I was recently sitting in my seat in section 312 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, taking in all the sites and sounds of Nebrasketball. The Michigan State Spartans happened to be in town, and Tim Miles and the gang had taken it to them for a half - despite being down pretty much any actual starting big men. However, that wasn't why there was a bit of a buzz in the arena. No, there was a considerable buildup for what would be the official introduction of the Mike Riley coaching staff, and despite the basketball team being the main event, it was the #AveryStrong clad coaches that brought the most applause that afternoon. Hearing people screaming all around me, all I could think about was how we got to that exact moment. The answers aren't exactly all that easy.
The Beginning: Clowns to the left of me...
Well I don't know why I came here tonight.
I've got the feeling that something ain't right.
Stealers Wheel was a rock/fold band formed by Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty in the early 70s. The band is most well known for their hit song, "Stuck in the Middle With You," which, interestingly enough, was always supposed to be sort of a joke song that made light of Bob Dylan's vocal tone and abject paranoia. As the story goes, they were out meeting with a record producer and label executives, and they couldn't help but notice that strange feeling of everything being "off". It would go on to be an extremely successful song, and would also serve as one of the most iconic soundtracks in Reservoir Dogs. Also, it pretty much sums up how I feel about how 2014 can be best summed up. There were clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, and here I was, stuck in the middle with you.
Nebraska Cornhusker football was sort of an enigma in the early going. When they came out and broke almost every offensive record they could conceive of against an incredibly overmatched Florida Atlantic, people thought that this might be the season that Bo Pelini makes some headway into breaking out. Sure, 9 win seasons, a bowl win over Georgia, and some excellent PR with the aid of one amazing parody account helped show progress. Still, you had this nagging feeling that there might not be everything in order. At minimum, something was still not right in the world. That feeling, unfortunately, seemed to rear its ugly head early.
In what was supposed to be a FCS beatdown game, McNeese State forgot to read the memo. I remember sitting in North Stadium, aghast as to what was actually happening on the field, with 90,000 of my best red-clad friends. Could it be that Nebraska was really tied 24-24 with 1:30 left to go? Were we really set to go 3rd and 6 from our own side of the 50? Was I going to witness Nebraska's Appalachian State moment? What was going on?
Now, in all of this, one could argue that it was a Nebraska fan's own psyche that could roller coaster into this game meaning more than it did, but even after Ameer Abdullah went HAM on the McNeese defense, you had a feeling things could get dicey against teams that showed speed. The Nebraska Linebackers were caught looking in the backfield on many occasions, and with excellent running backs, quarterback-receiver combos, and any other combination of skills players coming to play this year, scary things were on the horizon. Lucky for Nebraska, wins count no matter how you get there.
Despite the scare against McNeese State, Nebraska would go on to finish 4-0 in the non-conference portion of their schedule with big wins at Fresno State and over Miami at home. Huge games by Ameer Abdullah put him in the early conversation for Heisman contender, and put Nebraska back on the map as a potential playoff team. Even though the B1G took their lumps early on, Nebraska seemed to be doing its part. Sometimes you have to win ugly, and they learned they could do that. At this point, you would have to be crazy to think that Bo Pelini would be losing his job in a couple of months.
Stuck in the middle with Bo
It was a late Saturday night. I remember standing in my living room with my hands on my head in some sort of confused state. Was it possible that this Nebraska team is destined to do great things? For three quarters, the Michigan State Spartans had worked over the 18th ranked Cornhuskers. A 24 point lead, accented by the fact that Nebraska had only mustered 3 points the entire game, looked absolutely impenetrable. And yet, there we were, driving down the field and if not for a dropped pass in the end zone, very likely a chance at a Top Ten ranking. Unfortunately, it just wasn't meant to be.
Nebraska was 5-1, and though they took a tough Spartans team deep into the game - one who would finish the season near the top of the conference and national polls - it all felt hollow. Was this what we got with Bo? It was beginning to feel a little bit like dejavu. Frustratingly enough, it gave everyone hope, and for the next three games, that hope was only heightened. Bo owned the middle of the season last year, and with strong wins over Northwestern, Rutgers, and Purdue, the Huskers were ready for their showdown with the Wisconsin Badgers sitting at a reasonable 8-1. In hindsight, maybe the middle wasn't so bad.
Jokers to the RIght...
We used to be able to joke about Wisconsin owning Nebraska, but 408 yards rushing by Melvin Gordon later and you could forgive Nebraska fans if they were getting sick of the... /Wisconsin scored again...
If you were to draw up the worst case scenario for Bo Pelini, the Wisconsin game would have to be it. After getting a quick lead on the Badgers, the shaky Nebraska defense showed up again and the sight of Melvin Gordon running down the sideline would be etched into each and every "Blackshirt" defender. If you needed to find a good bookend to the Bo Pelini experience - one to offset that earlier McNeese State game - this was it. A thorough beatdown is actually an arguable understatement to what happened that fateful Saturday. While it's hard to believe the coach of an 8-2 team was already on the chopping block, losing like that on national television was probably the first of a couple terrible outcomes for Pelini.
The very next week, Nebraska found itself in another precarious situation, and while the Huskers fought much harder than they did against Wisconsin the week before, another loss was inevitable. Minnesota would come into Lincoln, send Nebraska spiraling towards another four loss season, and probably seal Bo Pelini's fate. Perhaps Nebraska fans didn't know it yet, but they would soon not be stuck in the middle with Pelini.
Iowa and Beyond -or- Trying to make sense of it all
The Friday after Thanksgiving proved to be Bo Pelini's last stand, and it was everything you would expect from his team. They were outplayed for 2.5 quarters, fought back from a large deficit, and pulled off a miraculous win that was aided by poor decisions on the opposite sideline. After a heroic effort by Tommy Armstrong and freshman phenom DeMornay Pierson-El, Nebraska seemed poised to save Bo Pelini's job. Instead of dropping to 8-4, Nebraska went to 9-3, and while there was obvious discontent in the masses, no one saw that November 30th decision coming.
And yet, there we were. I remember sitting in my dad's kitchen, watching tweet after tweet come down the pipeline. Bo Pelini was fired. I couldn't believe it, and wouldn't have believed it without this tweet:
Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst has dismissed Head Football Coach Bo Pelini effective immediately. Press conference 1pm.— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers) November 30, 2014
Eichorst had done the unthinkable, and yet as we look back at the season, there were potential faults along the way. In the press conference on the firing, Eichorst mentioned that the Iowa game was not a moment that could really have saved Bo's job. Nebraska would not be comparing itself to an Iowa team that had looked mediocre all season. Instead, he would be comparing Nebraska to a much greater standard. And so, Nebraska became the only team who could fire a consistently winning coach again.
Which, of course, brings us back to the beginning. As I sat there watching Nebraska's new coaching staff get introduced, I couldn't help but feel like we have no idea what happens next. Bo Pelini was a good coach, but between his attitude with the administration - and even fans - was not enough to save getting humiliated on national television. The new guy - Mike Riley - has a knack for doing more with less, but you'd be hard pressed to find any single non-Nebraskan excited about the hire. The roster has issues on both lines, linebacker, quarterback, and even running back - although that position seems to be one that the Huskers can develop just fine.
Sure, it was tough being stuck in the middle with Bo Pelini, and the crazy kept piling up, but at least it was a known crazy. The next few years will be all about figuring out what can happen next. 2014 was a crazy year for Nebraska, but I'm guessing it has nothing on what's to come.