In Nebraska, Football Is More Than a Game
To diehard fans and dedicated players, the Cornhuskers are a way of life: In a rural state with no professional sports teams, all eyes are on Big Red
LINCOLN, NEB. — RED jackets, pants, caps, scarves, glasses, banners, and coolers are converging on the University of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. Some fans have come from the far end of the state, driving eight hours to the stadium, to cheer for four quarters of football, then head home again. They'll make the same trip for home games as long as the season lasts - and Nebraska keeps winning.Longtime fan Lois Failin hopes her son will play for Nebraska. "When Mark was born he weighed 9 lbs., 8 oz.," she says. "The doctor picked him up and said, 'Why you're big enough to play for Nebraska!' And Mark stopped crying right away." Nebraska has been one of the most dominant teams in college football. Every time the 76,000-seat stadium fills, it breaks a record. This homecoming game marks the 178th straight sellout. Many fans arrive early, to take up positions for tailgate parties running for blocks around the stadium before the 1 p.m. kickoff. Thirteen high-school players waiting to tour the athletic center have arrived even earlier. These potential recruits and their parents are ushered into the red-carpeted locker room, where they are invited to touch the equipment and seek out the lockers of former All-Americans and Heisman winners. Staff in the adjoining equipment room assure would-be players that their helmets will be checked and waxed every week, new lines painted before bowl games; and clean underwear will be back in lockers every morning: "We're here to take care of you." Next stop - via the red-carpeted tunnel the players pass through on their way to the stadium - is the shrine to "Husker Power," the glassed-in weight room. Surrounded by state-of-art equipment, strength and conditioning coach Boyd Epley launches into a crisp account of Husker basics. "Football is a game of short bursts," he says, hence the need to develop "powerful, explosive athletes." As he speaks, video images overhead show players jumping, reaching, lifting, 40-yard dashing, and ever increasing individual "performance indexes." "Usually players need to get bigger, stronger. Anyone can be faster," Mr. Epley says. "We think you have some potential to help us win some football games. Maybe the NFL is in your future." The scene shifts from video to live "red-shirts," players who have deferred eligibility for a year in order to train. Matt Shaw "came in at 195, now is 235, on his way to 250," says Epley, as the young Husker squat presses 390 lbs. "He will be a strong tight end for us." By Matt's eighth repetition, the recruits are shifting uneasily in the front row. "You're never sure whether you've scared them off," says Epley, after the tour files out. "But they have to be willing to pay the price. It's hard work. We hope to motivate them." The video presentation in the academic counseling center down the hall has similar elements: Nebraska players make implausible catches, decisive blocks, dazzling open-field runs. But the emphasis is clearly away from a career in the National Football League. "We're proud of progress made on the field," says Associate Director of Academic Programs Dennis Leblanc, "but we're equally proud of accomplishments off the field." In an interview, Director of Athletic and Academic Programs Roger Grooters makes the point starker. "The average length of a pro career is about 3 1/2 years; 50 percent of all the kids that play professional football end up flat broke when they're done, no matter how much money they make; 85 percent are divorced; and the average life expectancy of a pro-football player is 56 years. It's not a good career choice." Nebraska, he says, was the first university to have career counseling for athletes, "to see what they want to do professionally for the rest of their lives." The 30,000 square-foot academic center also provides a computer lab, study carrels, orientation, advising, tutoring, and close monitoring. "We have the most academic All-Americans in the country," says Mr. Grooters. He mentions former linebacker Pat Tyrance, who came to Nebraska with a grade point average of 1.9 and left with a 3.5 and an offer from the Los Angeles Rams and Harvard Medical School. (He chose the Rams.) FOOTBALL revenues finance the annual academic support budget of $425,000, but resources are available to students in all sports. "Our parents forced us to come here because of academics," says track athlete James Cobb II. His teammate, Ken Waller, says he appreciates the academic support, but is glad not to be in football. "I like not being under a microscope," he says. Photos of Academic All-Americans line the wall outside the center. All are football players, but other sports will be added next year, says graduate assistant Trina Kudlacek. One of her assignments is to check attendance at classes. Monitoring targets "freshmen and high-risk students in high-impact sports," she says. High impact? "High budgetary impact" she says. The budgetary impact of high-performance football players is an unspoken element in the discussion. Football brings in $7.5 million in ticket sales, $1 million in television revenues, $350,000 in radio rights, $600,000 in stadium concessions, and $2 million in contributions. Rancher Marty Connealy is president of the Husker Beef Club, which contributes about $300,000 annually. "I would never schedule a bull sale on my ranch during a home game," he says. Six years ago, the club had 250 members; now it has 1,500. At first the club donated calves to the training table, he says. "But there were too many unused cuts. Now we just give money." The cow-to-training-table idea was developed by Bob Devaney, whose 11-year stint as head coach set Nebraska on a winning course. Devaney settles into banter easily, and set a coachly standard for sharp wit. Sportswriters had a more difficult time relating to his successor, Tom Osborne. He had to stop telling jokes, his wife Nancy says, because reporters were mistaking them for fact. Nebraskans recognize the earnest reserve he expresses, as well as a sense of humor signaled only by a crinkle around the eyes or the slightest shift in tone. Meeting with the recruits, just hours before the game, Mr. Osborne barely mentions football. "If you'll meet us halfway, we can pretty much assure you you'll come out of here with a degree," he says. It is the kind of understated performance Osborne is known for. Critics say he "can't win the big one bowl games against top-ranked opponents or, for Nebraskans, the all-important Oklahoma game. But outside, as fans move from tailgates to stadium seats, there are few Osborne naysayers to be found. Jim Wiltgen has come to every home game for 10 years: Osborne "may not win every game, but he's very good for the kids. Kids come first. Winning comes second." Outside the stadium, fans pick up red balloons to release after Nebraska scores the first touchdown. The Reno bookies have given Nebraska a 34-point edge in this game over Kansas State, but when the first touchdown is scored, Nebraska trails. "This isn't funny any more," says one red-clad man, as his face furrows. But in the last two minutes of the game, Husker power prevails, 38-31. "A lot better than if the score had been 31-38," says one fan walking out of the stadium. Back in the media room, the press is not so kind: "Didn't you just dodge a bullet?You were expected to win by 34 points, what happened?" "They're a good team!" says an exasperated Osborne, in what a local sportscaster described as the most emotional remark he has ever made. The players face camera lights with a steady gaze. They look younger than on the field, and somehow more fragile. Their scrapes and bruises show. Outside the lights, defensive tackle John Parrella dismisses questions on Osborne's leadership and winning the big one. "He's the best coach in the world," says the business major. "He wins 90 percent of his games, and I haven't missed a class in I don't know how long because of him."