Ireland’s consistently mild, moist climate results in grass that grows 11 months out of the year. Some call it Forty Shades Of Green. In fact, that’s what Johnny Cash named one of his songs after visiting the country.
“Green, we’ve got a lot of it,” Padriac O’Kane said, “even though you guys will try to turn it red when you get over there.
“But we can cope with that.”
O’Kane, representing Irish American Events, was referencing Nebraska fans who will likely cross the ocean in droves for the 2021 Aer Lingus Football Classic between Nebraska and Illinois.
O’Kane and John Anthony, CEO of Anthony Travel, attended a Tuesday news conference at Memorial Stadium to officially announce the game, the second in a five-game series featuring American colleges playing in Ireland. Navy and Notre Dame, who have already played two such games, begin the renewed series next season.
Anthony said the 2012 game drew 35,000 Americans, with 28,000 supporting Notre Dame.
“It’s fair to issue a challenge today to Husker Nation,” Anthony said, “to get to 29,000.”
Of course, we all know how Nebraska fans respond to such challenges.
That’s why Anthony locked in on Nebraska during a meeting two years ago with Big Ten Conference athletic directors and administrators. League commissioner Jim Delany had invited Anthony, who expressed interesting in having the Big Ten play in the Aer Lingus Football Classic, to the meeting, where he would spend about 5 minutes selling the Ireland experience.
Bill Moos, who’d just been hired as Nebraska’s Athletics Director, attended the meeting.
“You could tell that I was the high school kid focused on one girl at the dance,” Anthony said, “because with 50 people there, I stared at Bill the entire time.
“I was so locked in on getting Nebraska as the first Big Ten team over, because this is a special place, and you were the beauty of the ball for us.”
Already, Nebraska fans are proving Anthony’s point.
As of noon Tuesday, or some 24 hours after Nebraska and Illinois announced their participation in the Aer Lingus Football Classic, more than 600 Husker fans had placed deposits for the Ireland trip through the official web site Huskers2Ireland.com.
That, Anthony said, helped set a record for first-day sales to the game, bettering each of the previous four. In addition to the two Notre Dame-Navy matchups, Ireland hosted UCF-Penn State and Boston College-Georgia Tech.
“The fan base here is well known throughout the sport, the country,” Anthony said. “Nobody can match Nebraska fan with how you travel, the knowledge, the loyalty, the respect for the game. The Husker Nation is something very special.”
Anthony has seen it firsthand. He lives in South Bend, Indiana, and he attended the 2000 Nebraska-Notre Dame game, when Husker fans took over Notre Dame Stadium, turning it into a sea of red.
“I’ve never forgotten it,” Anthony said. “We want that whole sea of red to take over Dublin and the country of Ireland like you did South Bend, Indiana, 19 years ago.”
“Where your program is right now and where you’re headed, it seems like Nebraska football is the place to be, so we’ll be thrilled to have you.”
Moos said he wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear Husker fans helped set a record for first-day sales. He also expects them to accept Anthony’s challenge and break the Notre Dame attendance record.
“As I’ve said, this is such an incredible fan base,” Moos said. “They feel such ownership in the program. I found out real fast it’s nothing to our people to drive six, seven hours to Lincoln for a game, or to drive to Minneapolis or Boulder. They don’t even blink an eye.
“If they can afford it – and there will be several packages that hopefully will be appealing to our fans – I got a feeling they’ll get over there.”
Moos knew from the beginning that Nebraska was extremely appealing to Anthony, and Moos became intrigued, as well, for several reasons. It’s an opportunity for student-athletes who probably wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to travel overseas, it showcases the school internationally and the “week zero” game will be the only one on the college football schedule, meaning Nebraska and Illinois will be alone in the national spotlight.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he didn’t hesitate to say yes when approached about the opportunity to play in Ireland.
“I think it’s an incredible educational experience,” Frost said. “I think our football players will benefit from it, both from a football standpoint and from a personal standpoint. When they laid out the details of the trip and things our players will be able to do, I thought it made a lot of sense.”
Frost said he’s traveled many places but has never been to Ireland. He’d like to visit around the country, if possible, and maybe even catch a round of golf in a country that’s hosted its share of professional golf events.
Nebraska assistants Sean Beckton and Travis Fisher, as members of the UCF coaching staff, have participated in the Ireland event, as has running back Dedrick Mills, when he played as a freshman at Georgia Tech. All offered favorable reviews, Frost said.
“Hosting college football games in Dublin is not only about bringing the spectacle and the drama of gridiron to an Irish audience,” O’Kane said, “but they are of course welcome to enjoy the pageantry, color and excitement of the entire weekend, and nobody does pageantry like you, our U.S. cousins.
“For game week 2021, we can guarantee Nebraska and Illinois an experience of a lifetime. We will take all of your college football traditions on tour and introduce Irish hospitality, Irish fun and Irish weather.”
O’Kane said teams like Nebraska and Notre Dame won’t give up home games to play in such events as this, because of the revenue needed from that home game.
“So we focus on good, quality teams that have smaller stadium capacities that are able to not happily give up a home game,” he said, “but can certainly look at it.”
Connections between the United States and Ireland, O’Kane said, make games like these a natural fit.
“In your last census, 40 million American list themselves as having Irish descent. Twenty-two of U.S. American presidents have Irish ancestry,” O’Kane said. “And from a tourism perspective, for your fans to come over and see Ireland, see how Dublin is a beautiful city, its culture. It’s easy to get around.”
He also recommended the White Atlantic Way, 1,600 miles along the West coast of Ireland from Derry in the north to County Cork in the south.
“It’s a lovely drive. You can cycle it, you can walk part of it. So many nice things to see,” he said. “And there’s Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway, beautiful part of the country. Then in Dublin, things like the Guinness Storehouse, the Book of Kells, the Trinity College, things that have to be on your bucket list, and if they aren’t, why aren’t they?”
– Brian Rosenthal