A canceled fall football season hurts us all, but it'll hurt even more in Nebraska
When the B1G was on the brink of canceling its season Monday, Scott Frost’s quote read like a kid who refused to accept the fact that his parents were grounding him.
“We want to play no matter who it is or where it is,” the Nebraska coach said, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald. “I think we’re prepared to look for other options.”
If Frost was the grounded child, then Sen. Benn Sasse (R-Neb.) was the pushover grandparent who didn’t quite agree with why the kid was being punished. Sasse, a former university president, wrote a letter to B1G presidents urging them to not cancel the football season.
Ultimately, it was unsuccessful. Frost and his team are grounded, and unless Nebraska is willing to forgo a $50 million annual revenue check from the B1G in order to scrap together a 2020 fall schedule, it’ll be a historic football-less fall in Lincoln.
There’s a reason Nebraska, perhaps as much as any other team with a canceled season, kicked and screamed all the way to its room. Why it’s still pursuing all options to play. It’s not just that the program has a sellout streak that dates to the John F. Kennedy era, or that it has some national titles in its trophy cases.
When Tuesday’s news of the B1G’s canceled fall season became a reality, I couldn’t help but think of Nebraska. That’s not a slight to any other B1G program, all of which are dealing with all sorts of angst and frustration. Lord knows fans of all B1G teams are scratching their heads wondering what their fall Saturdays are going to look like. It’s still bizarre to think that there won’t be a packed Big House to see on FOX at noon ET or that we won’t get to see white-outs in Happy Valley or a sea of red in the Horseshoe.
But Nebraska is just different. Let me try to explain why.
I apologize if I sound like a broken record, but before I moved down to Orlando 5 years ago, I spent my entire life living in the Midwest. A little over 2.5 years of that time was spent in Nebraska, where I got my first job out of college. It was my first regular exposure to big-time college football. I say that as a graduate from a B1G university who has childhood memories of going to Northwestern and Illinois games.
What I didn’t realize until I arrived in Kearney, Nebraska, as a 23-year old prep sports reporter was just how important Husker football was. (I quickly learned you simply waste time by saying “Cornhusker.” Some opt for the even quicker term of “‘Skers.” I always went with “Huskers.” We accepted it in our newspaper-style guidelines.) Sure, it’s the cliché stuff. Kids wearing Husker football jerseys in church, fans predicting wins and losses the second the schedule comes out, electric postgame radio call-in shows, etc.
Nebraska isn’t the only place that has those things, of course. But there is certainly something that I always found unique about its appreciation for football.
Nebraska is the only FBS program in a state in which there are no professional sports teams. Sure, there are some dedicated Kansas City Royals fans (my Kearney Hub boss Buck Mahoney is as diehard as they come) and I know people who root for the Kansas City Chiefs or Denver Broncos, among others. At the same time, you’d probably find more people who regularly watch the dominant Husker women’s volleyball team than the NBA (don’t sleep on how devastating losing volleyball will be for Nebraska natives).
There’s no major professional sports team in Lincoln, like there is in Columbus, Minneapolis or Chicago, nor is there a quick drive to a place with a major sports team like Green Bay, Detroit or Indianapolis. Unlike Iowa, which loses at least a portion of its fan base to Iowa State, Nebraska doesn’t even have another football program at the FCS level.
That sellout streak exists because in a state of loyal, passionate, intelligent sports fans, filling up Memorial Stadium on a fall Saturday is the only thing that truly belongs to everyone who claims Nebraska.
It’s not a state divided. It’s a place where roughly 5% of the state’s population is in one place every Saturday (even Beaver Stadium at capacity is a shade under 1% of the Pennsylvania population). When that happens, the only city/town in Nebraska with more people than a full Memorial Stadium is Omaha.
One of the other things I quickly learned after arriving in Nebraska was that if you’re a local newspaper and you’re not running daily stories on Husker football, well, you’re probably doing something wrong. Something outsiders might not know is that if you’re a local publication — daily newspaper, twice-weekly newspaper, radio station, etc. — you get credentialed for home Nebraska football games. It doesn’t matter if you work in York, Kearney, Wood River, Omaha, North Platte or wherever. You spend your fall Saturdays in Lincoln and you cover the game that all of your readers will be talking about.
My first Husker football home game, my former boss (a Nebraska graduate) took me and our other sportswriter, Nathan Hart, to downtown Lincoln roughly 4 hours before kickoff. He wanted us, a pair of Indiana graduates, to experience the pageantry of a Nebraska game day. And so we made our way through the Haymarket and other local bars that were decked out in red before eventually making our way back to the stadium and up to the press box, where dozens of media members from every corner of the state found our seats in anticipation of another year of Nebraska football.
Yes, there’s something about watching tens of thousands of red balloons ascend to the clouds that makes you feel like you’re taking in a different experience. No, I still can’t fully explain how cinnamon rolls and chili became a thing.
Nebraska has its quirks, but those quirks are largely associated with Husker football. It’s something a Wood River native like Frost understands as well as anyone.
“The biggest factor is if we don’t play football, we’re not going to be able to pay for anything until we start making money here again,” Frost said on Monday.
Speaking of money, that’s obviously a major question mark in all of this. College towns without football are going to be devastated. That’s especially true in Nebraska. The Omaha World-Herald shared this nugget that certainly stopped me in my tracks:
The Nebraska Bureau of Business Research in 2014 studied the economic impact Husker athletics had on the local economy, estimating that a seven-game home schedule that year brought in more than $42.9 million — equaling closer to $47 million now adjusted for inflation.
The amazing thing about that number is that it’s not dependent on wins and losses. We’re talking about a program that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016. It’s unfair to just call it loyalty anymore. It’s a way of life that 2 decades of frustration cannot change.
Now some might point at Nebraska and say “who do they think they are by even flirting with the idea of leaving the B1G?” Actually, that’s exactly what Desmond Howard said albeit in some more colorful language. It’s easy to poke fun at the college football program that is chasing a dynasty that’ll never exist in the same way. It’s easy to say “if you don’t like it here, leave.”
What people like Howard don’t fully understand is that it’s not about bowing down to a conference for a paycheck. It’s about resisting the governing body that took away the thing that they hold nearest and dearest to their hearts without their approval. This wasn’t about a team on the brink of a national title getting the rug taken out from under them. This was about a state being told that no matter what they did, the thing that’s so ingrained into their culture won’t exist for them, but it will for others.
Imagine being a Nebraska fan and watching the Big 12 play football this year. I know Husker fans who still hate Texas and Oklahoma more than anything. If the Big 12 continues with its season, fall Saturdays will go from religious experience to a weekly punch to the gut.
Of course Frost wasn’t just going to step up to the microphone and say that he supported a canceled season. Even if the entire Power 5 canceled its season because of COVID-19 concerns, I’d bet that Frost would still be trying to find a loophole to play against anyone in the continental United States with a full college roster. You could tell Frost that he’d be guaranteed to go 0-10 and that not a single one of his games would be televised nationally, and he’d still approach that mission with the intensity of a quarterback running the triple option.
Frost was sent to his room for something he had no control over. His loyalty isn’t to the B1G, and it certainly isn’t to Kevin Warren. Frost’s loyalty is to Nebraska.
The Cornhusker State is in for a unique, brutal fall. More so than any of these recent bowl-less seasons. There are bigger issues going on in the world right now, and everyone made sacrifices that they didn’t foresee when all of this began 5 months ago.
It doesn’t make this reality any less devastating in Nebraska.