Nebraska football fans could be forgiven for being a touch spoiled. From 1993 to 1997, Nebraska went 60-3, won three national championships, was a missed field goal away from a fourth and a fourth down conversion away from playing for a fifth. That’s glory.
Since then, of course, Nebraska has not come close to reaching those lofty heights. Nebraska’s last conference championship was in 1999, prior to the George W. Bush presidency. Nebraska’s last appearance in a national title game was in 2001, when NU backed into the title game and was blown off the field by Miami.
Nebraska has been through two head coaches since then, and he looked very much like a third was on his way after Bo Pelini’s “Coach Chickenbleep” press conference following NU’s loss to Iowa this year. But Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst stuck with Pelini. So, the question NU fans are asking now is: "How the team can return to the glory days of old?"
Before we begin that thought experiment, though, we should probably define our terms. For this discussion, “glory” does not mean Nebraska’s 60-3 run with three shiny crystal footballs in the trophy case. The two great runs since Nebraska’s were made by USC and Alabama, schools with many more built in advantages than NU—and neither of them could match the accomplishments of 1993-1997. So expecting Nebraska to repeat that run is completely unrealistic.
Glory for Nebraska fans would be for NU to be a legitimate competitor for a conference title every year, to win a conference title on a regular basis and to be consistently relevant on a national basis (particularly with the four-team College Football Playoff starting next year).
So what has to happen for Nebraska to get from here to there? What does Pelini need to do for Nebraska to get from a four-loss team in the hunt for a divisional title to a conference title contender? There are a lot of specifics that can be identified, and all of them are important. But ultimately, those specifics can be wrapped up in one very simple idea.
I know that sounds harsh, and I really don’t mean it that way. Pelini is an experienced coach who has been through the fires, seen a lot and grown as a leader and a head coach since his hiring in 2007. But the fact remains that Pelini is still a first-time head coach, learning the job as he goes at a school ranked by Forbes as the tenth most valuable college football program in the nation.
And it’s not like Pelini hasn't had accomplishments during his tenure in Lincoln. Nebraska fans watching their team trudge off the field in Lawrence, Kansas, after NU had been drubbed 76-39 by the Jawhawks, would have struggled to imagine their team even being above .500 in two years’ time, much less coming within a point of knocking off the no. 3 team in the nation and winning the conference.
But after six years, we’ve seen Pelini-led teams self-destruct year after year after year. This season might have been Pelini’s tenure in microcosm. Nebraska outgained and, for the most part, outplayed Michigan State in Lincoln. But Nebraska had five (!) turnovers and Michigan State had none, so Michigan State went on to the Big Ten title game and won.
The Iowa game played out almost identically to the Michigan State game, with the same result on the scoreboard. Add on top of that Pelini’s sideline, spittle-flecked hat-swipe which cost his team fifteen yards and himself an incalculable amount of dignity, and you get a really embarrassing picture of a man out of control of himself and his program.
The profanity in his post-game press conference masked what may have been the more disturbing things Pelini said, though. When asked about the hat-swipe—a juvenile and immature act unbefitting of a man in Pelini’s position of leadership—he responded by blaming the referee for a poor call and complaining that the opposing coach was also behaving badly.
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances, with the controversy swirling around his job and Eichorst refusing to make a statement one way or the other about Pelini’s position. But this is big-time college football, and there will almost always be extenuating circumstances. Success at the level demanded by the Nebraska faithful comes from overcoming those circumstances, not making excuses about them.
Right now, the biggest thing keeping Nebraska from competing at the upper echelon of college football is the maturity of the team. Penalties, turnovers, wild swings in performance both during a game and between games—the things that have been killing Nebraska for years—are symptoms of a team lacking in maturity.
And that maturity starts from the top. In many ways, Pelini has been given a new lease on life after his “Coach Chickenbleep” performance in the Iowa post-game press conference. And he will be going in to his seventh year at the helm, his fourth through the B1G.
It’s time. The talent is in place, both on the field and in the recruiting pipeline. The support, both from the fans and the athletic department financially, is there to win at the highest level.
The time for excuses is over. It’s time for Nebraska under Pelini to grow up, get out of its own way, and take its place on the conference and national stage.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge