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Nebraska Fans Can’t Wait to Tell Their New Coach: ‘I’m a BOliever!’
We all knew April 19th would arrive someday, but who would have guessed that some Nebraska fans would have to budget part of their $600 tax rebate to pay 10 times more than the face value on a ticket to see the Huskers’ annual Red-White Spring Game?
Such passion has gotten all kinds of national attention, especially when it’s for a game that became a sellout almost two weeks before kickoff. But that’s okay. Tell the 80,000 Husker fans who will file into Memorial Stadium Saturday that this “scrimmage” doesn’t mean anything.
It is, after all, the first sellout Spring Game crowd in the history of Nebraska football. It is also probably the first major sellout spring game crowd in the history of college football. An overflow crowd of 92,138 attended Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa last spring, and the Crimson Tide started turning people away in the first half. But here’s the rub – How can you claim a sellout crowd when you didn’t sell any tickets?
Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game promises even more history because it’s the public coronation for the Bo Pelini Era. For the first time in front of many more sellouts to come, Bo will be operating as Nebraska’s permanent head coach.
Talk about a typical game-day atmosphere. The traffic will be the same. The crowd will be pretty much the same. So will the band, the cheerleaders, the public address announcer (Patrick Combs) and any other hoopla you can imagine. The only catch is, who won’t you root for? There are no villains in this event. Thankfully, there is no doubt about the day’s biggest hero. Inside and outside the stadium, t-shirts will promote Nebraska’s hottest product:
“Bo Knows Nebraska”
“Bo Knows Defense”
“I’m a BOliever”
“Throw the BOnes” – the Blackshirt graphic – and my new favorite:
“My BOfriend’s Back”
And we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t acknowledge that this game will not appear on Pelini’s win-loss record. That doesn’t mean, however, that the contest is not emotionally significant because it’s his re-introduction to thousands of Nebraska fans who chanted “We want Bo! We want Bo!” in 2003 when the then interim head coach led the Huskers to a 17-3 win over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl.
Four years and four months later, Big Red faithful get another chance to show their love and appreciation because, finally, they have Bo cornered in their favorite public place. There’s only one problem. You’ll have to wait until halftime to shake down the thunder from the sky. That’s when Bo will be introduced jointly with Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills Keith Zimmer and former Nebraska linebacker and current Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Demorrio Williams. All three will lead approximately 10,000 youth in a drug-free pledge.
Bo wouldn’t think of being mentioned when the Huskers explode through the Tunnel Walk before kickoff on the heels of “Hail Varsity.” That honor belongs to the sentinels who will be standing in front of the gate that opens onto the field – senior airman Dustin Johnson and staff sergeant Lindsey Yardley.
If Bo seems like an apple that doesn’t fall far from his athletic director’s tree, it’s only because his theme is, was and always will be team before individual and integrity above all else. That’s why you will not get a singularly-focused introduction for your long-awaited, new head football coach on Saturday. And why Tom Osborne also will be with Zimmer to present the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team before heading to his suite, where he will watch the game every bit as intently as the coaches and players on the field.
In this new era of Nebraska football, the culture is being rebuilt on Osborne’s patented trifecta, which just happens to mesh with Pelini’s: loyalty, teamwork and humility.
Sorry if you don’t have a ticket and wonder why the Spring Game isn’t being televised. Everyone was forewarned, and now, if you really, truly must see this scrimmage, come on down. The only screens in the country that will show it – live or taped – are at Husker Nation Pavilion, just northeast of the stadium. Admission is free for everyone outside, and it’s going to be a beeeeauuuutiful day in Lincoln.
For those who will listen to Greg Sharpe, Adrian Fiala and Matt Davison across the country and around the world on Huskers.com, here are the day’s three main storylines:
1. There will be competition on the field like we haven’t seen in years.
2. The game will be built around fun that includes a last-minute, creative twist that pits two of Nebraska’s most prominent donors on opposite sidelines and
3. Unity has returned to a fractured Husker Nation of players, coaches, fans and families of the real heroes on Saturday – Nebraska troops deployed overseas.
Let’s tackle these three basic storylines one-by-one:
Don’t expect another lopsided outcome. “I think this will be a competitive Spring Game,” Osborne said Thursday, acknowledging that the game’s format over the last four years put the best players on one side and the down-the-liners on the other side.
“It’s been a deal where you can showcase the best players, and it wasn’t going to be a contest,” Osborne said. “This will be a contest, and that’s good because in a competitive situation, you can really evaluate the players a lot better than you can when they’re going against people who are vastly superior.”
Pelini made sure that didn’t happen. Tuesday, he let the Red-White captains hold a draft for the game, similar to what he and his brothers used while growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. In other words, you pick someone, then I will, and after everyone is on a team, we’ll do battle to see which one is better.
Quarterback Joe Ganz and linebacker Phillip Dillard selected the Red team. Wide receiver Todd Peterson and defensive end Barry Turner were supposed to select the White team, but secondary coach Marvin Sanders had to step in and help Peterson because Turner was still working out.
“We feel the game should be competitive,” Pelini said. “The two teams are split pretty much down the middle. It came out the right way.”
Pelini has been thinking for weeks what he could do differently to help his first team have a unique Spring Game experience. Then it hit him – Bring aboard Howard Hawks and David Sokol, two of Nebraska’s most prominent donors and let them use their own powerful personalities and creative bent for the benefit of each team.
Hawks and Sokol have pulled off their share of extraordinary business deals, but none touch their heart like being designated an honorary coach for the Red-White game.
“Howard and I are friends, and this is a huge honor for both of us,” Sokol said Thursday by phone. “Nebraska is an icon of our state. We all deal with parochial interests, but Nebraska football is one thing our entire state can get behind. It’s always been considered a huge asset – from an emotional standpoint, if nothing else.”
Both honorary coaches are graduates of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Hawks’ name is on Nebraska’s indoor practice facility and the baseball field. He is a Regent, a business leader, a civic champion deeply committed to education, a philanthropist and now honorary coach for Nebraska’s 2008 White team. He is the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Tenaska, Inc., an Omaha-based energy company and the 16th largest privately held company in the United States.
Sokol, the honorary coach of the Red team, once hosted a retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyo., for former Nebraska Head Coach Frank Solich and his staff, which included Pelini and five other current members of the Husker coaching staff. He is the chairman of Mid-American Energy Holdings Co., an Omaha-owned and Des Moines-based electricity company. He is charting the future acquisitions of Mid-American, a division of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Here’s how each views his respective challenge:
“I wanted to have Shawn Watson on my team because Sokol is apparently going for defense. Since Shawn and (defensive coordinator) Carl Pelini are going to be involved in coaching both teams, I’ve decided to bring in Jake Meyers as a consultant. He’s an 11-year-old who likes to come over to my skybox and draw up plays.
“We can’t call plays, so I better work on a pre-game speech. Don’t tell Sokol, but I’m going to remind my players that this will be the only time we will ever be on this team together, so we better treat it like it’s a national championship . . . our last game. Actually, the focus is going to be on getting positioned for next fall, and the way to do that, individually and as a team, is to just go out there and dominate. We need to turn up the crank and whup the other guy across the line – start having fun again, but have fun with a lot of intensity and some purpose.
“Frankly, I just want the Nebraska program to get back to where we’ve been for decades – an elite program that the whole state can get excited about. Howard and I enjoy being able to do anything that can help Coach Pelini and Coach Osborne. We’re having fun kidding each other about coaching in this game. I told Howard I’m going to defer to his age and let his team win. I also told him our defense is so good, his team better practice the Fumble-rooskie because it might be their only successful play. We’re going to have some fun Saturday.”
The fun includes the postgame meal. The winning team will eat steak for dinner. The losing team will get hot dogs. Among man-hungry players, those steaks are important stakes, but not nearly as important as a certain Oklahoma-Nebraska game one year that offered stone crabs and the Orange Bowl for the winners and tacos and the Sun Bowl for the losers. If you don’t ask about a last-minute flea-flicker, we won’t mention which team ended up in El Paso.
Nebraska players know it. The new coaching staff knows it. Fans know it. Even Tom Osborne knows it.
“I do think there’s a renewed sense of optimism and little bit more of a renewed sense of unity within the state,” Nebraska’s athletic director said Thursday. “We became sort of fractured and fragmented last year, and that isn’t good. In a state of 1.7 million people, you don’t want to be going in different directions.
“So I think it’s a positive sign when you can sell out your spring game a couple weeks before you play it. Bo has put together a good staff, and they’re all excited about working with him. I’ve seen a new sense of confidence among the players, too – maybe even a new sense of commitment.
“But that all aside, you have to remember that this is still sort of a honeymoon period. When a new president is elected, when a new president of a university comes in, there’s always a period of time where everybody is excited. But the proof will be in what happens next fall and the next few years.
“I’m generally optimistic, but you know, human nature is what it is. People want results very quickly, and they want really excellent results. But nothing is quick, and nothing is easy, and nothing is automatic in this business.”