In 2003, when Bo Pelini was the defensive coordinator at Nebraska, he took exception to the way Kansas State went about its 38-9 win over the Huskers in Lincoln. He thought K-State coach Bill Snyder ran up the score by keeping his offensive starters in the game too long and the brash Pelini was having none of it.
I happened to be standing just a few feet away inside Memorial Stadium as Pelini approached Snyder and screamed at the legendary coach. Snyder didn’t scream back.
Pelini, who became Nebraska’s head coach in 2007, never lost that fire. But fire burns and Sunday, Pelini lost his job, unable to win or even get his teams to the biggest of games despite a 67-27 overall record.
I’m surprised it took Nebraska so long to move past Pelini. He’s always been a hothead and while that might have worked if he was winning championships and playing in major bowl games, it ticked off too many Huskers fans.
Pelini had his backers, of course, including a lot of Nebraska players who have expressed outrage since Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst announced the firing Sunday morning.
A lot has changed since Nebraska won its most recent national championship in 1997. That was Tom Osborne’s final season and neither his replacement, Frank Solich, nor Pelini has come close to filling his immense shoes.
Osborne and his predecessor, Bob Devaney, ruled over almost four decades of Nebraska dominance, during which the Huskers won 21 Big 8 and Big 12 conference titles and captured national championships in 1970, 1971, 1994, 1995 and 1997.
Devaney was 101-20-2 during 11 seasons from 1962-72. Osborne was 255-49-3 during 25 seasons from 1973-97. That’s an .838 winning percentage covering 36 years, not to mention all of the great players who put the Big Red into any discussion of college football’s greatest programs.
But Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship in 15 years. The Huskers moved to the Big Ten in 2011 mostly because Osborne, the athletic director at the time, was fed up because, in his perception, Texas was running the show in the Big 12.
Nebraska has made it to only one Big Ten title game and was humiliated by Wisconsin, 70-31. Under Pelini, the Huskers were just 4-9 against AP Top 25 teams and lost eight of those nine by double digits. The Huskers have lost four games or more in 10 straight seasons.
Nebraska had gained a reputation as a team that won its fair share or games, but usually not the ones that mattered most.
Now the question becomes whether Nebraska can ever recapture its past glory. The landscape of college football has changed so much since the Huskers were at the top of the mountain.
Long-time Nebraska fans are angry about how their mighty team has fallen.
There’s an expectation amongst those fans that Nebraska should be in the national mix every year. They remember the glory years as if they were yesterday. But they’re not. They’re a generation removed; Nebraska high schoolers have no recollection of the Huskers being much more than a pretty good team.
Not a great one.
Yet the narrative never changes. The next Nebraska coach, long-time Huskers fans demand, has to resurrect greatness.
Wouldn’t a more patient approach be more logical? Aren’t baby steps in order here?
There was a time when the Big Ten always had a team or two in the hunt for a national championship. But neither Ohio State nor Michigan is what they used to be, either. The balance of power in college football lies in the South, in the SEC.
Nebraska isn’t recruiting the kind of players it once did. Other programs have caught up in facilities and prestige. To many of the best high school players, Lincoln is a cold town in the middle of the plains. The allure has diminished and its one a new coach has to polish.
Nebraska can still be a player, of course. The Huskers play in the Big Ten West, which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue. There’s no reason why Nebraska can’t win that division on a consistent basis.
But before any of that happens, Nebraska football fans have to adjust expectations. Or at least stop spouting off about the nearly four decades of dominance. Those times are gone.
The Huskers can do better than they’ve done under Solich and Pelini. But they might never rediscover the riches from the Devaney and Osborne years. I wonder if Nebraska fans realize somewhere in the middle is just fine.