Nowhere becomes somewhere

Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Down by the end of the bar, Kellie Conway and Kara Scholz can’t take it anymore.

After listening to the guys talk football for half an hour, they grab their drinks and rush over to a visitor, eager to divulge the real reason that tonight’s game between USC and Nebraska is the biggest thing to hit this prairie city in years.

“Celebrities,” Conway says.

Scholz adds: “They’re coming here.”


Will Ferrell and Keanu Reeves will watch the top-ranked Trojans play 14th-ranked Nebraska. Larry The Cable Guy will be there. And maybe an actress from that MTV show “The Hills.”

“We’re so excited,” Scholz says.

At which point a couple of the guys at Brothers Bar & Grill shake their heads and/or roll their eyes. They have a more plausible explanation for the present clamor in Lincoln and much of the state.

Football weekends have always been special here, a tradition passed from generation to generation, imprinted on the collective genetic code of a populace that has no other major college or professional team to cheer. Tonight’s USC-Nebraska game means even more because of a volatile combination.


Almost three decades have passed since the last top-ranked visitor -- the 1978 Oklahoma Sooners -- stepped foot inside Memorial Stadium. The timing couldn’t be better, as far as Nebraska fans are concerned.

After a string of tough seasons, their team stands within spitting distance of a top-10 ranking. A victory over USC or perhaps a close loss could provide the needed boost. As Brandon Lyons, a 22-year-old Lincoln resident, put it: “We want to get back to the promised land.”

So the local newspapers have run daily stories exploring manifold aspects of the game -- Which school has the better band? What about that guy who swapped tickets so his daughter could see a Hannah Montana concert? -- and shop owners have taped new “Go Big Red” posters next to the “Go Big Red” posters that already graced their storefronts.

In Omaha, an hour to the east, football conversations rippled across a suburban restaurant on a weeknight at dinner time. The staff was dressed all in black but that didn’t stop Kris Kazebeer from pinning a bright red “Beat USC” button to his apron. The waiter put his hand over the button every time he walked past his boss but figured she probably wouldn’t mind.


“It’s been crazy,” he said.

Such fervor has translated into cold, hard dollars. Hotels and restaurants have done even brisker business than usual. The classified ads have included other forms of commerce, residents offering to rent out their homes for the weekend and fans desperate for tickets.

Admission to the game will not come cheap, at least not by local standards.

The Cornhuskers regularly fill their 81,067-seat stadium, but tickets can usually be had for a reasonable price on the open market. Husker Hounds, a chain of fan stores in Omaha, offers an exchange service so people can drop off unneeded tickets to be resold at face value.


Most home games result in several hundred neighborly transactions. This week?

“We’ve got four tickets,” owner Scott Strunc said. “Everybody else is trying to sell their seats for $400 or $500 or more. It’s ridiculous.”

The average selling price on StubHub, a nationwide ticket service, was $326 late this week, with end zone seats going for $80 and better locations approaching $1,000 apiece.

Those numbers pale in comparison to other big games around the country but they represent a sizzling market in Lincoln, where fans and entrepreneurs stood curbside downtown, holding up tickets for sale or signs asking to buy. Scalping is legal in the state.


At the Iguana’s pub, Marcus Lind shook his head at the mention of selling his seat. The 22-year-old college student acknowledge a moment of weakness -- “People are paying a lot of money,” he said -- but then thought about tonight’s game.

Fans have been counting the days since Nebraska lost to USC, 28-10, last season at the Coliseum. The anticipation has ratcheted up this week.

Thursday night, the faithful poured into bars up and down O Street in Lincoln, some already wearing their foam-rubber Cornhead hats. While Conway and Scholz expounded on the Hollywood glamour of the game, their friends were more concerned about quarterback Sam Keller facing a tough USC defense.

On Friday afternoon, word got around that the Trojans were practicing at an Omaha high school and scores of fans gathered nearby to get a firsthand look. Within hours, the sidewalks of Lincoln were teeming with red.


But the real celebration figures to commence around eight o’clock this morning.

Some fans will gather at the outdoor set for ESPN’s “College GameDay” -- it has been six years since the network last brought its traveling pregame show to Lincoln. Many others will head straight for house parties and tailgate barbecues that figure to last through the evening kickoff.

“It’s going to be a long day,” said Marcus Madler, a 22-year-old student wearing a Nebraska cap. “We’ve been waiting for this.”