Throughout his tenure as head coach at the University of Nebraska, Bo Pelini was an energetic man, as the photo above shows. He was not known to repress his emotions or speak in soft tones — this is neither good nor bad in itself, because fans and pundits both make the mistake of ascribing too much value to emotionalism or too little value to stoicism. Call this “Tom Landry Syndrome,” in which outwardly emotionless coaches are viewed more skeptically than those who express themselves.
Why is Pelini’s temperament being mentioned here? It goes to the heart of why he was no longer the right fit for Nebraska, and why the university — in a move that ultimately surprised many — fired him on Sunday morning, after a 9-3 regular season.
There are many lessons to be found from Pelini’s seven-season tenure in Lincoln, and there are several unvarnished facts which back up the assertion that he had to go. However, the central reason Pelini no longer deserved to coach this storied program is that his energy — his obvious passion for the sport — did not translate into excellence on the side of the ball he knew best.
Pelini, it should be said, is a credentialed football man. As a defensive coordinator at Oklahoma (2004) and then LSU (2007), he reached the BCS National Championship Game. When he came to Lincoln, his Nebraska defenses — powered by Ndamukong Suh — were ferocious. The Blackshirts were alive and well in the Big 12 portion of the Pelini era, carrying on the proud tradition built by Charlie McBride, Tom Osborne’s right-hand man for many years at NU. (Yes, Penn State has been stained by scandal, but in a strict football sense, the comparison between defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky as a longtime assistant to Joe Paterno and McBride as the rock on Osborne’s staff is a sound one — it holds up well under examination… again, in football terms only.)
Pelini’s first few Nebraska defenses carried the load for the Huskers in a split-division Big 12. Missouri entered a period of mediocrity under Gary Pinkel. Bill Snyder returned to Kansas State in 2009 and needed time to rebuild the program (again) in his second act. Nebraska was the foremost team in the Big 12 North in 2009 and 2010, and in those two years, Big Red had its big chance to give Pelini a conference championship and a prestigious BCS bowl berth. Punching that ticket to a top-tier January destination would have given Pelini’s resume the shine and polish it needed. Nebraska — the school, the state, the unified heartbeat of a football way of life — would have become fully convinced that Pelini was a worthy successor to Osborne and Frank Solich.
Yet, in those two years, Nebraska came right up to a moment of opportunity in the Big 12 Championship Game… and fell just short. In particular, a wildly improbable occurrence on December 5, 2009, set the unlucky tone for Pelini’s tenure… a tone he never could reverse.
In the clip below, you’ll see what happened, but in short, a pass by Texas quarterback Colt McCoy hit a railing in AT&T Stadium, the site of the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game between Texas and Nebraska. Had that railing not created a dead ball with one second on the fourth-quarter game clock, time would have expired and Nebraska would have scored a 12-10 win. As it was, one second was put back on the clock, and Texas kicked a field goal for a 13-12 triumph.
Here’s the clip, with the key sequence coming at 3:00:
The next year, Nebraska lost to Oklahoma in the final (for now) Big 12 Championship Game. The Huskers had to be encouraged that they repeated as division champions, but a pattern of falling short in not necessarily big games, but conference championship-deciding duels, began to set in for Nebraska under Pelini. It was true that the program still owned a strong defense at the time, and it was just as true that it had continued to reach late-season contests of considerable importance. Such a track record upheld expectations of where Nebraska should be. Not everything was right in Lincoln, but there was a real sense that Pelini was knocking on the door and would eventually break through.
It was in 2011 and 2012 when Pelini’s program irretrievably took a turn for the worse, a contention affirmed by Nebraska’s inability to change alarming trends in 2013 and 2014.
In 2011, Nebraska brought its brand name to the Big Ten. The Huskers, built into a legendary college football machine by Osborne and Tom Devaney on the strength of interior line play, seemed to be a natural new member of the Midwest’s premier college sports conference. Yet, after thriving on defense in the last years of its Big 12 existence, Nebraska lost hold of its identity, the Blackshirt way. The ghosts of Bill Callahan and Kevin Cosgrove resurfaced, the last thing anyone — critic or apologist — would have expected of a Bo Pelini operation.
Nebraska wasn’t terrible in 2011 by any means — moreover, it wasn’t terrible under Pelini in any season. Yet, the Huskers lost badly when they did lose in 2011, surrendering 48 points to Wisconsin; 45 to Michigan; and 30 to South Carolina. Nebraska also stubbed its toe once, losing at home to a Northwestern team that finished 6-7. Such was the flow of the Big Ten portion of the Pelini era: Nebraska would lose one game it had no business losing. It would then get flattened by top-tier teams with ample offensive firepower.
The nadir of this downward trend — the loss of great defense at Nebraska, coinciding with seasons that were never terrible but never particularly impressive — occurred in another conference championship game, the bane of Pelini’s existence in Lincoln.
When Nebraska returned to the conference championship game spotlight, it did so in its new Big Ten home. When the Huskers took the field in Indianapolis for the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game against a five-loss Wisconsin team (which would lose its sixth game of the season in its subsequent bowl), Pelini arrived at what was supposed to be a crowning moment, the moment that would put various inconsistencies and frustrations in the rearview mirror. FINALLY, Nebraska was going to go to a big-boy bowl, and not just any big-boy bowl, but the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy.
Pelini was about to shake off the demons from the 2009 encounter with that damn railing in Arlington, Texas. He was about to wipe away the bitter taste of losing to Nebraska’s ancient rival, Oklahoma, in the last Big 12 title game. Pelini was about to put Big Red where it fully belonged, in a place where Nebraskans expect the program to be.
Then THIS happened:
The main problem wasn’t that Nebraska lost to a five-loss opponent. It wasn’t even that the Huskers missed out on yet another conference title, though you can’t coach half a decade in Lincoln and fail to win a league title — that’s not acceptable.
No, the lingering and searing indictment of Bo Pelini — made plain on December 1, 2012, against Wisconsin — was that he just couldn’t coach defense anymore. He might have once possessed the capability, and he might very well demonstrate his acumen as a defensive coach when he becomes a coordinator at an elite program (or maybe a head coach at a lower-tier program) in the near future. However, that game — in which Wisconsin had scored 63 points before the 6:30 mark of the THIRD quarter — showed the nation that Nebraska was nowhere near good enough under Bo Pelini, nowhere close to being worthy of the name built by Devaney and Osborne and McBride.
Call Pelini unlucky in 2009, courtesy of that stupid piece of metal in a new football stadium in Texas. Call Pelini a narrow loser whose team fought hard in the 2010 Big 12 title game against Oklahoma. Fine — those things happen. That’s sports.
However, in the 2012 Big Ten title game, Nebraska didn’t show up as a strong favorite. The Huskers didn’t compete. They didn’t have much of a clue. That cannot stand, and nothing in 2013 or 2014 changed what was oh-so-apparent on that night in Indianapolis in 2012. Instructively, Minnesota — though losing to Wisconsin on Saturday — at least showed a level of fight which was completely missing from what Nebraska offered on Nov. 15 in Madison. If Minnesota has 1,000 times more resolve than Nebraska does in football, something’s mightily and irreparably wrong.
After an unfulfilled 2013 season, the higher-ups at Nebraska should have seen enough. It was generous on their part to give Pelini another season, making this firing anything but a bad, premature or unfair decision. Pelini — a man of energy, a man dedicated to coaching defense — could no longer translate his energy or knowledge into performance on that side of the ball. The raison d’etre for his presence as Nebraska’s head coach had vanished. That’s why he had to be given a pink slip, more than anything else.
With that having been established, there are a few other lessons to take away from Pelini’s tenure, with accompanying facts to back it up.
First of all, TSS associate editor Terry Johnson joined this author in saying why Pelini had to be fired a few weeks ago. The strongest and most central point raised in that piece is that if Frank Solich wasn’t good enough for Nebraska after a certain point in time, Pelini shouldn’t have been allowed to stick around any longer.
Let this point be made in capital letters so it sinks in: BO PELINI WAS NOT AND IS NOT FRANK SOLICH.
Pelini might have averaged nine wins a season, but he did so without any special accomplishments in any of those seasons. Solich won a Big 12 title. He reached two BCS bowls and one national title game (however questionable that title-game appearance might have been, in the 2002 Rose Bowl versus Miami). While Nebraska tumbled to a 7-7 record in 2002, Solich built the program back to a 9-3 mark in 2003. Solich showed resilience, but he also achieved at a high level in multiple seasons, something Pelini never managed. The larger notion that Nebraska should be content with a nine-game winner in much the same way that Tennessee should have been content with Phil Fulmer or Michigan should have been content with Lloyd Carr does not pass the sniff test. It never did, either.
Fulmer and Carr won national titles.
Fulmer and Carr won multiple conference championships.
Fulmer and Carr made multiple BCS bowl appearances.
Bo Pelini, in seven seasons (not three or even five, but SEVEN), failed to attain any of those prizes even once.
Nebraska should never be content with that, and it should not feel that Pelini wasn’t given EVERY chance to be able to make things right.
The final instructive lesson of Bo Pelini’s tenure at Nebraska is that nine wins, in the modern era of college football, can mean very little. The fact that this firing occurs at the end of a season allows for some perspective, enhanced by historical and present-day facts.
First of all, we live in an era of 12-game regular seasons, 13 if one includes conference title games. In the 11-game era, nine wins carried more weight, because they were paired with only two losses. The positive spin on the Pelini era is that he always won at least nine games. Well, the other side of the coin is that he never lost fewer than four, including his team’s bowl game. Four losses every year at Nebraska? It sure puts the value of “nine wins” in a different light.
Consider, as a point of comparison, the Duke Blue Devils. For Duke — a school bereft of consistent football excellence and a strong football culture — a 9-3 season is a terrific achievement. For Duke or other basketball schools, 9-3 on the gridiron is worth a parade. Yet, let’s remember that Duke lost at home to Virginia Tech and got rocked at home by North Carolina to improbably lose an ACC Coastal Division title it seemingly had in its pocket three weeks ago. Again, Duke enjoyed a terrific 9-3 season in 2014, but the Devils were still exposed, and they still fell short of a few goals they deeply wanted to attain. At a football school, a season with Duke’s trajectory would rightly be called a disappointment. For seven seasons, that’s what Nebraska encountered; one could make an exception for 2009 and that damn railing in JerryWorld.
Let’s say more about the value of nine wins — or eight, or seven — in modern college football: With three to four cupcakes existing on a modern team’s 12-game schedule, it is very easy in this sport to get to eight wins without having a winning conference record: Go 4-4 in your league and feast on four cupcakes. Presto: 8-4. Stacks and stacks of bowl teams have records of 4-4 or worse in their conference; it’s the four cupcakes (maybe three cupcakes and a bran muffin, aka, a slightly more nutritious non-con menu item on the schedule) which create that bowl-eligible 7-5 record.
For Nebraska and many other teams, 9-3 might seem to be shiny, but a quick peek under the hood reveals a lot more engine damage than one might think. Consider, too, the reality of playing in a weaker division in a conference, as Nebraska does in the Big Ten, by not having to play both Michigan State and Ohio State each season. (The Huskers were paired with Michigan State in the previous Big Ten divisional format, but not with Ohio State.) Given that Michigan — placed in Nebraska’s division from 2011 through 2013 — has not been very good, it’s that much more an indictment of Pelini’s program that he didn’t win division championships with greater regularity.
Nine wins? It means a lot at Duke, and it should.
It ought to mean nothing at Nebraska, and administrators — after seven years — finally seemed to realize that.
Bo Pelini was never a bad head coach… but he was never particularly good, either.
Not when his career numbers and patterns occur at Nebraska.
Had Pelini coached the past seven seasons at a lower-tier program, his career would be seen in a very different light. That is, however, not the situation Nebraska’s leaders face every day. It is also not the situation placed before college football analysts and historians.
When the story of Bo Pelini’s career in Lincoln is seen in full, it will be acknowledged that he was horribly unlucky on December 5, 2009, against the University of Texas. It will just as soon be acknowledged, though, that Pelini — in subsequent seasons — did absolutely nothing to change the tone set by that damn railing and that Colt McCoy pass.
Great careers need luck at crucial moments, but greatness is also revealed in the fullness of time. Bo Pelini had seven years to get things right at Nebraska. That he so clearly failed to do so should make it easy for his career to be labeled for what it was: a disappointment, especially on defense.