In all of college football, there’s no place quite like Nebraska, where fans kill you with kindness, and the players, well . . .
In 10 years, when college football is one giant 64-team superconference (The Optimus Prime League), playing one team three times in a year won’t seem like a big deal. In fact, the TV networks, who by then will have purchased the industry from the universities, will probably have best-of-seven series between, say, Southern Cal and Miami (the Criminole Bowl).
But this week, Washington vs. Nebraska, Part Trois, is kind of quaint. The Huskies and Cornhuskers have become like jealous teenage cousins at family reunions, pounding one another in the backyard until adults run out saying, “What’s all this, then?!”
After getting pantsed 56-21 a year ago in Husky Stadium, then returning the embarrassment at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego 19-7, the Huskies travel Thursday for a game Saturday to the series’ third venue, Lincoln, Neb., where there is very little else — making Huskers football like nothing else in the country.
“Tremendous environment,” said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian Monday. “Great fans. It’s what college football should be.”
That is not hyperbole. Unlike the over-amped frat boys in Eugene, or the no-lifes in the Southeastern Conference or the who-cares in Los Angeles, the Huskers crowd is so into the whole college-football culture that they actually care about the opponents and their traveling fans.
Ask anyone who traveled to Lincoln the last time the Huskies played there, in 1998. Like me. It was like being at an all-day Nordstrom sales training session. Everyone was polite, courteous, shook hands firmly and made eye contact directly, seemed interested in your welfare and offered to do most anything to help your visit. By the time I left, I was hoping to be adopted. I guarantee I wasn’t the only Seattle visitor so affected.
Which is not to say it wasn’t weird. It’s almost a law that Big Red is injected into every newborn and newcomer, maybe even travelers changing planes at the airport. A lot of college towns get wrapped around the axle of the high-profile team, but Lincoln residents, as well as the entire state population, seemed linked at the cultural cerebellum to the thick-necked boys of the corn.
Yet fans somehow retain the perspective that the visiting team is, in fact, the visiting team, not the Taliban. After the Huskies were walloped 55-7, Nebraska fans surrounding the visiting team’s tunnel exit stood and applauded the vanquished purples. No mockery, no name-calling, no meanness.
As with so many other things, football life in Nebraska might have changed. But I doubt it. If I read that a Nebraska fan poisoned trees that a rival fan base cherished, as that knucklehead Alabama fan did to Auburn, I would take it as a sign of the apocalypse far more than a collapse of the Dow Jones industrial average.
As to the ardor, there is no mystery. As one fan put it to me, probably for the thousandth time to the same line of inquiry, “It’s all we got.”
Without pro sports, another rival college or even hills, the state and the team are unto themselves. They know it, aren’t ashamed of it, and don’t feel the need to defend it. A lot of Huskies fans feel the same way about their team, but the intensity’s breadth and depth just isn’t the same.
“One of the great things about playing in Lincoln is you go out an hour before kickoff for pre-game warm-ups and it’s packed,” Sarkisian said. “The stadium is full. They love pre-game warm-ups as much as the game. It’s a unique setting that way.
“You can really feel the energy in the stadium. And just about everybody in the stadium is wearing red.”
The virtue of politeness does not diminish the passion for victory. It’s just that there is minimal compulsion to use the word mother as an adjective. Sarkisian has plans to enlighten his team this week with a travelogue.
”I’m not going to send them in there without them knowing anything about it,” he said. “We try to paint a picture and give them a history lesson of Nebraska football and that stadium, and some of the games of the Huskies (there), so that they get an idea.
“But the reality is I’m not here to coddle these guys, either. They are here for a reason and we will make sure they are mentally tough enough to handle the environment.”
For all the freshmen, the game is the first one on the road. For the entire team, it’s the first trip to Nebraska. The closest comparable is Eugene, where Ducks fans combine success, passion and hate for the Huskies into an often-lamentable stew of personal contempt.
In relief of an injured Jake Locker last year, quarterback Keith Price made his first start in Autzen Stadium, where the Huskies were drowned, 53-16, through little fault of Price’s. He said Monday he remembers little about the atmosphere.
“I can’t worry about fans — I got enough to think about,” he said. “I know what to expect.”
Well, actually, no, he doesn’t. But that’s why travel is so enlightening. The experience of unique places makes for great stories. You know, like getting smacked in the grill and being helped back up, then asked if you’d like a cookie.