MIAMI -- They have been hard to miss, with their red T-shirts and their suddenly sunburned faces. They have been equally hard to read, wearing looks ranging from just-happy-to-be-here (again) to this-will-be-the-year (finally).
They have been everywhere here this week, waiting for last night's Orange Bowl game. In Coconut Grove, where the T-shirts read "Nebraska Football Is Life." Along the boardwalk in Miami Beach, where "Refuse To Lose II" seemed the rage.
Nobody dared suggest to Nebraska football fans that they should wear a T-shirt saying "Nebraska Football Is Frustration" or "Used To Lose VIII." Nobody dared to tell these proud and patient people that this might not quite be their year.
For many, the trip to Miami is usually little more than a diversion from another hard, long winter. They come by the thousands, hoping to see their beloved Cornhuskers beat some team from Florida and win a national championship.
They're usually disappointed.
"I think obsession is too strong a word," Suzanne Taylor said yesterday afternoon as she strolled along the ocean in Miami Beach with her husband, Chuck, and some friends from Lincoln. "There's only a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and pride for the job Tom Osborne has done."
One of her friends, Tom Calvert, chose to differ.
"Obsession's not bad," said Calvert, a 1958 graduate who hasn't missed many home games in the past 35 years.
It comes from not winning a national title since Nebraska won back-to-back championships under the legendary Bob Devaney in 1971 and 1972. Osborne was a key member of Devaney's staff, and has the championship rings to prove it. But it isn't the same.
Considering how many times the Cornhuskers have been in contention since, it is a stretch of frustration unmatched in college football, perhaps equaled only in college sports by a 25-year stretch between basketball championships for North Carolina.
"They say we can't win the big one," Rick Cushing, a 1981 graduate, said Saturday outside his hotel. "But at least we're in the big one almost every year."
Cushing, who moved from his native Omaha to Charlotte, N.C., last fall and is going through "football withdrawal -- all they care about down there is basketball," was going to his first Orange Bowl game last night. "Maybe," he said, "I'll bring them good luck."
The Biesings -- Harold and Howard -- have been coming to the Orange Bowl since 1984, the year the Cornhuskers came within a failed two-point conversion of beating Miami.
Harold and his wife, Nancy, have missed only four of the team's 200 straight sellouts, while Howard follows the team long distance from Raleigh, N.C.
They know what is going to happen if top-ranked Nebraska beat third-ranked Miami last night. They know it's going to become a different kind of obsession in a state where 40,000 fans showed up just for a pep rally at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium the night before this year's UCLA game.
"If he wins it," Howard Biesing said of Osborne, "then they'll want him to win it again to go back-to-back just like Devaney did."
At a pep rally Saturday in Miami Beach, where some 400 Nebraska fans were staying, Dennis Bojanski and two of his friends from Omaha were talking about what it's like to root for a team that comes agonizingly close every year.
"We need to get the monkey off our backs big-time," said Bojanski, who drove some 180 miles to Kansas City to get a flight to Miami for the game.
Neither Bojanski nor his friends went to Nebraska, nor do they have season tickets. But their passion runs deep, because it's tougher for them to get to see the Cornhuskers play. They manage to see three or four games a year, even it means going on the road, where the games aren't sold out.
They will be happy when the Orange Bowl game moves up the interstate to Joe Robbie Stadium in two years and when the Cornhuskers get to play in places such as Tempe, Ariz., or New Orleans. "If I never see Miami's stadium again, it will be fine with me," said Dennis Schon, one of Bojanski's friends.
Getting a ticket to last night's game wasn't the easiest thing for Nebraska fans. Though the stadium holds more than 74,000, the university received an allotment of only 12,500. The University of Miami got the same numbers, but three-quarters of the stadium was expected to be filled with orange and green, not Big Red.
They were getting ready to celebrate this long-awaited victory and Osborne's elusive national championship. But given the record of seven straight New Year's Day bowl losses, four of them coming here, they also were bracing themselves for another disappointment.
What would it be like to lose again?
Another of Bojanski's buddies, Tom Vacek, emptied his beer cup and looked as if he were going to cry.
"It would be," he said, "like losing a friend."