Transformative Leap: Spectators to Fanatics
Randy York’s N-Sider
fa·nat·ic fəˈnatik/ noun: a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal
Yes, Sunday was a watershed moment for Nebraska Basketball for two reasons – 1) the Husker women beat Iowa for the Big Ten Tournament Championship in Indianapolis, marking the program’s first postseason tournament title in school history; and 2) the Husker men beat Wisconsin in what most would agree was the most sustainable fanatic-like atmosphere in Season One at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Before anyone pounces on fanatic, let’s define the word... a certain passion, craving or zeal. We all know this great state favors an oval-shaped ball with tapered ends. That ball has a little geometric point that has become almost a statewide symbol. At the very least, football is Nebraska’s exclamation point. The Huskers have won more Division I games in the last 50 years than any other American institution, and with a 91,000-seat stadium, Nebraska also is the nation’s only school to sell out every football game for more than 50 years.
However you measure it, Nebraska has achieved its athletic reputation because Husker fans are, in fact, football fanatics. Why? Because they truly are filled with an excessive and single-minded zeal for football. For the basketball version of fanatic, think Kentucky and Kansas.
With that backdrop, let’s put into perspective what happened Sunday when Nebraska overtook No. 9 Wisconsin down the stretch inside Pinnacle Bank Arena. I wanted someone to measure, compare and contrast the overall experience that viewers saw on national television. I wanted an N-Side look at PBA, a.k.a. The Vault, where the Huskers went 15-1 in its inaugural season. The only home-court blemish was a 71-70 loss to Big Ten champion Michigan.
Monday, I congratulated Ethan Rowley, Director of Fan Experience for Nebraska men’s basketball, for coordinating a jet-engine-like experience with HuskerVision, the Pep Band and Cheer Squad that was, in my opinion, second to none. Then I asked Rowley to help me frame the historical context of a No-Sit Sunday that I thought might become a segregated UNL student-only experience, not a non-stop 15,998 Big Red fan-fest.
“It was a crazy night. It was so loud inside that we couldn’t hear each other on our headsets for almost 10 minutes straight,” Rowley told me. “Our fans responded to the challenge. I think they created a new image for themselves.”
In Rowley’s mind, Season One inside Pinnacle Bank Arena has been a progression that grows incrementally with the drama on the floor and the stakes that winning 10 of your last 12 conference games creates. With a No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament on the line and a legitimate shot at the Huskers’ first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years in sight, Nebraska changed the paradigm of its fan base on Sunday night.
According to Rowley, in the last four months, Nebrasketball spectators have become fans and on Sunday night, in PBA’s pinnacle game to cap Season One, Husker fans have a full-case example of making the ultimate transformation to basketball fanatics.
Why’s that so important? Because Nebraska now has a true benchmark of how a capacity crowd can make a transformative leap from spectators to fans to fanatics. And that’s a good thing because now, more than ever, Husker fans understand the kind of crowd that can have a meaningful impact on the game’s outcome. Whether that number can positively be worth 3, 5, 7 or 9 points, or more or less, probably depends on the level of fanaticism.
Let’s be honest. Nebraska is generally known as a basketball school that cheers the good plays or the big moments. Sunday, Big Red fans went way beyond that reputation, choosing to stand on their feet constantly and rearrange their vocal chords to show their level of emotional investment. Watching Sunday’s drama unfold, no one was more stunned than I was.
Maybe it was the women’s winning the Big Ten Tournament Championship that set the tone for the day. Maybe it was big crowds gathering hours before opening tip. Or maybe it was the 70-degree temperatures that pumped sunshine into fans’ hearts and poured passion into their minds. Actually, I think it digs deeper than all of that put together. It goes to the very core of a head coach, his team, staff and fans coming together to deliver something special years before anyone outside of Nebraska thought possible.
Forty-five minutes after the game was over, the father of one of Wisconsin’s starters was back at his West Haymarket Hotel and shared his thoughts with a Nebraska season ticketholder from Omaha. “My ears are still ringing,” he told Steve Sinclair. “That’s the loudest crowd I’ve ever heard. I love your coach. I love his passion. It transfers to the crowd."
As I watched Nebraska battle, overtake and then defeat a deserving Top Ten team that played equally admirably on the road, all I could think of was Bon Jovi giving Nebraska permission to use one of his classic songs for Season One’s pregame warm-ups. You would have thought that song was created to accommodate the video that HuskerVision packaged with it. Bon Jovi’s performance at Pinnacle Bank Arena last fall was an ironic twist to what has become a historic season because he helped set the tone for Nebraska’s winter. This is …Our Time is one magical metaphor for Nebrasketball.
The Huskers have been waiting for a pivotal/pinnacle moment for 16 years, and now this really is our time when we can stand up and shout and mean every single bit of it. Sunday, that opportunity presented itself and doubled its pleasure and doubled the fun.
How cool was it when we all could watch Nebrasketball’s No. 16-ranked women’s team beat Iowa in the Big Ten Conference Championship in Indianapolis on national television, and a few hours later, watch the Husker men upset the Badgers on the same network? What a conference…what a country.
Cool became cooler when Connie Yori’s players, coaches and staff arrived in Lincoln in time to bus over to Pinnacle Bank Arena, so they could be introduced during the first half of the men’s game. It’s like a fairytale when 2014 Big Ten Player of the Year Jordon Hooper can hold up the Big Ten Championship trophy, crease a smile from from one ear to the other and hear a 16,000-voice roar of approval for everyone around her.
Yori took full advantage of her players getting an up-close and personal view of an arena full of Nebrasketball fanatics. A bit surprised herself by the passion and the sheer volume of noise, Yori could show her players firsthand what they could experience if they win their first two NCAA Tournament games and earn the right to return to Pinnacle Bank Arena for a regional that could send them on to the Final Four.
If an opportunity like that should indeed become reality, I only hope that Rowley repeats two good-luck charms from Sunday’s experience: 1) ask Bo Pelini to make sure he’s in the building because he might have been the only fan in the arena who never did sit down, even during timeouts; and 2) ask Bo to bring Ndamukong Suh with him, so Suhhhhhhhh can blast those red Valentino’s tee-shirts into the lower levels as well as the upper-upper levels.
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