Photo copyright Husker.com
It was hard to be a Nebraska basketball fan in the middle 1970’s. Still is, as a matter of fact. Though the team has broken through and has participated in multiple NCAA tournaments, they still have not won a game in the tournament, nor have they won any conference championship since 1950. They did win the NIT in 1996, but no luck whatsoever in the NCAA. They are now the only power conference school who has never won an NCAA tournament game.
Nebraska played basketball in the Nebraska Coliseum. This red brick building was lovingly referred to as “the barn”, and held about 9,000 people if a shoehorn was used to cram them in. There was an arch centered over the court, and there were stands in the south end. The north end only had bleachers, and then there were bleachers that lined both sides of the court. The place was so small and tight that if you were on the front row, you had to move your feet so that a player could throw the ball in. When the place was full on a frozen Nebraska winter night, the warmth and crowd noise was overwhelming.
There was a tradition at the games that everyone stood until the first points were scored by Nebraska. One particularly bad game, we stood against Oklahoma for over 8 minutes of playing time. That was the year when the football team scored 77 points against Army. The basketball team, on the other hand, never scored more than 76 points in a single game. Needless to say, it was a quixotic challenge to be a Nebraska basketball fan. The team did have a winning record my last 3 years, but the frustration had built up.
Nebraska had one guard who had the most unusual shooting style I’ve ever seen. Jerry Fort was the guard who would hold the basketball directly over his head, then flick his wrist to propel the ball towards the hoop. He had a long-range shot that would have been of more value if he played in the 3-point shot era. His shooting style and the Nebraska Coliseum bleachers are shown in the picture at the top. I may be in the picture, since I attended every home game during my 4 years in college. But I was unable to find my face in the crowd. You can see how close the feet in the first row were to the playing surface.
College students being as they are, we were convinced that we knew everything, and so even though in our senior year the team had a good winning record, we were leading cheers against our coach, Joe Cipriano. He went by the diminutive of Cip, and so we were calling out to “Fire Cip”. One game we had assistance from one of our dorm floor residents who worked in the computer science program. He was able to write a program that printed out on those old green computer printout sheets the words FIRE CIP across multiple sheets of paper. A group of us sat together, and at an opportune time during the game, we unfurled the banner and chanted our little chant. Some of the crowd joined us, but the chant never reached full volume in the place.
The game ended, and I was walking out with my roommate, Sam. Sam was tall, about 6’4″, and we had just left the court area and were walking next to the trophy case. Suddenly Sam was accosted by this small person, probably about 5’7″, who took a swing at Sam and was ready to go at it with him. I grabbed this guy by the arms and pinned him up against the trophy case, where a lot of the football championship hardware was displayed, and told the guy to calm down. He did, I released him, and we went back into the cold February night air for our walk across campus. Back then, in college, I gauged whether it was cold based upon whether I had ice crystals form on my mustache by the time I got to my destination. I think that night, it was cold.
We got into our room later, and found out from a friend that the person who had accosted Sam, was the coach’s son. Never did hear anything more about the incident. Nowadays, with all of the increased security and police presence, we probably would have ended up being charged with some sort of offense, but not then.
My senior year in college was the last year that basketball was played in the Coliseum. The following spring in 1976, my graduation ceremony was held in the new Devaney Center. We even had President Gerald Ford give our commencement address, although I couldn’t tell you one thing that he said. Since I left campus, even the Devaney Center has been supplanted as a basketball arena, though it is still used for women’s volleyball for the NCAA champions. I guess I must be getting old when my memories are two basketball arenas behind the current arena. Well, hope springs eternal, and I will be rooting for Nebraska basketball to shed is oxymoronic status, and win a game this year in the NCAA tournament.