LINCOLN, Neb. — As he exited Pinnacle Bank Arena around 10 p.m. and inched toward the Haymarket entertainment district, Tim Miles had to establish a ground rule.
Group pictures only.
Moments earlier, Nebraska fans had swarmed the coach the moment he walked out the venue’s doors following Sunday’s victory over ninth-ranked Wisconsin. His destination was only 150 yards away, but after 20 minutes, Miles wasn’t even halfway there.
“Miles! Miles! Miles!” people chanted as the coach hobnobbed with fans, eventually requesting that pictures be taken in groups to save time.
“Gooooo Biiiggggg Reeeedddd!” others crooned down Canopy Street.
Miles finally crossed the road and slipped into a private room at Gate 25 sports bar to celebrate with family members, donors and longtime friends. Pinned against a wall in the back corner—where he posed for even more photos—Miles could only shake his head when asked about the scene that unfolded outside.
“People always talk about how great Nebraska fans are,” said Miles, who had shed his black suit jacket and loosened his red tie. “But until you actually experience it, you have no idea.”
The excitement in Lincoln is certainly understandable.
Widely picked to place at the bottom of the Big Ten, Nebraska won 11 of its last 14 games and finished fourth in the conference standings. With a 19-11 record and victories over Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State (on the road), it will be a shock if the Cornhuskers don’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Nebraska is 0-6 all-time in the NCAA tournament and hasn’t been included in the bracket since 1998.
“I don’t know if y’all can tell,” Big Ten scoring champion Terran Petteway said, “but we’re having a lot of fun right now.”
Thrilled as he is with the performance of his team, Miles is equally juiced about other elements of the program that have helped the Cornhuskers achieve success.
Take Sunday, for instance.
The win over Wisconsin was obviously the biggest story. But the atmosphere at the game—before, during and after—was almost jarring for a school that has almost no basketball tradition.
Fans began lining up at 5 a.m. outside the shiny new Pinnacle Bank Arena, which is billed as one of the nicest venues in the country. That’s hardly an exaggeration.
Completed last fall for $179 million, the facility lists its capacity for basketball games at 14,970. But the demand for tickets was so high on Sunday that Nebraska sold about 1,000 “standing-room-only passes,” so the attendance was just below 16,000.
Players bobbed their heads to Kanye West’s “Power” shortly before pregame introductions while former Nebraska football standout Ndamukong Suh hurled T-shirts into the stands. Highlights of the Huskers’ season played on a mammoth video board that dangles above the court, and shortly before tipoff, forward Mike Peltz proposed to his girlfriend during his Senior Day speech.
She said yes.
The decibel level reached 105 moments before the jump ball. And for the next two-plus hours, fans screamed and stomped and screamed more. Miles would later say the folks in the stands willed the Cornhuskers to victory.
Nebraska may still be a football school. But it’s becoming a basketball school, too.
At one particularly deafening moment during the game, Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser ran past Miles near the bench and said, "Can you believe this?" And then after the game, Miles saw a Badgers player on the court after he conducted his postgame radio interview. He’s pretty sure it was Ben Brust.
“He said, ‘This was my all-time favorite game, and we lost,’” Miles said.
Fans stormed the court after the final horn in Nebraska’s 77-68 victory and celebrated for nearly an hour. In the concourse, a man who appeared to be in his 70s hopped around like a schoolboy and grabbed a friend.
“We did it!” he said. “We did it.”
It will never match the tradition of Kansas, Duke or Kentucky, but the atmosphere in Pinnacle Bank Arena —if only for a night—was every bit as intimidating as that of Allen Fieldhouse, Cameron Indoor Stadium and Rupp Arena.
“I told the guys in the locker room, that’s what college basketball should be about,” Miles said. “The exhilaration you’re feeling, that we’re all feeling, that our fans are feeling, that’s the way it should be.”
Across the street, fans were celebrating in the Haymarket, the $344 million bar and restaurant district that serves as the social hub on football and basketball game days. Gate 25, Buffalo Wings and Rings, Barry’s and Mellow Mushroom Pizza are just a few of the businesses that have opened in the bustling area since the fall. There’s even a mini ice-skating rink.
“The stars are aligning at the same time,” said Matt Davison, a former Nebraska football and basketball player who now serves as the radio color commentator for both sports. “We’ve got a likable coach and a new arena surrounded by brand new bars and restaurants. Things are just exploding.”
Davison said he’s not surprised by the almost euphoric state of Nebraska’s fanbase.
“People here were hungry to watch a team that works hard and plays hard—a tough, gritty team,” he said. “That’s basically the foundation of the people of Nebraska. They’re in a frenzy because this team is the mirror image of the state.”
At the center of it all is Miles, the second-year coach who spent 12 years turning non-Division I schools into success stories before landing at Colorado State. Four years after winning seven games in 2007-08, the Rams were in the NCAA tournament.
A savvy marketer, Miles gained fame last season by tweeting during games and at halftime. And he’s long been a favorite of the media for his humor and candor in press conferences, where he uses movie references and gives fans grades based on how they cheer.
“Don’t let the librarian glasses and the big smile fool you, though,” Davison said. “He’s a bulldog.”
Indeed, Miles can be tough on his players. But Miles also makes sure to end each practice or game with a positive tone. That certainly hasn’t been difficult lately considering all of Nebraska’s success.
In some ways, Miles has been taken aback by how far this team has come. He entered the season hoping for a .500 record in the Big Ten. But there is also a part of Miles that isn’t all that surprised.
He knew Nebraska fans would support a winner. And he has confidence in his abilities as a coach. Mix in a beautiful new arena and one of the best practice gyms/weight facilities in the country, and all of the pieces are there to make Nebraska a consistent factor in the Big Ten.
Even if they never have been.
Miles hates it when people bring up Nebraska’s lackluster history in basketball.
“You save that baggage for you,” Miles said. “Don’t put that crap on me, all right? This is my program and we don’t carry any baggage. Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been surrounded by great people and we win. And we’re gonna keep doing it.
“So all of that curse crap, all of the hexing and vexing, all of that bulls--t that goes with it is exactly that. And you can print it.”
As well as Nebraska is playing right now, the future appears even brighter.
Senior Ray Gallegos will be the only key loss from this year’s squad, which will return a player in Petteway who could be a preseason All-American candidate. Guard Shavon Shields has also shown flashes of brilliance, and freshman point guard Tai Webster will be significantly improved.
Miles, though, isn’t thinking about the future, and neither are his players. All of them know that what’s happening now is special, that they should savor the moments they share with their teammates and fans.
That’s what the Cornhuskers did Sunday night, when they were greeted with a roar when they walked into Buffalo Wild Wings for a postgame snack. Less than two miles away at Gate 25, Miles continued to celebrate well past midnight as fans peered through the glass windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of college basketball’s newest “it” coach.
When Miles finally emerged he was flanked by two employees instructed to escort him to his car. Sure enough, though, Miles was stopped by a cluster of college kids as soon as he left the bar.
“Can we get a picture with you real quick?” one of them asked.
Miles hopped onto a nearby wrought iron table, stuck out his arms and invited the students to join him.
“Absolutely,” he said with a smile. “Let’s do it.”