Dr. Larry Gerlach, a respected professor of history at the University of Utah, has a ritual he goes through every Saturday during the football season.
He dons a Nebraska football jersey, red if the Cornhuskers are playing at home, white if they're on the road. Then he sits down and drinks his orange juice out of a special "Orange Bowl" glass. Later he has his coffee out of Nebraska red mug if the Huskers are at home or the white one if they're on the road. ("On occasion my wife has been known to make a terrible mistake and not give me my Nebraska coffee cup. And almost invariably the game doesn't go right that day," says Gerlach). Then he'll look for Nebraska's game somewhere on cable TV. If it's not being broadcast, he's been known to fly to Denver so he can watch the game - in the Denver airport.Such is the life of born-and-bred Nebraska fans.
You can talk about your Penn States, Oklahomas, and Alabamas, but there isn't another place like Nebraska.
For one thing there's nothing else in the state to compete with. The state is slightly larger than Utah, but Utah has four major colleges to choose from plus an NBA team.
"It's the only show in town," says Nebraska sports information director Tom Simons. "There's no competition, there's no pro team. And there's been heavy success on top of it over the years.
And how. Consider the following:
- With 26 straight winning seasons, the Cornhuskers can break the national record for most consecutive winning seasons this year. It's almost a given that they will.
- For 18 straight years Nebraska has finished in the top 10 of at least one of the major polls.
- The Cornhuskers have sold out an NCAA record 155 straight games, which may not seem like that many until you consider the streak dates clear back to 1962.
"Since it's the only major athletic endeavor in the state, everybody's part of the program," said Gerlach, who was born and raised in Lincoln. "There is a community cohesion there you don't find other places. Here, we're split so many ways."
Dave Blackwell, a local sportscaster on KISN-AM radio, worked in Nebraska for seven years, doing the color for the largest radio station in Omaha (there used to be four stations originating each game - now there's one).
"The thing I remember is the great devotion of the fans," he said. "The followers are fanatics, but they're not derisive like other fans. The rivalry with Oklahoma is real healthy. It really epitomizes what college football is all about."
Blackwell tells the story of a man with seats on the 50-yard-line who had a heart attack during a Nebraska football game. As the paramedics carried the man away, a fellow from another section called to the worried wife and asked, "Ma'am if he doesn't make it, can I have your seats?
The story may be apocryphal but it points out how valuable a Nebraska season ticket is.
Simons says there is a long waiting list for season tickets and very few turn over from year to year.
"Sometimes in divorce cases it's part of the settlement and when there's a death, tickets go in the will. Some of the conflicts over tickets end up in court," says Simons.
Years ago, Gerlach devoted a whole room in his house to Nebraska, but isn't able to any more due to the demands of a growing family. He still keeps all the memorabilia, however.
When he can't find the game on the tube or can't afford to fly to Denver, Gerlach will try to catch Nebraska on the radio. He thought he had a sure thing a year ago when Utah State played there. But last year the Aggie games weren't broadcast in Salt Lake City. "I thought I was going to have a stroke," said Gerlach. Today he can find the game on KTKK (AM-630) radio.
Being the only major college in the state makes a difference for Nebraska. The top players in the state naturally go to the state school. This year's 97-man roster shows more than half (50) hailing from Nebraska. And nearly half of the starting lineup consists of Nebraska players.
"If you grow up in Nebraska, it's your duty to play for Nebraska," says Blackwell. "People are still upset about (Omaha native) Gale Sayers going to Kansas."
While Utah-grown players spread themselves among three Division I-A schools and a Division I-AA school and a Division II school, Nebraska's only competition comes from Nebraska-Omaha, a Division II school and Nebraska-Wesleyan, a Division III school.
Kids who play eight-man football in western Nebraska some 400 miles away, dream of someday playing for Nebraska and no one else. Many Nebraska kids walk on if they can't get a scholarship.
A game in Lincoln is different from your ordinary college football game. Utah State fans making their first visit to Lincoln last year found that out.
Fans, all dressed in red and white, start arriving at the game a good three hours before kickoff. An hour before the game, the stadium is already half full. The rest are probably just outside the stadium reveling in tailgate parties.
Once the game begins you are struck by how polite the fans are. Of course they are fanatical about cheering for their own side. But when the opposing team makes a good play, they'll applaud, much like an audience watching a good stage play. And they don't start streaming for the exits at the end of the third quarter even if the score is 60-0. After the game, many fans line the tunnel where the opponents run through, not to yell catcalls, but to applaud them. Of course it's easier to applaud an opponent who has just been beaten badly.
A friend of Blackwell's, Chuck Graham, who had 50-yard-line seats, got very sick one time. People he didn't even know would call to see how he was feeling. That's nice you might think, but Graham claims the real reason was that people were more concerned about getting his seats once he passed on.
Graham once told Blackwell, "I go through life and my only stamp is that I had Nebraska season tickets."
It's a stamp many Nebraska fans are proud to have. After all, there is only one Nebraska.