But I don’t think Pelini is Nebraska’s problem. That is, I don’t think he is what is holding them back from eleven- and twelve-win seasons, conference titles, and BCS/playoff berths. I also don’t think Nebraska had a Frank Solich problem in 2003 when the Huskers’ then-head coach was canned by Steve Pederson, the new AD. Pederson commented that he refused “to let the program gravitate into mediocrity.” But I suggest that Nebraska’s gravitation to mediocrity (however you define it) is not a Pelini problem and is not a Solich problem. It’s a not-Osborne problem.
Tom Osborne is revered in Nebraska, and rightly so. He took over for Bob Devaney—who built Nebraska out of nothing and won back-to-back national titles in 1970 and 1971—in 1973 and proceeded to win nine games every year for twenty-five years. He won thirteen conference championships and three national championships, retiring with the highest winning percentage in the nation. His program was never on probation, his teams played hard and physical and did things “the right way,” and he is still regarded as an offensive genius and one of the greatest coaches of all time.
Since Osborne retired in 1997, Nebraska has played thirteen seasons (disregarding the four years under Bill Callahan, who was clearly a mistake). In those thirteen seasons (six under Solich, now seven under Pelini) Nebraska has won an average of 9.5 games. They suffered one 7-7 season (2002) but never a losing season. They had an average final AP ranking of 15.5 in the nine of twelve years they finished with a ranking. On the heels of Nebraska’s success in the mid ’90s, when Nebraska went 60-3 and won three national titles in a five-year span, this would have to be defined as mediocrity. Even compared to the first twenty years of Osborne’s tenure, the last thirteen years (again, minus Callahan’s time at the helm) must be seen as a step back.
Add to this, the fact that in those thirteen years, Nebraska won exactly one conference championship. That came in 1999, Frank Solich’s second year, when he was largely coaching Osborne’s players, running Osborne’s offense, with Osborne’s defensive coordinator Charlie McBride calling the defense, before Bob Stoops resurrected Oklahoma and before Texas was truly a national power. Solich also had a future Heisman-winner at quarterback in Eric Crouch. Aside from that 1999 year, it has been bone dry for Nebraska as far as championships.
So, are Solich and Pelini failures as head coaches at a major program? If so, you also have to lump in Callahan, who couldn’t be considered anything but, meaning Nebraska has hired three straight failures. Or, is it possible that the issue isn’t so much who Nebraska’s coach is as who Nebraska’s coach isn’t?
Let’s look at some other factors:
Conference Size: Osborne won mostly in the Big 8, a conference that, oddly enough, had eight teams. To win a conference title, he had to beat out Oklahoma and, toward the end, Colorado. Maybe an upstart Missouri or Kansas State team. But for the brunt of his career, it was OU that stood in the Huskers’ way. Since 1995, Nebraska has played in the twelve-team Big XII and the now fourteen-team Big Ten. They have to compete with Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and pesky Minnesota and Iowa teams. And I haven’t even mentioned Michigan and Penn State, perennial powers who are down right now. In the old Big XII, Oklahoma was joined by Texas, Texas A&M, and Kansas State and Missouri programs that came to life around the turn of the century. Point is, it is much harder to win a conference now than twenty years ago, especially when you factor in conference championship games that often pit underdogs with nothing to lose against the best team in the conference with everything to lose.
Changing Landscape: Scholarship restrictions, expanded TV coverage, and decrease in tradition have all come about in roughly the last quarter century, and all hamper Nebraska. No longer can the power schools stock up on recruits. That limits depth to an extent, curtails meaningful practice repetitions, and increases the talent pool for non-power schools. No longer do players have to come to Nebraska or a similar school to be on TV and be seen by friends, family, and NFL scouts. Northern Illinois and Bowling Green are on TV all the time too. Many players’ goal of “getting to the League” is just as reachable by standing out on a small stage than by being part of a star-studded cast on a big stage. And no longer are recruits longer swayed by tradition, by being part of something bigger than themselves. They’re drawn to shiny helmets and alternate uniforms. Nebraska may have the longest sellout streak in the nation and the greatest fans passing through its gates, but Oregon wears neon.
Climate: Let’s face it, Nebraska isn’t a destination. Don’t get me wrong, I love my home state and I think Lincoln is a great place to live and raise a family. For whatever reason, it’s not a hot spot for eighteen-year-olds. There are no beaches in Nebraska. No mountains. It’s not known for its beautiful women like the Florida schools, Ole Miss, Texas, or USC. The weather isn’t ideal. Nor is Nebraska or its surrounding states a hotbed for high school talent like Florida, Texas, California, and Ohio. None of this has changed in the last twenty years, and none of these are death knells to a program. But they do hinder the cause.
So as we move well into the 21st century, what are reasonable expectations for Nebraska football? Should the Huskers be dismally disappointed if they fail to win the Big Ten and don’t get invited to the College Football Playoff? Should nine wins (and thus four losses) be considered a good, satisfactory season? Is Nebraska a decade away from being Illinois, a one-time power (they have five national titles too) that now toils in obscurity? Before any decision is made about Bo Pelini (or any other coach) that question needs to be answered.
My take is this: Tom Osborne is not walking through that door. 1995 is not coming back. But look around. Save for Florida State in the ’90s, USC from 2003-2008ish, and Alabama currently, who has experienced even close to what the Huskers had in Osborne’s heyday? And look where all of those programs have been in the last twenty years. USC was largely mediocre in the 1990s. Alabama was a joke (Mike Price) in the first half of the 2000s. FSU canned their iconic coach because the program was hovering around the .500 mark. Notre Dame has been relevant once in twenty years. Florida won two national titles with Urban Meyer, then went 6-6 his last season and just fired his replacement. Even Big Game Bob Stoops at Oklahoma has won very few significant games in the last decade, and is more known for his big-stage failures than his one national title.
I still think Nebraska can be a top program. By top program, I mean winning nine games every year (with a once a decade exception when everybody gets hurt, the roster is young, the schedule is tilted against them, and they get all the bad breaks), competing for a conference title more often than not, and winning it just as frequently as Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin do. They should be a factor in the national title race now and again, and they should stop being humiliated by losses to inferior teams and blowouts to peers. That bar may seem low to many Nebraska fans, but considering the current state of college football and Nebraska’s place in it, I think it is reasonable.
Can Nebraska ever be more than that? Can they be an elite program, a perennial top 10 team for whom 9-4 is a “rebuilding year” and conference titles are frequent? Yes, I think they can. It starts by building a solid foundation (which Pelini has done) and then building upon that foundation (which Pelini is yet to do). But it takes time. It won’t happen overnight. Nebraska fans need to be patient. The other option is to hire the next Saban or Meyer, master motivators and grinders, or the next offensive innovator like Osborne, Spurrier, or Malzahn. But those types of coaches are few and far between, and if you keep trying to hit the jackpot, you usually end up broke.
So what of Pelini? Should he be fired? Should he be given more time? Let’s look at the end of the Frank Solich era and learn from what happened there:
First, Nebraska recognized the need for changes and made difficult choices. After a 7-7 record in 2002, Solich revamped his coaching staff, including replacing long-time assistant and then defensive coordinator Craig Bohl. He brought in a guy named Bo, and Nebraska responded by going 10-3 in 2003. But they did lose their three biggest games and failed to reach the Big XII Championship Game, and Steve Pederson determined the program was gravitating to mediocrity. This current Nebraska team has plateaued, has failed to take the next step, and there’s nothing to suggest they’re ready to get over that hump as currently constituted. I think it is time for changes. Maybe Bo should fire/reassign Papuchis and coach the defense himself. Maybe the Huskers need a new offensive scheme. Maybe recruiting needs to be re-evaluated. I don’t know the answer, but I think most Husker fans would agree that it is time for something different.
That leads to my second point. Pederson didn’t give the changes made by Solich enough time. There was clear improvement from 2002 to 2003. It would have seemed only natural to give the staff another year or two to see if they could ascend even higher, having gone from mediocre to good, to see if they could go from good to great. If Pelini does make changes, he needs to be given time to see the fruits of his labor, so to speak.
Third and foremost: If you’re going to get rid of a good thing, you’d better replace it with a great thing. Solich won 75% of his games. Pelini has won at a similar clip. When Solich was fired, Nebraska couldn’t find a suitor and had to settle for Bill Callahan. If Nebraska fires Bo Pelini, who replaces him? Would Shawn Eichorst bring Scott Frost back from Oregon? Lure Jim McElwain from Colorado State? Either of them might be the next Chip Kelly. Or the next Will Muschamp. What if McElwain says no? What if Frost bolts for Florida. Then Nebraska’s left scraping, desperate to find someone—anyone!—to fill their vacancy?
Fourth: Coaching Changes are hard. Nebraska went 5-6 in 2004, against a schedule that could have led to 9-2 or 10-1. Coaching changes divide fan bases and upset boosters. Players transfer. Recruits change their minds. New systems and philosophies have to be implemented. Every now and again, a Bob Stoops or a Jim Tressel comes in and has immediate success. Far more often, Charlie Weiss, Lane Kiffin, or Ron Zook end up falling short of expectations. If Nebraska fires Pelini, they might hire the next great coach and never look back. Or they might hire a dud and find themselves looking for another coach after three painful years. Most likely, they get a solid hire who takes a few years to stabilize things and then builds a decent program. And after 10-3 and 9-4 in 2018 and 2019, we’re in the same boat we’re in now.
Don’t just look at Nebraska. Take a lesson from Michigan, another traditional power who has gravitated into mediocrity. Wolverine fans were disillusioned with Lloyd Carr and a program that had slipped. They fired a coach who’d never had a bad season, who had won national titles and BCS bowls, and look what they’ve endure since: Historic, embarrassing lows under Rich Rodriguez and continual decline after one good season with Brady Hoke. Seven years later, Lloyd Carr looks pretty good to the Maize and Blue.
I’m not saying Pelini is a great coach. I’m not even saying that he is necessarily the right coach. He certainly has flaws. But in all likelihood, so will the next guy. Change isn’t good. Change isn’t bad. Change is change. It’s almost a difficult thing. And there are no guarantees if Nebraska fires Pelini or if they retain him. But in a day and age where coaches are canned left and right, I’d like to see the Huskers stick with their guy, maintain some continuity, and see if he can’t turn the corner. Some changes clearly need to be made. There are definite things that need to be fixed. Maybe they won’t get made or fixed and Pelini will lose his team, become toxic, and need to go. Maybe they will get made and fixed and Nebraska will still be a 9-4 team with head-scratching losses that finds itself at a crossroads again. Or maybe the Huskers will build upon a solid, if not imperfect, foundation and take the team to the next level. Whatever happens, as the fight song says, let’s “all stick together in all kinds of weather for dear old Nebraska U.”