LINCOLN, Neb. -- I’ve got this friend. We grew up together in Nebraska. He went to a faraway college and has lived some 1,300 miles from here for many years.
When we talk, usually the subject turns to Nebraska football. The Cornhuskers are a way of life. And for people raised in the state -- even those who’ve lived elsewhere for decades -- the passion does not easily disappear even in the dark times.
I received an email from my friend about an hour after Nebraska lost to Northwestern 30-28 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, ensuring the Huskers (3-5, 1-3 Big Ten) must beat Michigan State or Iowa, both currently undefeated, to avoid their first winless home conference season since 1961.
Anyway, he asked if the heads of an athletic director or coach had rolled yet in Lincoln.
AD Shawn Eichorst has been on the job for less than three years, and Mike Riley has coached eight games, so I figured my friend was joking. And he was, technically, though he wasn’t laughing.
Nothing, I replied. Well, he told me his Husker flag would continue to collect dust in the closet.
Every fan base has a breaking point.
Fans aren't happy with Nebraska's 3-5 start to this season, but if those fans go from depressed to unaffected the Nebraska brand will be damaged even more. Nati Harnik/AP
On Monday, Riley described Nebraska as “an awesome place with the greatest fans in the world.”
“It is a privilege to be a part of it,” he said.
At Nebraska, that breaking point has rarely been approached in the past 50 years. The school has sold out 345 consecutive games, an NCAA record dating to 1962.
Even when pieces of the population wanted Tom Osborne out in the 1970s and '80s, even when Frank Solich went 7-7 one year after playing for the national title, even when Bill Callahan failed miserably to embrace the program’s rich tradition, even when Bo Pelini inexplicably cussed them out, the fans largely remained loyal.
The conversation with my friend simply got me to wonder about that invisible threshold. Because it’s out there, somewhere in the distance. And if it arrives, there’s no cushion -- also known as a built-in recruiting base or seemingly endless flow of booster-funded resources -- on which the program could bounce back.
Nebraska’s fans, though possibly unsure about Riley and his boss, appear committed to seeing this through. Memorial Stadium roared with enthusiasm two weeks ago as Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone missed a field goal with less than 90 seconds left that would have put the Badgers ahead (Wisconsin got the ball back and won anyway).
But I’m not here to suggest this ship, with Riley and Eichorst at the controls, is destined to sink, though I see more water leaking from the hull than at any time in recent years.
I’m not talking about the Huskers’ play. Sure, it has stunk at times.
Nebraska players and coaches sound and look like they’re at a loss for what to do next.
“However we intend to go out this upcoming Saturday,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins said, “will basically predict the way our season goes.”
Really? That's the mindset against Purdue, which has lost 18 of its past 19 Big Ten games?
Nebraska has lost five games by 13 points. Most of the mistakes are mental. I continue to believe Riley is a good coach who can win big in the West Division when his system takes and the Huskers maximize their recruiting potential.
The leaks I see pertain more to the broader view. Ten minutes before kickoff Saturday, huge chunks of three sections in the southwest corner of the stadium, reserved for students, sat empty. In those seats are supposed to sit the future donors.
Outside the stadium about 90 minutes after kickoff, fans tailgated, apparently happy to congregate in the afternoon sunshine.
It looked foreign. There was a time when the sun did not shine in Nebraska after losses.
Tickets are easily accessible. If Iowa journeys to Lincoln without a loss on Nov. 27, its fans could fill a quarter of the stadium or more.
Dare I say that apathy is creeping in at Nebraska? Apathy can damage a program quicker than any kind of losing streak.
My friend suffers from apathy. Continuing our Saturday night conversation, I told him that nothing cripples a program -- aside from apathy -- quite like firing a first-year coach.
“I consider it crippled now,” he wrote back.
Nowhere near bottoming out, I responded.
His answer: That could be their team slogan.
The truth hurts this season at Nebraska.