Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of 10 N-Sider columns that count down Nebraska's journey to become an official member of the Big Ten Conference on July 1, 2011. This column focuses on Marc Boehm, executive associate athletic director who oversees men's and women's basketball. The Countdown to the Big Ten series culminates with an N-Sider on Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.
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Q: While the Countdown to the Big Ten seems like a Countdown to Kickoff for most Nebraska fans, you go to bed with a Countdown to Tipoff burning inside your head. When you close your eyes, do you see Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin tipping it off inside the Devaney Center?
A: Those are all great institutions and traditional basketball powers, but the Big Ten also has Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana, just to name a few more. It's exciting because everything about the Big Ten will be new to our fans - new uniforms, new players, new coaches and most of all, new traditions. This is going to be a very exciting basketball season.
Q: With football grabbing the headlines related to Nebraska's move into the Big Ten, how ironic is it that we're landing in the nation's most heavily fan-supported basketball conference at the same time that we're preparing to move into one of the nation's best basketball practice facilities?
A: It's almost as if the stars are aligning for this program to make a major jump to stardom. We're investing for the future, not only on the facility side, but in every other aspect that will help move the program forward. Joining the Big Ten this year is a great start, and we feel our fans will really be charged up to see how everything takes shape.
Q: When the basketball practice facility becomes the front door to the remodeled Devaney Center, how will it help recruiting and excite fans?
A: I think when people come through that front door of the Hendricks Training Facility, whether you're a recruit or just a general fan of Nebraska Athletics, your initial reaction is going to be: "Wow!" This will be a stunning facility. The minute you walk in, you'll see impressive player areas and coaches' offices. We don't have a lot of tradition, but we have some, and this facility will speak volumes about Nebraska basketball. We want to show everyone out there the commitment this administration is making to basketball. You really have to credit the vision to Tom Osborne, our athletic director. He's been at the forefront of this entire process.
Q: Two years from now, the Nebraska men's and women's programs will be anchor tenants in one of the nation's best basketball arenas. Describe the importance of this two-year transition from the Devaney Center to the new downtown arena.
A: First of all, we have to recognize that the Devaney Center gives us a great home-court advantage, and in these next two years, we will trace back to all of the great moments we've had inside the Devaney Center. We're taking a step back administratively - from our marketing department and HuskerVision - to provide fans the electricity that will complement the team's performance. We're going to celebrate these next two years because we have a great opportunity to send the Devaney Center out on a very high note.
Q: People ask me, so I'll ask you. What's the motivation to get onboard with basketball now? Will fan support these next two years influence seating locations at the new downtown arena?
A: I think it's important to get onboard now for a several reasons. One is to show the Big Ten how well we compete in basketball. A lot of eyes will be on Nebraska, and we want them to see us as a program on the rise. We know we have great basketball fans. Our core season ticketholders love this team. We just need that second wave of fans to come and join them in our first Big Ten season. There's great advantage fans to get onboard now because it gives those who do first priority for seats when we move to the new arena in 2013. If anyone has been waiting for the right time to buy season tickets, that time is now, while the new arena is being built.
Q: At a golf tournament this summer in Columbus, Doc Sadler told 900 fans why we need to start "filling up the Devaney Center" for non-conference games as well as conference games. Why's that so important?
A: First, it's important to get the non-conference games that people want to see, and our coaches have worked extremely hard on that. We think we have a good non-conference schedule this coming season, and we're looking forward to having a few of those games on television that will give us some national exposure. We know there are recruits out there watching those kinds of games, so that's another reason we want our fans to fill up the arena.
We're doing everything possible to create an atmosphere that will excite our fans. Doc and his staff will play anybody. We're very proud to bring in teams with higher RPIs, and I'm convinced this year's schedule will allow us to get in the NCAA if we're on the bubble. We lobbied the Big Ten to get an ACC team at home, and Wake Forest will be coming to Lincoln. Two years from now, when we open the new arena, we'll get another ACC team in here.
Q: What about getting another North Carolina team, such as the Blue Devils or Tar Heels, to play here in 2013? Wouldn't that be a nice way to celebrate a new arena?
A: We actually had a pretty good possibility of playing Duke this year, but things did not work out on their end. But we continue to talk, so anything's possible.
Q: How difficult is it to change culturally ingrained habits?
A: Let's face it. The best cultures are the result of winning. There's never an empty seat in Memorial Stadium, regardless of who we play. People come to experience the atmosphere and the excitement. It's an outing every bit as much as it's a game. When it comes to Nebraska basketball, we don't want people to wait until January or February to feel that excitement. We want them inside the building, so they're part of the new atmosphere we're creating in November and December. The Big Ten is used to playing in front of sellout crowds, at home and on the road. That's why we need to build our own culture of sellouts to go with the ones we'll be facing all season long on the road.
Q: Men's and women's basketball report directly to you. Your staff surveyed season ticket holders for both programs following this past season. What was the feedback, and what's going to change?
A: The feedback was fabulous, all the way across the board. We knew that we needed to fix some things, and the survey validated all of those thoughts. One of the best things we've ever done is reach out to our fans, take their pulse and ask them to share their opinions with us. Our fans are so knowledgeable, and we've taken a lot of their ideas to heart. We've met the last two weeks to create a new atmosphere for men's and women's basketball. We have a game plan that I believe the fans are really going to embrace and enjoy. Bottom line, we're going to change it up and get back to some good, old-fashioned collegiate basketball. It was very evident in the survey that our fans enjoy the band. Our band has agreed to experiment with more songs and find new ones that match up with our traditional songs. We think that's fantastic. Our fans are also going to see more of our Spirit Squad. The most important thing we can do is not interrupt the flow of the game. If we get on a roll, we'll keep it going, script or no script. We'll strike up the band and get more cheerleaders involved and more fans involved. Our goal is make the Devaney Center a very intimidating place to play in our last two years there.
Q: Do you have a benchmark for schools that simplify and electrify the game-day atmosphere like you just described?
A: We've discussed a lot of examples from Kansas in our meetings. Obviously, they have great tradition, but it's always good to get other ideas from other schools, too. We've looked at Wisconsin and others. We're going to do what's best for Nebraska. We have our own ideas that can complement what we've seen in other venues. Fans will really enjoy the changes we're making. We've talked to our sponsors, and they're all on board, willing to change to create the environment we want. So hats off to all of them.
Q: Two years ago, Connie Yori was the consensus National Coach of the Year. Why is she the right person at the right time for a program looking to capitalize on these exciting new practice and game facilities?
A: The first thing about Connie Yori is she does things the right way. By doing things right in her first seven years, that magical season resulted two years ago. When you don't cut corners, you start to build a program. Connie Yori has built a program. This past season will probably be one of her best recruiting efforts ever because 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds now understand Nebraska basketball from that magical season, which proved we're not just a Midwest school anymore. We're a national school, and that's a tremendous accomplishment.
Q: Doc Sadler has a reputation as one of the nation's best defensive coaches. How will he sell his program in a league that has led the nation in basketball attendance for 37 consecutive years?
A: Since I can remember, the Big Ten has been known for its toughness and its physicality in basketball. When you really boil it down to the last few years, it's the skill level that the Big Ten has embraced that makes that toughness even tougher. Look at Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State. They're all tough, but they're all also highly skilled. The majority of the Big Ten teams play great defense. Doc's teams play great defense, so Nebraska really complements the Big Ten style. I know some who can even envision a Nebraska-Wisconsin game turning into a 32-31 slugfest. I think our fans are excited and proud to play in a traditionally powerful basketball conference. Just look at the Final Fours over the years. You'll find that that the Big Ten has been well represented, and we're very excited to be a part of that.
Q: Let's expound on the new arena itself. Isn't it modeled somewhat after the $238 million, 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center that just opened a year ago in downtown Louisville?
A: We did visit the Yum Center in Louisville. It is a spectacular arena. Our new arena will not be specifically modeled after that, but what we really was the bowl of the arena. Our new arena is going to have red seats, and we think that's just fantastic. It'll look great on TV, but even greater if you got ahead of the game and bought season tickets.
Q: What will be the coolest features in this new downtown arena and what excites you most about moving there in 2013?
A: The coolest feature is, no matter where you're sitting, you have a great seat. The angles, sightlines and views of the court put fans right on top of the action. That is, by far, the coolest thing that our fans will enjoy. Every seat in the arena will be 21 or 22 inches wide. Most seats, even in new arenas, are only 20 inches, so fans will have plenty of comfort sitting in any of our 16,000 seats. Another stunning feature is all the glass. Some will be able to see the State Capitol building from their seats. I envision the arena to be intimate and family friendly. It will appeal to everyone. Students will have 800 center-court "seats" that will not impede anyone's sight line, even though the students will be able to stand up the entire game. Students also will be stationed behind each basket and will be pivotal in creating an atmosphere like you've never seen before in Lincoln. It's the same type of student involvement you see at Michigan and Michigan State, two schools we consulted, plus Duke and Oregon, two more schools that have created similar sections for students.
Q: Bill Hancock, the first executive director of the Men's Final Four, told us he has no doubt that Doc will lead Nebraska to its first-ever NCAA Tournament win. I'm sure you and Athletic Director Tom Osborne feel the same way because Doc's contract was enriched and extended last March. What kind of a game-changer will it be when Nebraska gets that NCAA monkey off its basketball back?
A: The game-changer will be that this state is really like no other state when everyone gets behind their team. When that happens, we truly, truly believe that basketball will become something that will be viewed as people "having to have" that ticket. We know how this state has embraced volleyball and baseball. It's all about everyone coming together and making it "the thing" to do. There's nothing like statewide passion and the pride and the hope that comes with that passion. I believe you'll see this state take to basketball like you would never imagine. The sky's the limit because college basketball is one of the greatest sports to watch, to experience and to feel. You're right there on the court, and Nebraskans are just ready to burst with pride and be part of that action. We truly believe that Doc and his staff's work ethic and the character they're showing while building his program will enable our men's team to catch fire like Connie's program did. That's why we encourage everyone to sign up now and get a seat because when this program catches fire down the line, it'll be one of the toughest tickets in town.