LINCOLN — One of my first recollections of the phenomenon that is Nebraska football came 30-some years ago. I remember reading a story about how hard it was to secure Nebraska football tickets.
In the story, a Husker fan said one of the few ways to get a ticket was to be in the will of a relative who had passed on those tickets after moving on to the end zone seat in the sky.
It’s not 1982 anymore.
Today, there are approximately 1,400 season tickets available for the 2016 Nebraska football season.
We’re not talking knot-hole gang, either. On Huskers.com, there are 15 seats available on the 50-yard line on the west side of Memorial Stadium. One costs $399, with a $2,500 donation. You must bring your own jewelry to rattle.
Now, this is not news. Nebraska has had tickets come up every year. Some folks don’t renew. They are quickly scooped up.
But we rarely, if ever, heard about it.
This year, the NU athletic department sent out a release to media outlets alerting the public about available tickets. I have not seen the commercials, but I have friends, including one in Cozad, who tell me they have seen recent TV spots advertising Nebraska football tickets available.
They told me about these after they picked their jaws up off the ground.
When the topic was Husker tickets, I was granted immediate access last week to see Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, along with Senior Associate Athletic Director David Witty. Now, maybe they just couldn’t wait to do an interview, but my hunch is this is a topic of high priority at Memorial Stadium.
As it should be.
When the Nebraska bowl streak was snapped after the 2004 season, then-Athletic Director Steve Pederson said, “Every streak ends at some point.” I’m not sure what Pederson would say about the sellout streak, the last streak standing, but it’s not one that Nebraska fans are eager to give up.
And that would include the Nebraska fan in the athletic director’s chair. You don’t want that one going down on your watch.
Is the sellout streak in danger? Eichorst says no. He says it emphatically, and maybe a plan is already in place — boosters warming up in the bullpen — if help is needed later this summer. He says the tickets always get sold and will again this year.
“We’re pleased and confident where we are today,” Eichorst said. “More than anything, I think there just needs to be an awareness to the general public, that often times there are season tickets available.
“And we’ll work hard so that folks are aware that we are in sales mode. Folks can know minute to minute, hour to hour, where we are.”
NU put 2,000 tickets on sale last week — 600 were sold. I’m not sure folks are waiting minute to minute to find out.
The sellout streak is in an interesting place. For years, it was on cruise control, then survived Bill Byrne bringing the department up to date with tagged donations, four head coaches since Tom Osborne, three athletic directors since 2002, three conference affiliations, HuskerVision, and all the rest.
Last month Jack Pierce, a former NU assistant coach and now a fundraiser, made headlines by telling fans that the streak nearly ended last year — but Pierce called some donor friends and had them save the day. This was not a big surprise to those who have suspected this was the case for years, with the streak moving forward despite big patches of empty seats at many games.
Now comes the era of “distraction,” or “excuses.” Smartphones, HDTVs at home, 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. starts, and a generation that needs to get up and walk around. These are things that FBS athletic directors are all concerned about, and they frequently talk about the challenge of filling stadiums in the future.
Eichorst has made Memorial Stadium wireless friendly (not an easy task with some of the old battleship stadiums). Fans can watch live cut-ins of Big Ten or national games before NU games or during timeouts. They widened some seats last year, to make some sections fan friendlier, but there are no more plans to do that.
“I think there’s concern across the country,” Eichorst said. “We feel good where we are, but it would be important for us not to be complacent with that. We will be proactive.”
Some schools are selling alcohol in their stadiums, but that’s not the answer here. I’d like to see NU shake things up and give the students better seats — attract the future. But that’s easier said than done when donations are involved. And would it matter? More students, it seems, have gotten out of the football habit.
What to do? How about win?
No question there has been a residual effect for Nebraska football fans. They follow every move of the Calibraska Camps. But plunking down hard-earned money for a program that has forgotten how to win big? Getting harder to do for many.
My take: The streak won’t survive another disappointing/underachieving football season.
Nebraska fans are No. 1. They’ll do what they can, but they’re only human. They love their sellout streak. How much? I guess we’ll find out.
» That clunky finish takes the shine off Nebraska’s baseball season, but it was still a good one — for finishing second in the Big Ten and making the NCAA regionals. Since when is just making the regionals the Husker standard? Since NU stopped going every year and hired a head coach with no experience. Darin Erstad took big steps this year. The letdown ending shows there are more to take.
» Eichorst did not sound in any hurry to consider selling alcohol in any NU sports venue. “We all know why some folks are introducing that. But we have consecutive sellout streaks in football, volleyball and now basketball. Our events are well-attended. More than that, they’re family-oriented events. And as many people as you attract to the game, it might also detract some, too.”
» I don’t think satellite camps are going to change the world. I think Jim Harbaugh eventually will move on to something else to keep himself busy and drive Nick Saban batty. In the meantime, they’re a good thing for Mike Riley and his staff trying to spread the Nebraska gospel. You don’t need 30 camps a year. But one or two well-placed and well-timed events can help create a spark. And the Calibraska shirts looked cool, too.
» One more and I’m outta here: Actually two more. That is, Muhammad Ali stories from here in Nebraska.
The first comes from Samantha (Porter) Huff, a native of Hastings. Huff told The World-Herald’s Tony Boone that she was 11 when she, her mother and her sister spotted Ali having breakfast alone at a hotel in Louisville in 1996. Huff and her family were in town for the PGA Championship; her father, Jeff Porter (now the head golf pro at Nebraska City’s ArborLinks), was on the PGA board of directors.
Huff stood in line behind two couples to get Ali’s autograph. Not long after the champ had lit the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta, Parkinson’s disease had him struggling to sign his name.
“He was starting to scribble his name on a napkin, then he would crumple it up and throw it away,” Huff said. “He was just so frustrated. Then he just looks at me, puts his arm around me and gives me a kiss. I was beet red. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, no way did that just happen.’ ”
Way. Samantha’s mother had a camera ready to capture the peck on the cheek.
Huff, who works for the Golf Course Builders Association of America in Lincoln, shared the photo on social media last weekend as a tribute to Ali.
» Ali II: This comes from Dr. John Filippi, whose late mother, Mary Ann, was known as the “Dancing Grandma” at Creighton basketball games.
He was in New York after the World Trade Center attack and 9/11. He was there to work as a forensic dentist to help identify victims for their families.
On one November night, he happened to be in a hotel where there was a dinner for Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Celebrities poured into the lobby: Joan Rivers, Tony Bennett, Regis Philbin.
Then came Ali, with a man Filippi identified as Ali’s close friend, Howard Bingham. A doorman Filippi had befriended gave him a heads-up to stand by a certain door. Ali came his way.
As Ali walked by, Filippi said, the champ grabbed a hotel notepad out of Filippi’s hands and scribbled his name on it and handed it back to a stunned Filippi. New York newspaper writers told Filippi, “Doc, you got something real special there. That’s the hardest autograph in New York City.”
The autograph now hangs in a frame in Filippi’s Omaha office. A special memory, indeed.
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