Just to get it out of the way, Bo Pelini is a solid football coach, and an even better human being. But that doesn’t mean he has a secure place as Nebraska’s head football coach.
In five and a half years at Nebraska, Pelini has a 52-22 record, and his teams have never been worse than 5-3 in conference play.
And then there are the acts going beyond wins and losses and X’s and O’s. Reaching out to seven-year old cancer patient Jack Hoffman and giving him a starring role in the Cornhuskers spring game this year is an example.
Hang around Lincoln long enough and you’ll hear other stories. In the middle of fall practice one year, he took time out of his preseason schedule to visit an ill cancer patient late at night. The two talked football for over half an hour and gave the family skybox tickets for a game.
Then there is the assembly line of Academic All-Americans Nebraska churns out – a number that is pasted alongside the 50-plus year consecutive sellout streak at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
All of that makes this past weekend’s decisive loss at Minnesota all the more tough to take. It also puts Pelini’s employment status back on thin ice as the Cornhuskers return from the “Land of the (not-yet frozen) 10,000 Lakes.”
It started with the 41-21 home loss to UCLA, a game that saw the Huskers hold an early 21-3 advantage before conceding 38 straight points.
The aftermath was worse. Legendary former Huskers quarterback Tommie Frazier took the team and the coaching staff to task on social media, and Pelini responded by telling Frazier to take a hike. Then, in another sign of the 2010s, an anonymous person leaked an obscenity-laced recording of Pelini blasting fans for leaving early before a 2011 comeback against Ohio State before he went live for a postgame radio segment.
Pelini was left twisting in the prairie wind for 24 hours. The University was not happy, never mind that Pelini was venting off the record without knowledge someone had a tape record running and ready to bust him.
That’s not to say that Pelini is blameless for his actions. Tommie Frazier is clearly an unhappy alum. In retrospect the best course of action would have been for Pelini to agree with Frazier that the performance of his once proud defense was unacceptable.
That storm went away for a few weeks. The Huskers beat an FCS team without incident before opening Big Ten play with two decisive wins after a bye week.
It took just four quarters for a month of forward momentum to come crashing down. The script was similar to every Nebraska game this year. The team got off to a quick start, but couldn’t sustain the intensity. If college football games were 15 minutes instead of 60, the Huskers could be ranked number one this year.
The current committee comprising the Minnesota Gophers staff with head coach Jerry Kill taking a backseat due to health issues, out-coached Pelini and his assistants. The critics crawled back out of the woodwork like centipedes. Sid Hartman, the 93-year-old Twin Cities columnist reportedly talked trash to a Nebraska radio commentator during halftime, while Tommie Frazier launched another Twitter campaign not long after Gopher fans stormed the field after their school’s first win over the Huskers in 17 attempts.
Nebraska is still 5-2 on the season, and 2-1 in the conference. The team has the look of a 9-3-type finish. That works at the majority of schools, but expectations are different at Nebraska.
The bar in Lincoln was set by Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne. T hat is, 11-2, 12-1, or 13-0, and in BCS Championship consideration. Thirty years ago the Huskers were one of the most feared teams in the history of college football. That season they rolled Minnesota 84-13. After that game aforementioned columnist Sid Hartman accused Coach Osborne of bullying for having running back Mike Rozier in the game during the third quarter to pad some stats for his Heisman campaign.
If Osborne had channeled his inner Ara Parseghian in the final moments of the 1984 Orange Bowl and kicked a game-tying extra point (instead of going for two)the Huskers would have six national championships in my lifetime. In that era of “mythical national champions” the voters would have voted the Huskers No. 1. And the polls always got things right in the 1980s.
Whoops, the seismograph just went off in Seattle. It is Don James turning in his newly constructed grave.
But this is what Pelini signed up for, where Frank Solich and Bill Callahan failed in the last decade. Ohio State spent decades looking for the next Woody Hayes, Alabama spent a generation trying to replace Bear Bryant and many say Michigan is still trying to fill the shoes of Bo Schembechler. I n college hoops, Tom Crean is considered an elite coach but still fights the shadow of Bob Knight at Indiana.
And there are excuses out of portions of Nebraska’s fan base that will not fly. This is Pelini’s sixth year, some say he is now paying the price for a few slow recruiting years when he first took over the reins. What about transfers and the junior college ranks? There is more than one way to bring guys in, and over 125 players (including walk-ons) are listed on the Nebraska roster, it isn’t like the team has problems recruiting.
There is one other factor possibly spelling doom to the Pelini regime. The University of Oregon is making another BCS Championship Game run while scoring points at a historic pace. The offensive coordinator in Eugene happens to be Scott Frost, a former Nebraska quarterback.
In the aftermath of the Minnesota debacle, the question is being asked if now is the time to make a switch. Can Dr. Tom Osborne afford to watch Scott Frost possibly become a head coach somewhere else? The school has made many investments in the football program and athletics in general – a new stadium expansion, a new basketball arena, and improved facilities to the perennial powerhouse women’s volleyball program among them.
This is not a Lane Kiffin-like situation. Bo Pelini is far from sending the football program into a death spiral. But at Nebraska football is a cutthroat business. And it may be Pelini who walks the plank.