The shocking loss last week to U.C.L.A. is still reverberating around Nebraska like a sour note, its deeper meaning having been continually plumbed by wags and half-wits since the moment sunburned California coeds ran meekly on the field at the Rose Bowl to celebrate.
Some bloggers, after one loss and only two weeks, want to see the coaching staff throw out the baby and the bath water (“Pelini needs to …rethink his scheme,” Bleacher Report’s Tim Keef); while others counsel patience and reserve (Corn Nation’s Husker Mike; and Bleacher Report’s Nathaniel Walters); and still others report gleefully, and amusingly, on the club’s sundry meltdowns (Corn Nation’s Mister Mike). Needless to say, hysteria reigns generally on the radio talk shows.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, and I am sure I can’t handle it.
What am I trying to say here? Im saying, Nebraska fan, please do me a favor. Please stop calling for coaching changes after one loss.
In the end, it is only football. But one fact stands out: Four highly-regarded, if underperforming, players — Chase Rome, Tyler Moore, Ryan Klachko and Aaron Greene — have left the team this season.
It is hard to say what effect the absence of these players has had on the team’s performance; I am guessing it is negligible. But the developments, naturally, have attracted much serious comment.
On the glass-is-half-full side is The Lincoln Journal-Star’s Steve Sipple, who seems to think the departures, while unfortunate, are of no great concern. “Bottom line,” Mr. Sipple writes, “it’s difficult to drum up much sympathy for players who leave programs because they dislike being pushed for playing time.”
More critical is the Bleacher Report’s dependable Patrick Runge, who thinks it is a sign Coach Bo Pelini is not being forthright with his players. “When numerous players start leaving at the same time, broader questions should be asked about how the coaching staff uses its talent,” Mr. Runge writes.
If you ask me, there is no accounting for what a 20-something person is going to do. Some of these guys might have been homesick. Some of them might have been heartily sick of Mr. Pelini’s rageaholic demeanor. In the end, I am grateful the plot lines do not involve car accidents or sex crimes.
But I observe that it is at least possible that such departures are a sign that Mr. Pelini has lost — or is starting to lose — his grip on the locker room.
This is notable because that is exactly how Mr. Pelini’s predecessor, Bill Callahan, lost his job.
Mr. Callahan, in taking over for the blessed-by-Tom-Osborne Frank Solich, made numerous strategic errors during his tenure, notably adopting a cavalier attitude toward the hoary traditions Huskers fans hold almost as dear as lopsided victories. No one in Nebraska would ever agree to this, but Mr. Callahan also showed tentative signs of progress as coach, winning eight games and a bowl in his second season. And throughout his tenure, he was consistently attracting acclaimed recruits.
Unfortunately for him, and the Tony Bahama clothing line, at some point Mr. Callahan began to lose the respect of his players. It wasn’t surprising; he had long since lost the respect of all but the most optimistic and good-natured fans.
While Nebraska won nine games in his third season, the team seemed to slowly fall apart. The Huskers won the North division of the Big 12, but were clearly overmatched against Oklahoma in the conference title game. Several weeks later, the operative adjective was “disinterested” in the Cotton Bowl against Auburn.
In Year 4, there was a five-game losing streak, and – never mind.
What is interesting about the things now happening to Mr. Pelini is how different things might have been if Steve Pederson had held his tater as athletic director when he fired Mr. Solich in 2003. Mr. Solich, who with a little luck might have flat-out won the national title after the 1999 season, could not recover from a blowout loss to Colorado in 2001 and a dismal 7-7 season in 2002, as the last of Mr. Osborne’s players moved on into the N.F.L. or the various correctional systems around the country.
Even with those failings, Mr. Solich was no slouch. His record in his first six seasons (58-19) compares favorably with Mr. Osborne’s in his first six (55-16-2). In contrast, Mr. Pelini would have to win 19 of the next 20 games to do better.
Had Mr. Solich acted more decisively to arrest what was probably only a cyclical reverse, sacking some of his longtime co-workers, for starters, and perhaps weaning himself off his preposterously hidebound option offenses, and had Mr. Pederson waited a season or two before judging his coach on those efforts, life in Lincoln might be much different today.
For instance, it might be what life is like in Athens, Ohio, where Mr. Solich landed after his tumultuous exit. Ohio University was 10-4 last season, with its first bowl win in no one there knows how long, and it opened this season with a convincing victory against no-longer-has-its-heart-in-it Penn State.
“We can be kind of like a Boise State,” Ohio’s quarterback chirped to Yahoo’s Eric Adelson.
Boise State? Sure, that is small potatoes compared with the euphoric heights Mr. Osborne achieved in the 1990s.
But it is not a hash like what might be cooking under Mr. Pelini’s nose.