How Nebraska evolved into a volleyball-first state

Mention the Huskers to anyone from anywhere during the 90s or the early 70s before them and the immediate image that popped into their head was almost certainly Big Red squashing a helpless opponent in glorious Memorial Stadium on a sunny, fall, football Saturday afternoon.

That concrete shrine to Husker football remains a national icon, except now the all-time attendance record of 90,003 lies firmly in the grasp of John Cook’s incomparable volleyball program which, in my view, throws shade all over football. Has for years.

And it’s not just the Huskers. We have grown into a volleyball kingdom statewide.

Consider this: All three NCAA Division I volleyball teams in Nebraska qualified for the national championship tournament. Meanwhile the football team has not so much as qualified for – much less won – a bowl game for what, six years is it now?

Nebraska volleyball just completed a 28-1 season, is ranked No. 1 in the land, won the Big 10 championship and is seeded first in the national tournament. Oh, and they play host to a bunch of matches, too. This without any seniors on the roster. Nary a one. Creighton won its conference title as did Omaha, so both played their way into the big show, too.

Surely we can’t have tournament teams in Division II also, can we? Yes, we can. The NCAA Division II volleyball rankings of Nov. 20 have Wayne State at No. 3 in the country and our UNK Lopers at 13th.

Did you watch the high school volleyball state championship matches? I did and was blown out of my shoes by quality of play across all classes large and small.

Fierce blocking. Crisp passing. Thumpers on offense. Amazing serving. The skills were obvious to see.

Not only is volleyball the most successful sport at NU now, it has been a juggernaut for decades. No such reliability on the gridiron, however, where snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has reliably tormented us weekly.

Do not misunderstand. I think we may (finally!) have the right coach in place to return the Huskers to, if not dominance at least a shred of relevance. We aren’t there now, but Matt Rhule will get us there. I believe that because I must. Pondering the present heartbreak as permanent is not palatable, even though it has felt that way for years.

I also do not believe it realistic for Husker football fans to expect a return to crushing dominance. Ever. It’s a different landscape than in our big, bad, bully national championship eras. Kids play for money now. Big money. Huge money. They bounce from team to team like BBs in a boxcar, in perpetually quest of the bigger, better NIL deal.

Is it fair to compensate players who bring in bucks by the buzillions to their colleges? Probably. Will it prove the ruination of collegiate athletics at the highest levels? Possibly.

Volleyball has had exactly two (2) coaches since 1977. Terry Pettit and Cook, his hand-picked successor.

Football, meanwhile, stumbled through what feels like an endless succession of bumbling ADs and disposable coaches beginning when Steve Pederson, all full of himself, dropped the hammer on Frank Solich after a nine-win season in 2003. Immediately after Solich defeated Michigan State in the season finale that year, Pederson trotted out his noose.

On the opposite side of the AD story, oh my, hasn’t Trev Alberts been a breath of fresh air?

Frank’s record at NU as head coach was 58-19. That number looks rock solid held up against the Johnny-come-latelies we’ve endured since.

Could that, in the final analysis, be why sports-fluent folks who have never stepped foot in our state likely now think first of volleyball at mention of the word Nebraska?

I believe that’s where the root of our shared football calamity lies; epic stability on the one side and sad lack of it on the other.

If you disagree, I hope you will share your thoughts. Aim your return salvo at stevemoseley42@gmail.com.

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