'Through these gates': Nebraska season-ticket holders prepared to support Huskers, city of Lincoln even with Memorial Stadium off limits
Ron Jensen was planning to celebrate a special anniversary this year. The decades-long Nebraska fan and season-ticket holder was going to make the near 200-mile journey from his home in Gothenburg, Neb. to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday, September 12 with the Huskers scheduled to play Central Michigan in the second week of the season.
That specific date would’ve marked the 50-year anniversary of when Jensen first attended a Nebraska home football with season tickets in hand.
“I first got my season tickets at Nebraska in 1970, so this year would have marked 50 straight years of not missing a single home football game,” Jensen told Saturday Tradition.
What a magical year for Jensen to make the purchase. The Huskers finished the season 11-0-1 in 1970, with the lone tie coming against No. 3 USC on the road. The following year, Nebraska was a perfect 13-0 and was the top-ranked team in the country.
In the first 18 games he attended at Memorial Stadium as a season-ticket holder, Jensen never saw the Huskers lose. The first defeat in Lincoln didn’t come until 1972, when Nebraska lost a 17-14 contest to No. 4 Oklahoma.
You can understand why Jensen never once loosened his grip on the season tickets after that.
Five decades have passed since the then-23-year-old Husker fan opened his wallet and handed over a few bucks for those tickets. For 50 years, Jensen has dedicated a half-dozen autumn Saturdays to watching Nebraska football in person.
Jensen has watched 335 consecutive home games inside one of the most revered venues in college football. He’s spent so much time at One Memorial Stadium Drive in Lincoln he could register the address as a second residence.
Because of a global pandemic — a concern that forced the B1G to initially postpone the season before reinstating a fall schedule — the conference made the decision to prohibit fans from attending any games this season. Jensen won’t be able to properly celebrate the golden anniversary of being a season-ticket holder. Instead, the Huskers patriot is thinking of other ways to take in those Saturday afternoon games.
“The plan is definitely to try and have at least a small group of close friends and family over to watch the games, preferably outside — not so sure about the December games,” Jensen said. “Normally we host big football parties every year for road games. Nonetheless, I will be wearing my red Husker gear on Saturdays and raising the big ‘N’ flag in our yard. There is no place quite like Nebraska on a fall Saturday.”
Nebraska’s 2020 season is going to look much different than anyone was anticipating. Jensen says that he’s disappointed by the fact that the B1G made the decision to prohibit fans from attending games this season, leaving all 14 of the conference’s stadium vacant this fall.
He’s not the only one who feels that way.
September 16 was a day of mixed emotions for Nebraska fans and season-ticket holders.
On that Wednesday morning — four days after Ron Jensen would’ve been celebrating the 50-year anniversary of his season tickets — the B1G announced that the decision to postpone the fall football season had been reversed and the league would be moving forward with a fall schedule. Excitement swept across the entire state of Nebraska.
That initial thrill to welcome football back to the fall was soon tempered. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour was the designated wet blanket of the morning, delivering the bad news regarding attendance.
“From the standpoint of the resolution that the [Council of Presidents/Chancellors] approved, we are not going to permit fans in general,” Barbour said. “We are looking to see what we can do on a campus-by-campus basis to accommodate the families of our student-athletes, both home and away, as well as the families of staff. But, as a conference, we’ve made a decision — no public sale of tickets.”
As quickly as excitement consumed the state, a wave of disappointment splashed onto its doorstep.
“I wasn’t surprised, actually. But at the same time I was angry because Husker football Saturdays are what myself, family and friends looked forward to our entire lives,” said Jason Wacker, who’s family has owned season tickets for over 25 years. “Husker football runs in my blood. To have that taken away is disappointing.”
Dan Hightower, who purchased his season tickets in 2015, says the B1G shouldn’t have been the one to make the decision regarding attendance.
“We were disappointed. We felt it should have been a local health decision,” Hightower said. “It seems like something that Nebraska could have done safely and given the program an opportunity to make some revenue. We would have also enjoyed being able to support the team in person.”
Other conferences are finding ways to make fan attendance work, at least early in this unique season. Capacities are limited and most tailgating and other pre-game activities have been wiped out by state, local or even university officials. Fans aren’t enjoying the same Saturday traditions they’ve grown to love, but universities have demonstrated the ability to create safe and accommodating environments.
Power 5 conferences like the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are leaving those decisions up to each state or school. Many are permitting between 20-30% capacity at home games this season. On Oct. 3, Georgia housed over 20,000 fans for a showdown against Auburn.
No, it’s not an ideal scenario, but it’s something. And given the chance to attend Nebraska games this fall, many of those season-ticket holders say they’d be willing to enter through the gates at Memorial Stadium.
“Absolutely! Although I don’t think I’ll be in that first group selected,” Wacker said. “But if I have an opportunity, I’m driving the three hours. No doubt about it.”
Bryan Murray, who’s held season tickets since 1994, would also feel comfortable attending a game this fall.
“Absolutely, I will be in the stadium,” Murray said. “There is more than enough room to spread out in an outdoor venue, and would not hesitate to attend any and all home games. If I can eat inside a restaurant, I should be able to go to an outdoor football game.”
Unfortunately for passionate Husker supporters — and fans from the 13 other schools — the B1G doesn’t quite see it that way.
Memorial Stadium is a cathedral in college football. The sanctuary’s capacity hasn’t always been set at 90,000, but the loyal parishioners have occupied the seats every Saturday for the last 58 years.
You don’t have to be a regular Nebraska football consumer to understand that attending a Huskers home game in the fall is religious experience. One number, 375, says it all.
That’s the number of consecutive home games that have been sold out at Memorial Stadium. It dates back to a showdown with Missouri on Nov. 3, 1962. John F. Kennedy was president and gas was a meager $0.31 per gallon. The good ol’ days, right?
Nebraska lost that game to Missouri 16-7, but it’s not the final score that anyone remembers from that afternoon. That cold November day in Lincoln was the start of a tradition unlike any other (sorry, Jim Nantz). Husker home football games and sellout crowds go together like peanut butter and jelly, or cinnamon rolls and chili — seriously, ask a Nebraskan how they feel about that culinary combination.
But for the first time in 58 years, Memorial Stadium will sit empty on a Saturday in the fall. The individuals who typically comprise the “Sea of Red” are still figuring out ways to enjoy their weekends when it doesn’t include a trip to Lincoln.
“The only plans we have is getting together with a group of friends for watch parties at home. Tailgating will be wiped away by the city ordinances most likely, and not sure if being so close to the action but not allowed in would tear me up worse than just being at home,” Bryan Murray said. “I have not missed a home game since 2004, so this has been a difficult situation to accept. I always held out hope despite the cancellation that football would be played in October. I’m glad I was right on that one.”
Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos has already said that the B1G’s decision will not impact the program’s sellout streak. Because there are no tickets to be sold, the venue cannot be sold out. An asterisk will be slapped on the 2020 season, preserving the number of sellouts at 375 before picking up again in 2021.
It’s not just the streak that was in jeopardy of being crushed, though. Businesses around Lincoln depend heavily on those seven or eight Saturdays in the fall. Without those tens of thousands of individuals invading the city, local shops and restaurants stand to suffer an even greater financial hit than they’ve already taken.
Tania Moore, a Husker fan living in rival territory, plans to chip in even while watching games from home in Iowa.
“When the season was postponed, I wanted to help Lincoln businesses that are losing customers this fall,” said Moore, a four-year season-ticket holder. “Even with a partial season back on, the refusal to allow fans is devastating to the local small businesses. So each Saturday of the season, I’m ordering gift cards from Lincoln businesses.”
Erik Andry, a season-ticket holder for the last three years, echoed a similar sentiment.
“My friend group is in a pickle over what to do — watch at home with friends or try to get to Lincoln and spend some money and help those business out,” Andry said. “Sounds a little hypocritical but driving an hour to stand in the stadium in the cold vs. driving an hour to stand in a tent and watch on TV with a mask on in the cold aren’t the same thing. But the reason we would do that is to help businesses.”
Plenty has changed with Nebraska football over the last six decades.
The patented “blackshirt” defense that used to be the pride of Lincoln left town awhile ago. Option football is a thing of the past. Since Tom Osborne called it a career in 1997 after stomping out a path on the sidelines for 25 seasons, the Huskers have been through five head coaches. It’s part of the ebbs and flows that come with college football.
One thing has remained constant: the passion Nebraska has for Husker football is as relevant now as it’s ever been during the 58-year sellout streak. Because of that, Memorial Stadium is still considered one of the premier destinations in college football.
A Saturday inside Memorial Stadium is an experience that can’t be replaced.
“We will most miss being able to support the team in person,” Dan Hightower said. “We will also miss the game day experience of the tunnel walk, chatting with other fans and enjoying the sights and sounds of college football.”
Some have come to grips with the B1G’s decision to prohibit fan attendance this year. During such uncertain times, there’s an understanding to the league’s decision, and how it hopes to eliminate as many risks to the public, and to the players, coaches and staff as possible.
Jason Wacker, still disappointed by the decision, won’t let it ruin his weekends while watching the Huskers.
“We’ve got two TV’s in our basement for a reason,” he said. “Nebraska football will be on each Saturday this fall and I can’t wait.”
That’s an approach that many Nebraskans have adopted. As much as Husker fans love spending four hours inside Memorial Stadium on those seven or eight Saturdays in the fall, they love their team even more. Watching on television is better than not watching at all.
But if the B1G does decide to reverse its decision and open the gates to its venues this fall, there will be a familiar face back inside Memorial Stadium.
“Absolutely!” Ron Jensen exclaims when asked if he’d be willing to attend a Nebraska football game this fall.
“What is Nebraska football without it’s fanbase? There’s a reason the sign at Memorial Stadium reads, ‘Through these gates pass the greatest fans in all of college football.'”