate step. How ’bout a 10-2 season with an upset of Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten championship? How ’bout a “simple Rose Bowl victory?” Doesn’t feel like it’s too much to ask, does it? Hasn’t he waited long enough?
Luke Linder was a UNL freshman in ’09. Now he’s 25 and frequently reminisces with friends about the old days when Nebraska played games of “true meaning.”
“People my age are starting to lose interest,” Linder says. “I think a signature season needs to come in the next few years, or the unique passion that I grew up with could start to fade.”
* * *
Joel Klatt grew up in Denver, not Lincoln. He wore black and gold, not scarlet and cream. But he was there the day Nebraska fell apart.
Thanksgiving Friday 2001. NU rolled into Folsom Field 11-0 and No. 1 in the BCS standings. The Huskers had won nine straight over Colorado, including five straight nail-biters.
“To me, the pinnacle of college football was Nebraska,” said Klatt, Fox Sports’ lead college football analyst. “That’s what made that game so big for us. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, they’re our rival.’ It was more like that was the measuring stick to see if your program had made it or not.”
At the time, Klatt was a 19-year-old pro baseball player who’d just finished a minor league season in Idaho. Black Friday is the game that inspired him to give up his glove and walk on at Colorado, where he became a three-year starting quarterback (and beat NU in 2004).
“Nobody could believe that was happening on the field, that Nebraska was getting dismantled like they were,” he said. “Sixty-two points! They were never the same since.”
Fifteen years later, I ask Klatt whether his perception of Husker football has changed. One of the game’s most opinionated voices spends 20 seconds thinking what to say.
“Unfortunately, yeah,” he says. But it doesn’t mean they’re finished.
“There’s some people that just write them off and say because of recruiting territory that it’s never gonna happen again. I am of the belief that if you’ve done it once in your history, you can do it again.”
Before Nick Saban, Alabama was in shambles. Michigan collapsed and came back under Jim Harbaugh.
Nebraska is still committed. It competes in a division without a powerhouse program. It all comes down to the head coach, Klatt says.
“At some point, and I hope it’s Mike Riley, they’re gonna get a guy who’s gonna go in there and get it rolling again. To me, it has more to do with a coach than it does a region. Is it harder to recruit to Nebraska? Probably. But it can absolutely happen.
“I’m of the belief that if Urban Meyer went anywhere in the country or Nick Saban went anywhere in the country or Jim Harbaugh or David Shaw, they would win because they’re just great at this. If any one of those guys went to Nebraska, they’re in the top 5 every year. So it’s just a matter of getting the right guy. They’re hard to find.”
Nebraska needs an opportunity, he says, and maybe a dose of good fortune. Michigan State wasn’t better than Ohio State in 2015, but the Spartans won the Big Ten. Get to Indianapolis, and anything can happen. The Huskers just need to clear the psychological hurdle.
“The fact that Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since ’99 is mind-blowing to me because of the way I grew up,” Klatt says.
Once a program goes 10 years without a championship, he says, prospects don’t remember their success. They get a Nebraska letter in the mail and think of Bill Callahan or Bo Pelini, not Tom Osborne.
“They need some sort of flag in the ground for this generation,” Klatt says. “Once that happens, because of the support and infrastructure and everything they’ve got going, they’ll be able to find and build some success.”
* * *
The banner season would be a recruiting boon. But even more important — and this is hard for an outsider like Klatt to understand — it would give Generation Hex a stake in the tradition, a patch of the Big Red quilt, a chance to bond with strangers over a shared experience, a chance to look forward instead of back.
Husker millennials may be obsessed with selfies and Snapchat, they may be incapable of sitting still or settling down, they may spend all their money on craft beers and world travel, but give ’em credit. Thousands upon thousands have stayed loyal to a football program that’s given them little in return.
They deserve to host “College GameDay.” They deserve to feel the building tension of an undefeated season. They deserve to wake up on Sunday morning and wonder where they’re ranked. They deserve to walk through a cramped concourse, emerge into the crisp fall air, see 90,000 friends and know that, for at least one Saturday a year, Memorial Stadium is the epicenter of college football.
Brady Greer, a 25-year-old HR coordinator in Lincoln, isn’t old enough to remember those days. He tries to re-create them in his mind.
“All we can do is watch old game film on YouTube, listen to stories about Tom and the boys and dream about how great those days must have been,” Greer says.
They were good, Brady, but when they come again, they’ll be even better. Because after 15 or 20 years in the wilderness — maybe more — nobody will take it for granted.
Tradition will feel brand new.