Is Nebraska's Bo Pelini off Hot Seat After Strong 2013 Finish, Signing Day?

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini leads his team onto the field a Beaver Stadium before an NCAA college football game against Penn State in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Do you remember when it looked like Nebraska would fire Bo Pelini after the Huskers lost their regular-season finale to Iowa?

Well, that was only 85 days ago.

The game included three turnovers (two resulted in Iowa touchdowns), a failed fake-punt attempt deep in their own territory and a meltdown by Pelini after an interference call, resulting in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

After the game, Pelini had some choice words about the call, and also addressed the question of his job security, according to a transcript of the postgame press conference provided by Big Red Today of the Omaha World Herald.

If they want to fire me, go ahead.  I believe in what I’ve done.  I don’t apologize for what I’ve done.  I don’t apologize for anybody, myself or this staff.  Our record since I’ve been here speaks for itself.  The program’s heading in a good direction.

Though Pelini kept his job, the incident—and the game—is a microcosm of Nebraska fans’ beef with their head coach. 

So, while he’s avoided a ride on the coaching carousel this year, is a bowl win over No. 23 Georgia and a decent recruiting class really enough to save his job?

Let’s take a look at the charges levied against Pelini versus the actual results.  

Expectations Not Met

If you were to sum up Pelini’s time at Nebraska you could say something like, “Really good, but not quite great.”

On one hand, Pelini is a coach who has never dipped below nine wins and has only had one team in six finish the season outside of the AP Top 25, but on the other hand, he’s the guy who has never won a conference title and never gone to a BCS bowl game.

While he’s won four division crowns in two different leagues, he’s 0-3 in conference title games.

What further chaffs the Husker faithful is Pelini’s record against winning teams:  He’s 9-14 against the Top 25 and 2-8 versus the Top 10.

Pelini's last win over a Top 10 team came on Oct. 29, 2011 when the Huskers beat No. 9 Michigan State 24-3.
Pelini's last win over a Top 10 team came on Oct. 29, 2011 when the Huskers beat No. 9 Michigan State 24-3.Eric Francis/Getty Images

Before beating No. 23 Georgia in the Gator Bowl last season, his last win over a ranked team came in 2012 when Nebraska dropped No. 20 Michigan. His last triumph over a Top 10 foe? That came in 2011 when the Huskers rolled over No. 9 Michigan State.

So, while Pelini is not producing bad football teams, he’s not pumping out championship-caliber ones either.

And he is the coach at Nebraska—not Illinois, not Iowa, not Oklahoma State and not Kansas State. This is a program that sees themselves as a top-tier contender.
To put this into perspective, from 2008 to 2013 (the Pelini years), Nebraska’s best AP finish was No. 14.

From 1993 to 2001—not exactly ancient history—the Huskers finished in the AP Top 10 eight out of nine years. The “off year”, 1998, they finished at No. 20.

Ineffective Recruiting

Another common complaint about Pelini is that his recruiting numbers aren’t up to snuff.

To gauge this, take a look at Nebraska’s recruiting class rankings from 2002 to 2014. Also included—for comparison—are Michigan and Ohio State’s numbers.

Recruiting Rankings 2002-2014
NebraskaCoachOhio StCoachMichiganCoach

There are two major points here:  First, Pelini isn’t a subpar recruiter by Nebraska standards.  His average is the same as Callahan’s and both were better than Solich's last two seasons.

This may be a case of Husker fans’ expectations being inflated, at least based on recent history.

On the flip side of the coin, Pelini is not recruiting at the same level as Ohio State and Michigan, the two elite recruiters in the Big Ten.

His average falls short of both Hoke and Meyer, meaning that Nebraska is fielding teams with less raw talent than the top of the conference.

This is an area where Husker fans have a legitimate beef: Though Pelini is recruiting at a decent clip for Nebraska, he’s not doing well relative to the big boys in his own league.

Poor Defense

Pelini’s defensive resume fuels Nebraska’s high expectations for its “Blackshirt” defense.  This is supposed to be an elite, feared unit—especially when the guy leading it has defensive coordinator experience at three big-time programs (Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU).

Though it’s easy enough to say Pelini isn’t getting it done by reliving nightmares like the 2012 Big Ten title game when Nebraska gave up 539 yards of rushing in its blowout loss to Wisconsin, one game doesn’t tell the whole story.

Take a look at some defensive stats from Pelini’s tenure.

Pelini's Defensive Per Game Stats at Nebraska
ScoringFBS Rankvs. RunFBS Rankvs. PassFBS Rank
College Football Statistics

The numbers make a clear case that Pelini’s defensive peak came in 2009 and 2010 and slowly declined until it hit rock bottom in 2012.  While 2013 was an improvement, the Husker D still wasn’t a force to be reckoned with.

To illustrate, last season Nebraska gave up 7.4 additional points per game versus 2010, a number that amounts to 104 points over a 14-game season.

The stats don’t lie: The Husker fans’ defensive complaint with Pelini is legit.

Sloppy Play

Pelini has also been accused of fielding inconsistent teams that suffer mistake-ridden streaks.

Costly penalties and turnovers dot the collective memories of a fanbase which doesn’t want to win or lose ugly.

Nebraska Turnovers and Penalties: 2008-2013
Turnover MarginFBS RankPenalty Yds per GameFBS Rank
College Football Statistics

Here’s a look at how Nebraska has fared in turnovers and penalties in the Pelini era.

In this case, again, you have to think that the anti-Pelini camp is on to something:  The Huskers have been consistently careless over the last six seasons.

What makes this less acceptable at a place like Nebraska is the mindset that its program operates at a higher level than other comparable schools across the nation.

Here’s what Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star via Husker Extra had to say about the football culture.

[Tom] Osborne established an exceptionally high standard for the program.  Along the way, Husker fans became increasingly intelligent and savvy.  They loathe inconsistency.  They cringe at repeat errors…

Explosive Temper

What gets Pelini the most negative attention—especially on the national level—are his fiery temper and his emotional outbursts.

And though Pelini has been blowing his top for years—remember his tirade when Nebraska visited Texas A&M back in 2010—last season was a banner year for apologies.

Though the original rant dated back to 2011, Pelini was on the hot seat this past September due to a profane outburst against fans and reporters that surfaced two years after the fact.

Next came Pelini’s explosion in the Iowa game, in which he nearly swiped an officials’ face while waving his hat in protest after a call.  As far as it being an unfortunate reaction in the heat of the moment, after he had time to regain his composure, Pelini still used derogatory language in describing the call after the game.

In both cases, the need for a public act of contrition took the focus off of the team’s on-field performance.

What won’t help is that the media has labeled Pelini a repeat offender, meaning the cameras will constantly be zeroed in on him, waiting for him to explode.

Even a slight eruption will be covered with “breaking news” urgency and the issue will become a self-fulfilling prophecy as a stressed Pelini—attempting to hold on to his job—reacts to the pressure.

The truth is, Pelini’s outbursts would be deemed more acceptable if Nebraska were to win more football games.

This isn’t to say that the Cornhuskers don’t have standards, it’s just a natural reaction.

Think about it this way:  Pelini will lose it less often when the team is winning and he’s less frustrated, plus the media will have a championship run to cover instead of an out-of-control coach. 

If he’s winning, his fiery personality becomes a loveable trait, not a reason for his firing..

Is He Off the Hot Seat?

So, Pelini has been charged with not meeting the high expectations at Nebraska and not being an effective recruiter. He’s accused of fielding a team which commits a boatload of errors and a defense which doesn’t live up to the Blackshirt name. 

On top of that, he’s been labeled a hot head.

Is he guilty?

The numbers tell us that for each charge—some more so than others—the Cornhusker faithful have solid factual evidence against Pelini.

And in most areas, things are getting worse rather than better: His numbers are slipping.

The only exceptions being that though he’s yet to win a league title, his teams have produced solid results and while he is not a poor recruiter by Nebraska standards, he’s not in elite company in the Big Ten.

Nov 29, 2013; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pelini leads his team onto the field prior to the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Memorial Stadium. Iowa won 38-17. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The answer is clear: Pelini is not anywhere close to getting off the hot seat. 

The only way he turns down the heat—short term—is if Nebraska lights it up next season and wins more than 10 games.

Long term he needs to get the Huskers in the College Football Playoff to stay out of trouble.

That said, Nebraska fans—like every other fanbase in football—need to think long and hard before they earnestly call for Pelini’s head.

Replacing a coach who has never won fewer than nine games in a season—in a major conference—is a serious case of “be careful what you ask for.”

Statistics courtesy of College Football Statistics, College Football Data Warehouse and Sports Reference-College Football.  Recruiting rankings courtesy of Rivals.


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