Patience, the old saying goes, is a virtue. It’s one that Nebraska sports fans possess in abundance, and it finally was rewarded.
Coach Darin Erstad and a baseball team that seems created in his image have broken the long Cornhusker men’s team sports drought. The Huskers can finally call themselves Big Ten champs in something besides volleyball, track and field, or women’s basketball. Is it an omen of better things ahead, both in baseball and other sports?
It’s been a long, tough dry spell. Adopting the “It has to end sometime” outlook, I often wondered whether football or baseball would win the next championship, although there was that brief moment after “No-Sit Sunday” when Tim Miles had me thinking it just might be basketball. Well … nope.
Bo Pelini and Husker football missed on two fabulous chances to end the drought. In 2009, they had a Big 12 title ripped away from them (the 13-12, 60-minute, one-second loss to Texas) and then got badly outcoached by Bob Stoops in 2010, when they frittered away a 17-0 lead to Oklahoma and lost 23-20. A senior Zac Lee or sophomore Cody Green might have nursed that lead in game-manager mode. Instead, that was the halftime where the Husker staff stubbornly decided to keep injured freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez in the game and, and everyone associated with Nebraska football paid the price. When the Husker offense disappeared in its final half of Big 12 football ever, it was the turning point in the Pelini era.
As the only one of former athletic director Tom Osborne’s head coaching hires at NU to win a conference thus far, Erstad has lit a beacon of hope for other programs. Right, Mike Riley? Baseball was the last to win a conference title, when it captured the postseason Big 12 tournament in 2005.
Conference championships — and even national titles — are nothing new for John Cook and the volleyball program. The women’s basketball team won a Big Ten title under Connie Yori in 2014. Yes, women’s sports have done their part to carry the Husker banner.
Meanwhile, Husker men’s sports have been stuck in a dead-end pattern of mediocrity for more than a decade. If “competitive greatness” (performing your best when the best is required) is the pinnacle of the John Wooden Pyramid of Success, the Huskers rarely made it that high. Nobody paid the price more than Nebraska fans, and nobody deserves more credit than Nebraska fans for the way they responded.
This is a “What-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” society, and at most universities, attendance would have gone into a tailspin. Not in Lincoln.
Luckily for Osborne and his successor, Shawn Eichorst, and thankfully for everyone involved in University of Nebraska non-revenue sports, there really is no place like Nebraska. Fan loyalty has continued to be high — ridiculously high — during this downturn.
• Nebraka football (most recent conference title: 1999) recently passed the 350 mark in consecutive sellouts and the NCAA-record streak is ongoing.
• Nebraska baseball (previous conference title: 2005 for a tournament, 2003 regular season) regularly averaged more than 3,000 per game over the past five years, and in 2016 it swelled to more than 5,000 per game, which rated No. 8 in the nation. Nebraska took up residence in the attendance Top 15. Even with no conference titles to cheer for over that span, the Huskers were the only team from north of the Mason-Dixon line which even threatened to break into the Top 10. Creighton, Oregon State and Wichita State sometimes hit the Top 20.
Astoundingly, Nebraska men’s basketball (most recent conference title: 1994 for a tournament, 1950 for regular season), was No. 11 in the nation in attendance (15,429 per game) in the NCAA’s 2016 statistics.
Despite their paucity of championships, the Huskers are rewarded by their fans with enthusiastic cheering more often than not; booing is rarely heard, even during losing streaks, even in the most frustrating of moments. This is something that Husker loyalists simply expect, but it should not go unnoticed.
What are Husker men’s sports fans getting in return for all that loyalty? Not a lot lately, at least until this year. That’s what makes the consistency of Nebraska sports fans so singular — and what makes this year’s regular season baseball crown so refreshing. And frankly, it raises hopes for football in the next few seasons. It raises expectations for top-notch on-field performance. Yes, Riley and the Husker football program are doing almost everything right when it comes to off-field performance. But so do most other Husker sports.
Riley’s recruiting has taken a noticeable upswing, and although there are no trophies for recruiting success, iit’s fodder for offseason conversations and reason for encouragement. The Big Red signed a Top 20 class in 2017 and are on track for a Top 15 or better class in 2018. That would give Riley and his staff the talent they need to mold a division title winner in their own image. The Huskers are due for two West Division titles in the next three seasons. And they should start winning Big Ten championships every four or five years.
Riley and his staff deserve patience, and frankly, they’ve received their share, and then some, as they compiled a 15-11 mark their first two seasons. Sure, Riley inherited less than a cupboardfull of talent from Pelini; I understand that. But Riley has reached the point where he should not need much more patience. No, it’s not Big Ten championship or bust for Riley this fall, but there’s no reason Nebraska should not be competitive in every game they play. There’s no reason the Huskers should fail to show steady improvement throughout the season, especially in the offensive line.
Nebraska fans — generally a virtuous, longsuffering bunch — deserve at least that much.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.
Erstad, Husker baseball team rewards patience of fans
With highly-touted recruits, will Riley, football team follow suit over next three seasons?
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