By Lincoln Arneal
The Streak started quietly on a Wednesday night in September.
The previous night only 3,867 fans were in attendance for Nebraska’s win over Creighton with pockets of unclaimed tickets. But on Sept. 25, 2001, a sold-out crowd watched the Huskers open up the Big 12 schedule with a sweep of Iowa State at the NU Coliseum.
Since the match against the Cyclones, NU would sell out every match in its home arena for the next 20 years. (Save for the spring 2021 season when crowds were not allowed.) On Friday, the fourth-ranked Huskers will celebrate the 300th straight sellout when they take on Iowa at the Devaney Center at 6 p.m.
“I don’t think any volleyball team even dreams about doing that, so it’s thank you to our fans,” NU coach John Cook said this week. “We’ve had some great teams that are fun to watch. Volleyball is continuing to grow, and I always say the epicenter of volleyball is right here in Nebraska.”
The streak has moved venues, seen the Huskers change conferences and given the Huskers a home-court advantage that helped them go 272-27. It’s been going on for so long that Cook can now tell recruiting targets that Nebraska has been selling out matches before they were born.
Sophomore outside hitter Lindsay Krause said the sellout streak helps the players because the atmosphere provides energy that boosts the players. She cited NU’s five-set win over Ohio State, who plays the Huskers again on Sunday, as an example of how fans helped them overcome adversity.
“Sometimes they can almost suffocate the other team because they just feel so paralyzing to be in there when you’re not used to something like that when they’re all cheering against you,” Krause said. “It’s just it’s so special to have.”
The streak began with an innocent conversation and a dare issued by Cook in his second year as head coach.
After a Beef Club booster meeting in 2000, a booster asked who would be paying for the Huskers’ upcoming trip to China, suggesting that the trip was only made possible because of football’s fan support and massive revenues from selling out Memorial Stadium. Cook didn’t like the implication that his team depended on another spot, so he set out to make volleyball self-sufficient.
“The first thing we decided in 2001 was to challenge our fans,” Cook said. “We need to start a sellout streak like football. So let’s do it.”
The fans responded right away, packing more than 4,000 fans for each of the Huskers three matches that season before leaving several purchased tickets for the Creighton match.
While the streak’s length is impressive, what makes it more noteworthy is the Huskers doubled the challenge midway through the streak by moving to the Devaney Center in 2013, and capacity increased to just under 8,000.
However, Cook wasn’t sold on the idea initially. The Devaney Center was oversized and lacked the amenities of newer venues, like Pinnacle Bank Arena, which the NU basketball teams had just relocated to from Devaney. The Huskers had played an annual match in Devaney seven times during 2002-2011, plus in 1995 and 1999. NU initially attracted crowds of 7-8,000 before setting NCAA regular season records for three straight years starting in 2007, topping out at 13,870 against UCLA in 2009.
When the idea was initially floated, Cook publicly admitted that he was against making Devaney their full-time home, saying that if it wasn’t good enough for basketball, then why would it be good enough for volleyball? Ten minutes after he made that comment, Cook returned to his office, and then-athletic director Tom Osborne called, angry about the statement. It was bad timing as Osborne was scheduled to appear in front of the Regents later that day and pitch them on funding a $20 million upgrade, which was approved.
Following more discussions with Osborne, Cook helped outline seven improvements to Devaney that would make it a suitable home. The top of which was it had to provide an intimate environment. The capacity shrunk from 13,500 and then NU got bolder by adding skybox, a first in the volleyball world, plus 128 courtside seats and 300 standing-room-only tickets.
Cook said he was pleased with the outcome and Osborne, along with the NU capital planning and construction team of associate athletic director John Ingram and Maggi Thorne, helped create an impressive venue. Even though they sell some of the highest-priced tickets in the nation, the demand is still there, and a waiting list for season tickets continues to grow.
“They dreamed big,” Cook said. “I didn’t want to lose the sellout streak, but a lot of the credit goes to Coach Osborne, who said, ‘Hey, We’re gonna do this right. We’re gonna make it good for volleyball.’ I was worried what if we put volleyball in Devaney and people don’t like it.”
As a result of the increased capacity, more fans were allowed to partake in the game-day atmosphere. With an aging fan base and no student section, many of the younger crowd couldn’t watch the Huskers. Cook credits the bigger venue with creating a new generation of fans.
Krause was one of those young fans. The Omaha Skutt graduate never attended a match in the Coliseum but heard stories about it from her father. She attended her first Nebraska match in 2015 when she was 12 and was hooked and also went to the Final Four later that year in Omaha.
“It was cool to see the environment and people there,” Krause said. “I think at that point, I knew that volleyball was big, but I didn’t realize the kind of environment that it was in Nebraska and how special that was here. That really opened my eyes.”
The only downside to bringing in more than 8,000 people to Devaney is the chaos outside the arena. However, street improvements have helped with traffic flow. When the NU outdoor track was moved north of the Devaney Center complex, it took away a large parking area. However, Cook said they have plans to build a parking garage on the east side soon.
With the demand as high as ever, the challenge for the Huskers is not to take the streak for granted. Krause said she’s reminded of the fans’ loyalty every home match and also on the road. An influx of Nebraska fans helped Maryland and Northwestern set attendance records this season.
“We get reminded of how special it is that we have here at Bob that we have people all over the nation that are coming to our matches and traveling to our matches just to see us play,” Krause said.
Cook said his mission is to keep the sellout streak as long as possible alive by putting out a product that Nebraskans can be proud of. His job is helped by the atmosphere and how the Huskers build an emotional connection with the fans.
“I think going to a volleyball match is a cool thing,” Cook said. “Our people do a great job of making it fun. It pays to win. It’s good if you win because people want to come to see it again. Our teams play at a high level, and it’s fun to watch.”