On an autumn Saturday in October of 1992, Nebraska had a home football game at Memorial Stadium, a volleyball game at the NU Coliseum and a basketball game at the Bob Devaney Sports Center. Call it the Husker fan version of a trifecta, but a logistical nightmare for Herbie Husker, who was needed, wanted and scheduled to appear at all three events. Let the record show, however, that Herbie could perform that day only for football and basketball.
Sadly, volleyball went Herbie-less because the Husker match went head-to-heat with football, the sport that generates nearly all the revenue to support the other 22 intercollegiate athletic activities Nebraska sponsors.
That's the bad news. The good news is the unfortunate conflict produced a solution that not only solved the Nebraska volleyball mascot problem, but also led to another mascot, thanks to Dr. Barbara Hibner, the late Nebraska womens' associate athletic director who had the vision to help Herbie out with a unique mascot that not only appeals to volleyball, but all young Husker fans who watch him perform across the board.
The Last Year NU Volleyball Didn't Have a Mascot
The student who wore that first mascot uniform to complement Herbie remembers how diligently Hibner worked and how creative she was willing to be just to make sure that Nebraska volleyball never went mascot-less again. The first NU student who slipped inside that first inflatable walk-around mascot remains publicly anonymous to this day. He does not mind explaining, however, how exciting it was to portray an 8-year-old boy wearing red overalls, a white shirt and a baseball cap that tilted sideways when Nebraska hosted its first home volleyball match in 1993.
"The younger kids were fascinated by this character, but the older folks did not really know what to think," recalled our mystery man. "To them, the new mascot was just this inflatable Pillsbury look-alike doughboy. It took a few matches for fans to warm up to the new mascot and once we knew they liked it, our Marketing Department set up a contest, so elementary school kids in Lincoln could come up with a name."
The name became Lil' Red, and a third-year volunteer Husker became the first full-time anonymous student to wear the costume and help develop its personality. He and another full-time student still remember receiving the costume in the mail and opening the red box.
Lil' Red Needed Some Personality to Be Successful
"When we opened it, we just looked at each other and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into," said the student who became the original Lil' Red. "We tried on the suit, and we realized the things that needed to be done if we were ever going to make this character come alive. We knew that we could not just walk around, wave and give fans a high-five. We needed to give Lil' Red a personality, so kids and fans could have some fun."
A new mascot created new challenges. "Loud danceable music became our first big ally," Lil' Red No. 1 said. "If we could hear the music, we tried to react. That first time in uniform, we used hand signals that we still use today, mainly because we have not changed much in the way we communicate with the person that happens to be inside the suit. We got very familiar with how the suit was built so we could operate everything from within and invent new tricks along the way."
After a few volleyball matches and some prime-time television exposure, the popularity of Lil' Red exploded. "Almost every sport within our athletic department was asking if Lil' Red could show up at their event," said the original Lil' Red. Instead of helping Herbie when he couldn't make it to a certain event, students inside the costumes wanted to enable Lil' Red to become Herbie's sidekick at every posible home football, volleyball, men's basketball and women's basketball game.
Herbie and Lil' Red: A Rare College Mascot Duo
After he was introduced in the fall of 1993, many fans thought Lil' Red was going to replace Herbie, but that was never the intent. Now, with two great mascots, Nebraska stands tall with pride because not many universities can make such a claim.
Nearly two decades later, Lil' Red still gets comments about his appearance but once critics see him perform live, they change their minds. "Once they see everything he can do, a lot of people think that he's the greatest mascot they've ever seen," offered up Lil' Red 1, admitting he would hear the digs from fans seeing him for the first time. "At the end of the game, it didn't matter if Nebraska won or lost. Lil' Red had a whole new set of fans. I can still tell how popular he is simply by the number of people who want to get their picture taken with him at the end of each game."
To this day, the original Lil' Red considers himself privileged to have been inside the costumes of both Nebraska mascots. "It's hard to describe what it feels like being Herbie Husker and Lil' Red," he said. "People ask me why I was a mascot, and I give them a general response. I tell them that I lost a bet a long time ago. But the motivation behind it has to be that I'm such a fan but didn't have enough skill level to play any sport at a college varsity level. So this was my way to get closer to all the action."
As Herbie Brought Smiles, Kids Wanted Pictures
There is another reason why he jumped at the chance of being Lil' Red. "The first time I saw Herbie Husker at a football game, I noticed how many kids wanted to have their picture taken with him," he said. "I will never forget the smiles he put on the faces of those young fans just shaking their hand or giving them a high five. It was instant attraction. I decided then I wanted to be a mascot."
With no mascot experience but armed with a great deal of enthusiasm, a brave-hearted student decided to try out for the role. "I put a lot of sugar on my cereal that morning because I showed quite of bit of energy to be an alternate mascot who would assist the main student who was Herbie at that time," he remembered. "As an alternate, I used to go to every game and event that Herbie was at and mimic every action, every move and every pose. I did whatever Herbie did."
The understudy for Herbie got his first big break to perform at women's basketball games, and he capitalized on the opportunity. Every game day became a chance for him to brainstorm ideas and experiment while he was buried deep inside his costume.
Even Split Personality Mascots Spread Good Cheer
By his second year, the fill-in for Herbie attended his first mascot camp and did well enough to be part of the All-America Mascot Team. By his third year, the experiments felt more spontaneous, more natural and more like an extension of the character he wanted Herbie Husker and Lil' Red to become. "I have a split personality," admitted Lil' Red 1. "Once I get in costume, I don't just become that character. I am that character. Part of being a great mascot is making sure that not many people know who's inside the costume. I have family members that do not believe me when I tell them I was Herbie Husker and I was Lil' Red. I guess I was so good keeping a secret that they still refuse to believe me."
For that reason, our mystery man remains behind the curtain instead of in front it. When Dr. Hibner decided 1993 was the right time to introduce Lil' Red to Nebraska, our third-year mascot could not wait to help launch it, and the spirit has never left him. He continues to help mascots and the Nebraska Spirit Squad in different areas of daily operations.
At the End of the Day, It Isn't About Winning
Following years of volunteer work and tours from near and afar, our mystery man loves trading stories with fellow entertainers and helping teach their camps so they can spread the spirit just like he has over the years. "I've put a lot of sweat, blood and even tears inside those costumes but the ultimate self-satisfaction comes from Nebraska fans," he said. "I'll never forget sitting in a hallway, out of costume and waiting for traffic to clear after a three-hour game and then heading home only to hear a little girl walk right by me while singing to herself: Lil' Red, Lil' Red, Lil' Red.
"That's when I knew that little fan did not care if Nebraska won or lost," he said. "For that particular game, Lil' Red's performance was the only thing that seemed to matter."