'Million Dollar Party' offers cautionary tale about hitching hopes to Nebraska football

Thursday, February 8, 2018
Robert and Susan Ihrig, of Parker, Colo., have written “Million Dollar Party” as a cautionary tale to those who dream of owning their own bar or restaurant.
Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Gazette

PARKER, Colo. — Robert and Susan Ihrig, former McCook and Culbertson residents, don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. But they wrote their book, “Million Dollar Party,” in hopes of, at the least, drawing a cloud over all the bright shiny expectations of TV’s “Cheers” and Toby Keith’s song, “I Love this Bar.”

Susan tells Bob when he says he wants to write a book to warn people of the pitfalls of bar ownership, “Very few will be dissuaded from their dreams. You knew the facts and still jumped in.”

“Million Dollar Party” tells how the Ihrigs’ jumped in, stumbled and fell after opening and investing tons of money in the dream they called “Bob’s Gridiron Grille and the Pigskin Bar,” a restaurant and bar in Lincoln whose popularity, Bob discovered too late, rose and fell with the win-loss record and coaching staff changes of the Nebraska Cornhusker football team.

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Robert Mark Ihrig was the son of a successful coach, Robert Carl Ihrig (1946 MHS graduate), the coach of a history-making 1957-58 basketball team at Clatonia High School. The younger Bob wasn’t athletic, and he knew that deeply disappointed his father. Their connection, however, was watching professional sports on TV, buying and collecting football and baseball trading cards, and loving everything about the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Bob’s dad died young, just 35 years old, of a heart attack in 1964. The family — Bob’s mother (nicknamed “Maisy” by her husband), his sisters Pam and Kim, and Bob and his brother Roger — moved to McCook to be close to his mother’s family at Indianola. The family struggled, and Bob turned to his music, buying on credit — like father, like son — a drum set from Ernie Fischer, the owner of Fischer’s Toy Store.

Bob — the bad boy on the drums of a rock band of bad boys — met who he often calls “Miss Susan Jean Butherus” of Culbertson when they both played in the marching band at McCook Junior College in the fall of 1969.

Susan may have been attracted by his bad boy image; Bob was challenged by her status “in another league.” Bob writes several times that he doesn’t know why Susan went out with him, why she chose him — they married in January 1971 — and why she stayed.

Bob went through one job and career move after another. Even a stint as a Seventh Day Adventist pastor ended in disillusionment. He learned something from each job and venture what he wanted to do and what he did not want to do. Bob writes, “All my life, I’ve known I’m a dreamer.”

After visiting a Hard Rock Cafe, Bob’s vision of his own restaurant and bar came into sharp focus: A place that attracted fun people, regulars and new customers who laughed and enjoyed the music and the food and especially the atmosphere — walls plastered with pieces of his lifelong and ever-growing collection — his obsession — of Cornhusker memorabilia.

But in many of his ventures, Bob didn’t heed the advice of ol’ Doc Batty who treated him, as a young adult, after a drug overdose: “A smart man learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

Bob just knew that statistics of restaurant failure “couldn’t possibly be applied to me.” He writes, “I had a solid plan, years of experience, capital, and a one-of-a-kind collection. If ours didn’t work, whose could?”

“Bob’s Gridiron Grille and the Pigskin Pub” opened in February 2003, and even with all of its reincarnations, re-creations, renovations and reinventions, it just didn’t work. Thirty months later, in July 2005, Bob and Susan hosted a “Million Dollar Party” for their staff and some friends, locked the doors and drove away from the bar and the home they lost … west toward the mountains.

All the good and bad, all the ups and downs, all the loyalty and distrust, all the money — that’s the core of Bob and Susan’s book. But it’s not the core of their lives, of their relationship, of their ability to rebound. Those seem to be built on the faith that whatever comes next will be good. From a friend, Bob had learned somewhere along the way: “When life throws you a lemon, add a little sugar, and make sweet lemonade.”

When Bob and Susan reached Denver and the mountains, Susan sighed a sigh of relief and scribbled on a piece of paper, “Back at home in Denver. Peace and love ahead. “ And Bob told Susan, “I have an idea … “

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Bob’s idea was the book that became “Million Dollar Party.” Bob said recently, “We have rebounded from our experience of restaurant ownership. We hope what we shared serves a purpose, by letting others look inside the struggles of an independent restaurant.”

The couple had to start over again, and they were each 55 years old. Within days of arriving in Denver, Susan went to work for a subsidiary of Aetna and has worked there since, as a registered nurse case manager. She’ll retire in a year or two, Bob says.

The couple attended the Missouri Auction School and became licensed auctioneers and certified appraisers. They started a small auction company called “Cripple Creek Auctions Inc.,” conducting live estate auctions in Nebraska (in McCook in 2006 and 2007 on the county fairgrounds) and in Colorado and selling items on eBay for clients to liquidate all sorts of collectibles from dolls, pipes, sports memorabilia, records, pottery, glass, vintage books and autographs. Cripple Creek Auctions continues, and Bob works part-time for Baker’s Auction House in Denver.

Bob said recently, “We built our retirement home in Parker a few years ago, and we are happy, healthy and comfortable. We have two grandsons, and that consumes most of Susan’s attention these days — when she is not working, sewing something, or writing in a journal she has started for both of them.”

Bob said, “If given the time, I’d like to write a book about my father, who graduated from McCook High in 1946. He coached only in small Nebraska towns, and we only skimmed his life in this first book, but his story is worth telling. Susan and I have a second book we might publish in a year. It is a children’s story, and we wrote it as we drove back and forth from Denver to McCook when we were doing all those fairground auctions. It helped fill the time.”

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Million Dollar Party was published by Dog Ear Publishing, and can be ordered through the Ihrigs’ website — www.milliondollarpartybook.com — from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in eBooks.

They hope to conduct book signings, readings and sales in Culbertson, McCook and Indianola this spring.

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