‘Love of game, love of Nebraska’ keeps Memorial Stadium seats full for 300 straight gamesBy Eric Olson, AP
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Nebraska to celebrate 300th straight sellout
LINCOLN, Neb. — Rod Hansen was at Memorial Stadium when Bob Devaney coached his first football game at Nebraska in 1962.
He was there to watch Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch, and he saw Tom Osborne finish his coaching career with three national titles in four years in the 1990s.
The 71-year-old Hansen watched Nebraska’s winning tradition crumble under Bill Callahan, and he’s been there to see Bo Pelini try to rebuild it.
In all kinds of weather, Hansen has been at the venerable stadium for every game of an NCAA-record sellout streak that will hit 300 when the Cornhuskers play Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.
“When I had the opportunity to buy season tickets, I jumped on it,” said Hansen, who secured his treasured ducats in 1965 and makes the drive to Lincoln from his home in Omaha. “It’s just a good time. There were a lot of great teams, a lot of great memories. It’s just a love for the game and a love for Nebraska.”
In the NFL, the Washington Redskins have sold out every home game since 1966. That’s 328 regular-season games, 341 including playoffs. The Boston Red Sox started a streak in 2003 that’s destined to number 549 games by the end of the regular season.
In the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers sold out 744 in a row from 1977-95. In the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche packed the house 487 times from 1995-2006.
On the calendar, Nebraska’s streak has outlasted them all.
Notre Dame ranks second to Nebraska in major-college football sellouts. The Irish last week sold out for the 207th straight time since 1973.
Nebraska fans were starved for a winner when Devaney arrived from Wyoming in 1962. The Huskers had not posted a winning season since 1954 and had won just 15 games in the previous five seasons under Bill Jennings, who famously said a year before his firing, “We can’t feed the ego of the state of Nebraska with a football team.”
He was dead wrong.
The success of the football program has unified the state, bonding urban and rural and people of varying socio-economic backgrounds. Ed Hirt, an Indiana University social psychologist who has researched sports fans, calls the phenomena “basking in reflected glory.”
If you are “BIRGing,” as Hirt calls it, you derive benefit from the success of the team you follow.
“That’s why you’ll hear fans refer to their team as ‘we’ instead of ‘they,’” Hirt said. “They take pride in their team and get self-esteem from their team. The more the team wins, the better the person feels better about himself.”
There’s been enough good feelings generated by the Huskers to keep Memorial Stadium brimming since the Kennedy administration. If there were room, more would come. There’s a waiting list of 2,000 names requesting a total of almost 6,000 tickets.
The sellout streak got off to an inauspicious start: a 16-7 loss to Missouri on Nov. 3, 1962. However, the Huskers have won 260 of the 299 games in the streak. They had 33 straight seasons of nine wins or more (1969-2001), went to 35 straight bowls (1969-2003) and won or shared five national titles (1970-71, 1994-95 and ‘97).
There’s more to this than the wins and losses: The health of Nebraska’s 23-sport athletic department, not just the football program, depends on keeping the 81,067-seat stadium full.
A single home game generates about $5 million in revenue, said Nancy Kenny, associate athletic director and chief financial officer. So with seven home games this season, the $35 million in revenue will account for about half of Nebraska’s $74.3 million athletics budget.
Kenny said sellouts are assumed in the budgeting process.
“Absolutely,” she said.
Osborne, the former coach and congressman who is now Nebraska’s athletic director, said he feared the sellout streak was in jeopardy in 2007 as the Huskers staggered to a 5-7 finish and their second losing record in four years.
“They’re relatively loyal, probably more so than most any place around the country,” Osborne said. “But, having said that, they’re human. If you have sustained losing seasons, probably anybody at some point gets discouraged.”
For Hansen, the Huskers have provided a lifetime of joy and memorabilia, much of it displayed in his basement’s “Big Red Room.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, as he was growing up in the northeast Nebraska town of Osmond, Hansen spent autumn Saturdays listening to the games on the radio. He remembers his first game at Memorial Stadium in 1949 and hitchhiking to Lincoln in 1955 to see the Huskers beat Kansas 19-14.
Hansen’s personal home-game attendance streak will hit 304 Saturday. His started with the ‘62 opener, a 53-0 win over South Dakota. Hansen paid 50 cents to get into the “knothole” section of the north end zone. He remembers Dennis Claridge throwing an incomplete pass on Nebraska’s first possession and fans rising to clap for what at the time seemed five or six minutes.
“They were so used to Jennings’ 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust stuff, run-run-run,” Hansen said. “When he threw that pass on the very first play, I can still remember people getting up and saying how we got a new era.”
The stadium expanded to almost 51,000 in 1965, allowing Hansen to buy season tickets in the north end zone. The cost was $4 per ticket. The price is now $54.
He and wife, Martha, remain in the north end zone, though their vantage point has improved from Row 72 to Row 29 over the years. He says Rodgers, the ‘72 Heisman winner, was the greatest player he ever watched. The greatest quarterbacks, he said, were Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier.
Has Hansen come close to missing a home game?
“Not real close, except when my dad passed away in 1996,” he said. “The funeral was on Friday up in my hometown, and we played the next day against Kansas, and it was a night game. I asked my mom what she thought. She said, ‘Your dad would want you to go. You don’t have to stick around.’”
As with Nebraska’s streak, there is no end in sight for Hansen’s.
“I might have to have someone else drive me,” he said, “but I’m going to get there.”
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