"I’m not meeting my expectations. I know that." - Bo Pelini in his Monday Morning Presser
At one point or another, we all lose at something. I distinctly remember being a scrawny young Korean child sitting on the edge of the wrestling mat with my singlet hanging loosely from the shoulders after a (not so) close-fought match. I do not remember the score, but I remember being on the verge of tears - an unfortunately common theme for me post-match - and my coach and my dad just feeling really bad for me. Let’s just say this was not a specifically enjoyable occasion, but as I look back, I can say with some authority that it was very important to the development of my psyche. This was not the first time I had lost, and there was a distinct chance that when I wrestled again that afternoon in the unfortunately-named loser’s bracket, I would probably lose again.
I find myself reflecting on that ridiculous moment when I was 8 years old or so and thinking about how losing - especially in sports - can feel so painful in the moment, but be so absurd in the larger picture of life. And no, this is not an article on life being more important than sports - although, the idiots who are berating players on twitter about their play on Saturdays should probably learn that lesson again and again, in shock-collar, dog obedience school style - this article is about what we can learn about a team when they lose. What is the direction of a program after a loss, especially one that was unexpected by pretty much everyone? What lessons do we learn?
We knew going into this year that there were issues everywhere on the defensive side of the ball. Quite frankly, I should have seen the Minnesota game coming from a mile away. Unfortunately, as fans, we tend to get so close to the monumental ups and downs of games that we forget to see the bigger picture. Sure, Nebraska looked great on defense against Purdue and Illinois! Nevermind that there were miscues in both, with fortunate early game momentum shifts that kept the pedal to the metal. But you saw the cracks in the foundation and you just ignored them for the greater narrative. We could win this division, right? There was a chance we could move up the rankings and steal a BCS bowl. Bo could survive the UCLA meltdown - after all it was only one game - and the leaked audio was just a low blow in a vulnerable time.
All of this ignored Wisconsin… and Ohio State… and Wyoming… and South Dakota… and UCLA… and UCLA… and Georgia… and, well, you get the point. Even scarier, you probably glossed over the fact that last season required a gambit of luck, fortuitous calls, and some amazing playmaking in clutch situations to even make a run to the title worth the talk of fools like me who will believe in it, if even for a moment. The reality was that there were trends, and the situation tends to take care of itself. Bad habits, bad schemes, bad situations all tend to become bad losses all too quickly. Sure athleticism can outwork some other teams, but when you have consistent failures lurking, they will bite you.
And so, we watched the Jet Sweep action being ran again and again and again. We watched Minnesota lineup, show us the play, run the play through our D-line, and do it again the next play. We watched our LBs get gashed, our secondary look confused despite Minnesota rarely passing, and our staff was legitimately outcoached. It was a travesty - not in the fact that Minnesota cannot be a respectable loss, but rather that Minnesota clowned our staff to such a degree that even the most ardent supporters would at least question the coaching credentials of one Bo Pelini.
This also ignores the reality that we watched a Senior Quarterback obviously playing with toughness and determination, but also with something wrong. We watched an Offensive Line look overmatched without its Senior anchor. We watched an offense predicated on running the ball, go away from the one player - even in spite of the fumble - who was making legitimate headway against a stout defense. Oh, and we watched another coach look outschemed, outmatched, and outsmarted by a Gopher team that was playing with more heart and talent than anyone in red could seem to muster. We knew the defense was questionable, but to see an offense go flat - one with as much talent as Nebraska's no less - and you wonder what is going on.
This brings me back to where this started today - and bear with me, I have not really diagnosed the issues to the extent necessary to hope for fixes yet so if you're looking for amateur X's and O's evaluations, you will have to look elsewhere. We all lose. Sometimes it’s something stupid like McDonalds running out of hashbrowns in the morning, and sometimes it’s something bigger that actually affects your life. The universal truth is that your ability to respond to any form of losing or failure in meeting expectations is what shows your mettle and worth. Once again Nebraska finds itself in a position to answer the bell of a loss. After doing this time and time again, maybe the answers have been there all along.
Little wrestler Jesse gave up wrestling after losing time and time again. It was not an issue of not trying either. I wrestled for two straight years and spent extra time trying to learn new techniques, moves, and strategies. I tried to get stronger. I tried pretty much everything I could, but in the end it was apparent that this was not the sport for me, so I moved on. Both my personal expectations and the expectations of those around me were not being met, and when I realized the losing would just continue, the decision was made for me. I have a feeling that while Bo Pelini has done good things at Nebraska, the decision may be made for him in a similar fashion.