The North Bend Eagle


 

Long suffering Red Zoner finally enjoys March Sweetness

Lincoln Arneal
Guest columnist

I had been waiting for a day like Friday for 14 years.

As I stood in the upper deck in the AT&T Center in San Antonio, my dream of watching Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament, which for many years seemed like a far off possibility, was finally coming true. Getting to this point had been a long journey — and that’s not counting the 13-plus hour drive.

Even though football reigns supreme at Nebraska, Nebrasketball has always been my favorite Husker sport. I grew up in a basketball family, and the student experience at Nebrasketball games allowed more involvement. At the Devaney Center you could talk to players on the bench, interact with opposing coaches and joke with the referees.

A little bit of history: my freshman year at Nebraska coincided with the hiring of Barry Collier and the formation of the Red Zone student section. (Fun fact: my first ever-interview as a writer for the Daily Nebraskan was with Barry Collier.) Nebraska was two years removed from its last trip to the NCAA tournament, and Collier had led Butler to the big dance in three of the previous four years. However, the program never fully took off. Collier recorded just two winning seasons in his six years and left suddenly (though not an unwelcome move) to become the Butler athletic director in 2006. The Collier years never showed much promise. There was usually an upset here or there at home, but it was rough times for Husker fans.

As we yelled about chair throwing, Bobby Knight winked at us.

When I went back to UNL for law school, Doc Sadler was charge. He promised a different style of basketball than the slow, methodical play of the Collier era. Nebrasketball improved slightly, but it always ended in disappointment. The NCAA Tournament remained a dream. Right after a big win, the other shoe would drop and Nebraska would lose a game it had no business losing (see Iowa State 2011).

Each March I kept my calendar open, hoping one day I would watch the Huskers play in the NCAA Tournament. Even last year, when the tourney was in Austin, Texas, (where I lived at the time) and I had easy access to tickets, I stayed away out of loyalty to Nebraska.

This isn’t to say that we didn’t have fun at basketball games. Even if the on-court product was shaky, we tried to make the games more enjoyable. Some people might think that we were crazy waiting at least three hours before the start of each game, but such was our life. My friends and I sat in the same place each game, front row by the opponent’s bench. We were right in the middle of the action – some of which we instigated.

The targets of our antics were usually the other teams’ head coach, despite what Iowa State’s Jamaal Tinsley and Missouri’s Aurthur Johnson might tell you.
Quin Snyder told my friend not to mention his wife’s name. As we yelled about chair throwing, player choking and temper tantrums, Bobby Knight winked at us. We taunted former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy with pictures of him partying with co-eds at Missouri the week before. (Those pictures eventually got him fired when the press discovered them several weeks later). Eddie Sutton didn’t appreciate when I jumped on balloons during free throws and asked that I be removed from the arena. Roy Williams had to clean his glasses after I asked for, and was denied, a hug from the former Kansas coach.

Sometimes our chants needed a little interpretation. One year during an exhibition game against a team of eastern Europeans, we started a chant of “Free food! Free food!” A member of the Husker track team came over and accused us of mocking the difficult standards of living in eastern Europe. However, once I explained that we were just excited about the free Runzas we would receive by holding the other team under 50 points, he backed off.
As much fun as it was, success was fleeting. During the 11-year span from my first year of college to my last year working for Nebraska athletic department, the Huskers made five NIT tournaments and won just two games. (Granted one was against Creighton, which was great.)

Then came Tim Miles.

Railyard celebrationNathan Arneal, Tim Miles and Lincoln Arneal celebrate in the Railyard across from Pinnacle Bank Arena after Nebraska's NCAA-berth-clinching win over Wisconsin.

I knew little about Miles when he was hired, but I soon came to appreciate his candor, work ethic and overall enthusiasm for the job. With a decimated roster, Miles overachieved his first year and proved he knew how to build a program.

One of the first things I did upon moving back from Texas last fall was purchase season tickets with my friend Pete, whom I went to games with for several years. With the allure of a shiny new arena and an up-and-coming program, I was all in. After watching Miles coach up the team the previous year from a distance, I was expecting a better result in year two, but not this level of success.

This was a season like no other. Starting with the win over Florida Gulf Coast, the excitement of the new arena was evident. Over the next few months, the Huskers slowly figured out who they were and how to play. However, my history of teases and disappointment left me skeptical. The turning point was the Michigan State game. I fully expected to lose by 20, but they somehow won and went on to win seven of the next eight. This was happening!

The highlight of the year was the Wisconsin game. Nathan and I spent the whole day in Lincoln absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying the hysteria of Husker Hoops. It felt like a football game.

Despite all the hype and buildup, the game actually lived up to the billing. The crowd was loud and energized from the start. The Huskers responded by quickly jumping out in front. Even as Wisconsin fought back and took the lead, it never felt like Nebraska was out of it. The Huskers came back, and when it appeared that it was going to happen, I was overcome with joy. Fans rushed the court, and all I could do is stand with my arms outstretched soaking it all in.

Nebrasketball was going to the Big Dance.

However, I was torn. I had already committed to a trip to Austin for a wedding during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. One glimmer of hope remained. During the previous few weeks a few of the bracket projects put Nebraska in San Antonio. But I shouldn’t be greedy. I just wanted Nebraska in. Then I could worry about avoiding play-in games in Dayton, and getting sent to Texas. My worrying and hoping again turned to elation as Nebraska was indeed sent to San Antonio. With transportation and lodging already lined up, I easily got tickets with another friend through the University.

On the big day, we left Austin early and drove down to the AT&T Center arriving almost three hours before tipoff. We quickly discovered that the AT&T Center was in the middle of nowhere. We started walking hoping to find a bar or restaurant, but quickly decided to take a bus downtown to the Riverwalk area to soak up the atmosphere.

We made it back to the arena just as they were announcing the starting lineups. We went and found our seats in the upper deck, but quickly realized that the location wouldn’t cut it. We spotted an empty group of seats 17 rows from the bottom and moved down at the first media timeout. (The only downside was we sat behind a Jaysker fan who was wearing a blue shirt under his red polo.)

Once I could focus on the game, things didn’t go well. Nebraska struggled, fouled too much and shot quite poorly. But when the final horn sounded, it wasn’t disappointment or frustration I felt, but gratitude. This team had vastly overachieved and shown hope after so many years of frustration and disappointment. Behind Miles and a young core, this group of players had rewarded a fan base with an amazing ride.

As I drove home and unpacked my bags and souvenirs, I left my shoes out for easy access.

After all, Nebraska will be dancing soon again.

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