At Big Ten Media Days last week, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini may have touched the metaphorical third rail of athletics by indirectly criticizing Nebraska fans. As quoted in the Omaha World-Herald, Pelini said:
[Y]ou tell your players: Don’t read the blogs, don’t do this and that. But they’re human, they hear it, they see it … they ride the waves. You guys know. I’m not just saying with the media. I’m talking the fan base. Or in town. You play good and you’re the ’85 Bears. You lose and the sky is falling. Or you don’t play well and the world’s coming to an end. There’s not a lot of middle ground …
LSU was into it. Oklahoma was into it. But the constant seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year, it’s different here than those places. It’s not a constant barrage of it at some of the other places. It’s compartmentalized a little bit where the players aren’t slammed over the head with it every day of the year. That is a challenge here. But it’s just the way it is. It’s not going away. The fans’ passion for it, and media, that’s a positive. But there are issues with that, too, that relate to our football team and how you keep them focused.
Reactions to Pelini’s comments were generally negative, with Tom Shatel imploring Pelini to use Nebraska’s fervent fanbase to his advantage and Dirk Chatelain wondering what Pelini will be like if Nebraska’s national media attention gets even bigger than it is now. Unsurprisingly, Steven Sipple took to Pelini’s defense, arguing that people shouldn’t be upset about Pelini’s comments because he was being honest and authentic.
So are Nebraska fans a problem?
Well, let’s take a step back for a minute. Pelini did say that the Children of the Corn’s passion is “a positive,” meaning he recognizes the benefits a fanbase like Nebraska’s provides to him.
But he also thinks there are “challenges” that come with a rabid fanbase, and one of those challenges is that that the mercurial nature of fans contributes to the maddening inconsistency demonstrated by Pelini’s Nebraska teams during his tenure.
Remember, we’re talking about college kids playing for Nebraska. If you’re in college now, you probably understand. If, like me, you’re a few (well, more than a few) years removed from college, you should remember how you were affected by things at age 20 that wouldn’t bother you at age 40.
So, yeah, tell the players not to read the blogs, or Twitter, or the message boards, or anything else which might be talking Nebraska up as world-beaters one week and tearing it down as rubbish the next week. And, while you’re at it, give the sun a good talking-to about rising in the north tomorrow morning.
College kids are affected by what’s around them, and by what’s being said about them. To say they aren’t is just denying reality. For heaven's sake, we heard stories about Taylor Martinez getting ripped in Spanish class for throwing interceptions.
So when Nebraska fans start Facebook discussions about the best hotel to stay at for the BCS title game after NU dominates Michigan State, it’s not too surprising to see a self-satisfied NU squad roll their helmets onto the field and lose to Northwestern the following week.
(As an aside, I will say that I don't buy Nebraska fans being more "into it" than fans at LSU or Oklahoma. I've yet to see any tree murders or broadcast teabagging from Nebraska fans. I think those comments from Pelini have more to do with him being a coordinator at LSU and Oklahoma and the head coach at Nebraska.)
So does that mean Nebraska fans are responsible for NU’s inconsistency the last few years, and need to change their ways? Absolutely, unequivocally, not.
Yes, fans can affect a team. And yes, the more rabid and passionate a fanbase is, the more it can affect a team. But it’s not the fan’s job to moderate themselves for the team. It’s the coaches’ job to inoculate the team from the fans’ influence.
After all, when Nebraska hits the road there will be tens of thousands of opposing fans trying to influence NU in a negative way, and they won’t be interested in any polite admonitions to moderate themselves for the benefit of the NU squad.
“You don’t ever point the finger. You point the thumb—back at yourself if you’re a leader,” Pelini said to a leadership conference in 2009, according to a Shatel column in the Omaha World-Herald.
That’s what needs to happen here. Fans are a force of nature, outside the control of a coach. As Pelini observed, Nebraska fans’ fervor is “a positive” for NU, but that presents some “challenges.”
The Children of the Corn have provided a raucous home environment for Nebraska since the mid-60s, and that atmosphere has been far more of a home field advantage than a disadvantage for NU. The fans’ unbridled love of all things Huskers has swayed more than a few top-notch recruits to choose the plains of Lincoln over the beach or the mountains of more picturesque locales.
But, yes, the rose of that unbridled love does have some thorns. Pelini’s job—one that he acknowledges and accepts as a necessary consequence of the “positive” fan fervor—is to make sure his team doesn’t buy into the irrational mood swings that define being a fan.
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