Cornhuskers fans, among the nation's most sports-crazed, gave Nebraska more than $700,000 toward the construction of the weight room in 1981 and an expansion in '90. "It shows you how seriously people take their athletics in Nebraska," says Epley. Since the state has no pro sports teams or other major universities, there's nothing around to threaten the fans' fidelity, especially to the football team. That's why 73,650-seat Memorial Stadium has been sold out for every game since 1962, why close to 50,000 fans are expected at this Saturday's spring game, and why the Cornhuskers' media guide is annually a best-seller at the campus bookstore. (Keep in mind one other fact: Some 93% of the students are Nebraskans, an unusually high percentage even for a state school, and they have been following the Huskers all their lives.)
The lucre that the athletic department generates doesn't all get put back into varsity sports. Nebraska's massive recreation center, which houses a student weight room larger than some varsity weight facilities in the Big 12, was financed by private donations and a $2 surcharge on football tickets. At the rec center you can always find a decent hoops game on one of the eight courts, but come May the crown jewel of the place will be a 42-foot-tall climbing wall.
The university lies just north of downtown Lincoln, a 1950s kind of place. There isn't a lot to do in town, which helps make club and intramural sports popular and football Saturdays sacred events. The place to be before a game is Barry's Bar and Grill, where the favorite libation is tomato juice and beer. The tailgating scene around the stadium is relatively tame, and the campus fraternities are officially dry (wink, wink). Perhaps that explains why Nebraska fans may be the best-behaved fans at any big-time football school. Win or lose, the folks in the north end of the stadium give a standing ovation to the opposing team as it heads to the locker room after the game. The ovation the Cornhuskers crowd gave Bobby Bowden's Florida State team after an 18-14 Seminoles win in 1980 so moved Bowden that he wrote an open letter to the fans that appeared in the Lincoln Journal-Star. "I have never seen people with more class than I saw at Nebraska," wrote Bowden. "The Nebraska fans, players, cheerleaders, band, officials, coaches, etc., gave me living testimony of what college football should be all about."
Lincolnites follow the Cornhuskers with an intensity that is hard for out-of-towners to comprehend. "There is absolutely no separation between town and gown," says Michael Steinman, associate dean of the arts and science college. "University athletics play about as prominent a role in Lincoln as is imaginable." No fewer than 66 businesses in town use Cornhusker, Husker or Big Red in their titles. All of these enterprises are trying to associate themselves with a glorious tradition: In the last 20 years Nebraska's football team has won two national championships; its men's gymnastics team, eight; its women's track team, three; and its women's volleyball team, one.
School officials are quick to give credit. "It's really the fans that make sports special at Nebraska," says associate athletic director Don Bryant. "With only 1.5 million people in the state, sporting events at the university become the events of the year. And that, in a nutshell, is why Nebraska is unique."