After Nebraska’s loss to Iowa on Friday, Nebraska football fans were left to wonder whether the third Heroes Game was the last one with Bo Pelini in charge. Saturday morning, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst ended that speculation with a statement of support, saying Pelini would be leading the Nebraska football program into the future.
But that uncertainty, which started after the Deadspin rant, gained momentum after Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota, and built to a fever pitch after the Iowa loss, has made Nebraska fans take a hard and critical look at their head coach. The first thing to do when taking such a look is make a list of pros and cons, so let’s take a look at what that list would look like for Pelini.
In his six years in charge at Nebraska, Pelini has never won fewer than nine games (although that string is not yet confirmed for 2013). In a state where there is precious little native football talent, and through the upheaval of a conference change, Pelini has kept Nebraska winning games and going to bowls every year—something that couldn’t be said of his two predecessors.
Once someone has earned Pelini’s trust, and become part of his circle, Pelini repays that trust with immense loyalty. He has stuck with coaches and staff even when under pressure, and many times that loyalty has been repaid with great performances.
No one will ever criticize Pelini of being indifferent. He cares intensely about winning, and he transmits that passion to his teams. While his players may suffer in other areas, there is never a danger of a Pelini-coached team quitting.
He Runs a Clean Program
You can look at places like Penn State, USC, Miami, and Ohio State to see the kind of devastation NCAA rules violations can bring to a program. During Pelini’s tenure, there hasn’t been even a sniff of a scandal. His players (for the most part) stay out of trouble, and Nebraska fans have not had to worry about the NCAA knocking on doors in Lincoln.
His Players Support Him
Not everyone who played for Pelini loves him, of course, but take a look at some of the Twitter reactions of former players defending him when it seemed his job was in jeopardy (as compiled by the Omaha World-Herald)
This Man and His Defensive staff showed me how to work/study football to reach my potential in college… http://t.co/uauzkEOpz2— Ndamukong Suh (@NdamukongSuh) September 17, 2013
You'd be a FOOL if you think I would go against Bo! GREAT coach! Love him to death! Black and white coach and loyal as hell! #husker4life— Brandon Kinnie (@BKinnie84) September 17, 2013
Can't remain silent any longer. Coach Bo is the best thing for this program. Highest graduation rate ever, highest GPA ever, top 5 program >— Tim Marlowe (@iSet_Tones) September 17, 2013
Coach Bo would do anything for every single one of his players! Thinking about firing him? You've got to be kidding me! #BoKnows— Rex Burkhead (@RBrex2022) September 17, 2013
In order to have a chance to win, a coach needs to have his players buy in to what he is teaching. Clearly, that’s not a problem for Pelini.
His Teams Have Fallen Short
At Nebraska, the minimum standard for success is to win a conference championship, something NU has failed to do since 1999. In Pelini’s six years in charge, he has played for three conference titles—and lost all three. This season, in arguably his clearest path to a title game, Pelini’s squad finished the season 8-4 with three conference losses.
Pelini’s sideline rants are now things of legend. But what is also now legend is a history of Pelini’s teams making mistakes that cost them games. Turnovers and penalties have become hallmarks of a Pelini-coached team, and those mistakes have cost Nebraska dearly.
Prior to taking the job at Nebraska, Pelini’s head coaching experience consisted of one game—the bowl game he was put in charge of after Frank Solich was fired. As a result, Pelini has been learning on the job, and Nebraska has suffered all the bumps in the road as a result.
Yes, loyalty in general is a good thing. But when loyalty is put above performance, particularly in decisions regarding hiring or retaining assistant coaches, loyalty can blind. Instead of assembling a staff with experience to help Pelini make up for his own deficiencies, Pelini has hired from within his own coaching tree. While that does help in terms of continuity of vision, it also creates an echo chamber and prevents Pelini from benefiting from an outside and more experienced perception.
He Has Contempt for the Fans
So, did Shawn Eichorst make the right call by keeping Pelini?
Everyone has heard the Deadspin rant, of course, and knows what Pelini said about the fans after they left early from the 2011 Ohio State game. But it’s more than just the Deadspin rant. Think about what Pelini said after the Iowa loss on Friday. Amidst all the cursing and the excuse-making, at no point (at least that I heard) was there an acknowledgment that the fans had just seen Nebraska give two winnable games—and a chance to play in a conference title game—away on the back of a minus-eight turnover margin.
Couple that with Pelini’s well-publicized dalliances with other schools, and it’s not unfair to conclude that Nebraska fans (at least Pelini’s supporters) are way more into Pelini than he is into them.
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