• Photo Showcase: Fans at Memorial Stadium
• Video Below: See video of the storms at Memorial Stadium
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LINCOLN — At 1:02 p.m. Saturday, Nebraska fans poured into musty, rain-drenched Memorial Stadium to watch a game that, unbeknownst to them, had already been canceled.
Pizza and Pepsi vendors started to hawk their wares. “Go Big Red” chants started to roll. But on the field, NU event management specialist Derek Bombeck already knew the verdict, and delivered the news to four yellow-coated volunteers as a referee would treat a missed field goal. No good. It's off.
A few minutes later, Athletic Director Tom Osborne appeared on HuskerVision, explaining the game had been called because of lightning and the threat of more thunderstorms in and around Lincoln. Maybe, he said, the Huskers would play Sunday if weather permitted.
But Nebraska coach Bo Pelini nixed the idea after meeting with players.
“Too many conflicts,” Pelini told reporters. “There's a lot of reasons why. I'd love to play it for our fans, but there are logistical issues when it comes down to it. First and foremost, it's our players. And their families. Guys who have some academic things they have to be at (Sunday) afternoon.
“In the end, we couldn't make it work.”
April showers — and then some. For the first time since 1949, Nebraska didn't hold a spring game of some kind. Fans who bought tickets won't get a refund, but a rain check to an NU baseball or softball game. And they were offered free concession food that had to be given away — or trashed.
“Hopefully, a lot of them got at least $10 worth of food,” Osborne said. “Maybe $20. We tried to make it right.”
And Nebraska tried to get the game in.
On Friday night, Osborne and Butch Hug, NU's associate athletic director for facilities and events, examined the radar and weather forecasts.
“Nothing very definitive,” Osborne said of predictions for Nebraska's mercurial weather.
Saturday morning, Hug awoke at 6 and started the same routine. He consulted with the National Weather Service, Lincoln-Lancaster County Emergency Management and the Lincoln police. He has a standing evacuation plan for Memorial Stadium, he said, one in which each campus building can be used for shelter, if necessary.
But would there be a big enough window between storms to play the game?
The rain rolled in from the southwest shortly after 11 a.m. as 20 or so Huskers worked out on the field. Near 11:30, just as the first fans took their seats, the lightning started. Event staff hustled them into the tunnels, concourses and bowels of Memorial Stadium. Briefly, HuskerVision screens were tuned to the Weather Channel before looping Nebraska highlights from 2011.
For 90 minutes, it poured. Husker players occasionally strolled out of the locker room to survey the storm and sign autographs. Quarterback Brion Carnes did so twice. Vendors tied their bunches of red balloons to orange traffic cones. Girls in designer, polka-dot rain boots posed for a picture, the storm as their backdrop.
Football and basketball prospects — several from the Chicago area — walked the soaked red carpet between North Stadium and the Student Life Complex on the west side. They wouldn't get to see NU's famed spring game atmosphere, which Husker coaches count as a key recruiting advantage.
“It's disappointing in the sense that it's an anticlimactic way for the day to go, but I thought it was successful in terms of recruits we were able to bring to campus,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “We're still able to spend the time we want to spend with them.”
Hug emerged from the locker room at 12:15 p.m., carrying a smartphone with weather radar in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. A reporter asked him for an update. At that time, the storm looked likely to end by 12:40, Hug said, with some calm period between storms. He'd know more after the downpour slowed.
But the harder it rained, Osborne said, the more it steered a storm on the Kansas-Nebraska border right toward Lincoln. And the lightning didn't abate until near 1. Weather officials told Hug a 45-minute window might be all NU had to warm up and play.
“To get everybody out there, and get everybody warmed up, the window was too narrow to get anything done,” said Hug, showing reporters the radar on his phone. “... We may have gotten in a quarter, and then we get lightning.”
Osborne didn't necessarily want fans driving home in awful weather after one quarter of a glorified scrimmage, either.
“In the best interest of safety of everybody,” he said, “it was better to just cancel it at that point.”
Pelini said it was the right decision.
“You've got to look at the safety of everybody involved,” he said. “you've got to make sure you make a rational decision.”
The postponement turned into a cancellation once Pelini polled players in the locker room.
“I had a show of hands of people who had a problem with tomorrow,” Pelini said, “and you're talking group projects, academic things — you've got a (academic) banquet tomorrow night — logistical issues with their family.”
After that meeting, he dispatched some players to sign autographs and talk to reporters in West Stadium. Coordinators Papuchis and Tim Beck went to the sixth floor. Papuchis, corralled by reporters, said the decision not to play Sunday was “way above my pay grade.”
Not Pelini, who talked to Osborne in the sixth-floor hallway minutes before telling the media the spring game was off.
When Pelini finished his session, Osborne took his place, and joked in passing that he'd see if he and the coach had given the exact same answers.
Only they didn't. Not initially.
“If the weather's decent and the players can play, we'll probably try to play it then,” Osborne said. “But I wouldn't count on it for sure.”
A reporter informed Osborne that Pelini had definitively said the game was canceled and asked again if the game would be played.
“I guess not,” Osborne said. “I talked to Bo and he said the players had some kind of conflict ... if we don't have players, we won't have a spring game. I'm sure nobody wants to watch me go out there and catch passes.”
At 2:29 p.m., the Nebraska athletic department's Twitter account announced there would be no spring game on Sunday.
And though NU has a 15th practice still to spare, Pelini said he doesn't plan to use it.
“We have some things planned for them lifting-wise and get back into their offseason conditioning,” Pelini said. “I think that's the route we're going to go. It's not going to make or break us one way or the other. And I don't want to disrupt what we have planned heading into the next phase of our offseason.
“And, at that point, you worry about the mind-set of your players. How much are you really going to get out of it?”
For the record, at 2:50 p.m. lightning flashed again around Memorial Stadium. Figuring a 30-minute wait period after the last lightning strikes around 1, the Huskers might have had, at best, an hour for some kind of spring game.
“We've usually been able to dodge the bullet,” said Osborne, wringing his hands around a Capital One Bowl umbrella. Not Saturday.