“Nebraska’s defense utterly collapsed in the second half of a game the Huskers were controlling.” I don’t have that sentence saved in AutoText but I should.
You saw it, I saw it, and Tommie Frazier saw it, which led to the Husker legend calling for a solution: firing the entire defensive staff. In fact, he may have even gone further than that, calling for Nebraska to “get rid of the defensive play caller, the Dc, lb dl and db coaches.” That sounds like he might have even been calling for Bo Pelini himself to get fired. Even If Frazier didn’t call for Pelini’s firing, though, plenty among the Husker faithful wouldn’t mind a bit if that happened.
Now, I love the history of college football, so when I see a situation like this arise, I look for historical precedents. Past events are not always predictive of the future but they do help us find some kind of understanding. I couldn’t find any recent instance of a head coach firing his entire staff on one side of the ball. Steve Sarkisian came pretty close two seasons ago at Washington, but the complete switcheroo is apparently elusive.
There is a precedent for the situation Nebraska is in right now, because there has been a coach who trod this ground of being pretty good at a football powerhouse but never quite delivering the desired results. His name is Earle Bruce, and he coached the Ohio State Buckeyes from 1979 to 1987.
Following a brilliant 11-1 run in 1979, Bruce’s tenure in Columbus can be summed up by one statistic: 9-3. That was his record every season from 1980 to 1985. There are only a handful of schools that would be completely dissatisfied with such a six-season run. Unfortunately for Bruce, Ohio State is one of those schools. Fortunately for Bruce, he improved in 1986…to 10-3. But after going 6-4-1 in 1987, he was shown the door.
Nebraska fans are reading that and probably thinking the two situations really aren’t that comparable. After all, Earle Bruce once lost only one game in a season. But they are comparable. Prior to the wet-mattress 1987 season, Earle Bruce coached just well enough to make him not quite fireable. That’s the same place in which Bo Pelini, who has lost exactly four games in every season, finds himself.
So what does Nebraska do? Does it tell Pelini he has to replace the defensive staff? Would sacrificing defensive coordinator John Papuchis be enough? Or should the Huskers simply decide that if Pelini, a defensive specialist, hasn’t fixed the Blackshirts by now that he never will?
All this would be a lot less complicated if not for a few reasons. The first is that Nebraska’s football personnel decisions over the past decade or so have not always come from a place of wisdom. Mind you, the fans have always gotten what they wanted. They ran defensive coordinator Craig Bohl out of town after 2002 and still don’t regret the decision even though Bohl has won two FCS titles playing Nebraska football at North Dakota State. They hounded former athletic director Steve Pederson into dumping Frank Solich just one year later even though Solich had actually started turning things around. When Nebraska couldn’t find a better coach than Bill Callahan, the fans managed to get rid of both Callahan and Pederson and got who they said they’d always wanted: Bo Pelini.
If there’s a better illustration of “be careful what you ask for” than the last decade of Nebraska football, I’d like to know what it is. The fans, it seems, do not always know what’s best. New athletic director Shawn Eichorst should be cautious about giving them exactly what they want.
The second complicating factor is the existence of the perfect candidate for Pelini’s replacement: Scott Frost, former Huskers quarterback from the best part of the Tom Osborne era. Frost has coached successfully on both sides of the ball as a co-defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa and now as Oregon’s offensive coordinator. He is a Nebraska native who knows the Husker way and is well versed in an offense that even the NFL appears unable to stop. He’s never been a head coach at any level before, but there was this one time that Nebraska hired an obvious-choice coordinator who had never been a head coach before and he turned out to be Tom Osborne.
Then again, there was another time Nebraska did the same thing and he turned out to be Bo Pelini.
The last complication is that coaching hires don’t take place in a vacuum. Everybody knows that only a miracle will prevent Texas from sacking Mack Brown after this season. There’s little chance the Longhorns would be interested in Scott Frost as a head coach, but Texas can create a stunning ripple effect. Though not many are considering Frost a strong candidate for a big promotion now, it’s still mid-September. What do you do, Nebraska? Would it make a difference if Pelini actually does save this season with an incredible run? Do you give him another year to turn things around with a new defensive outlook? Do you run the risk of elevating Frost too soon? Do you run the risk that Frost will get a different job in what figures to be another tumultuous season of hirings and firings?
Do you have somebody else in mind?
Can you actually get that somebody else?
In the end I think Tommie Frazier might be right, or at least pretty close to it. Nebraska has an excellent offense with lots of talent. I think what the Huskers really need, though, is two new coordinators and a greater sense of urgency.