One of the great things about having an entire week dedicated to Nebraska Football is getting the opportunity to introduce you all to some of the other writers on the network who are connected to the program in various capacities. While I may - or may not - actually watch the games, the guys over at Corn Nation are doing really good work in covering everything about the team, and I thought it would be a good idea to bring them in for a piece on their perspective on why Bo had to go. Sure, firing a nine win coach seems like a terrible decision, and moreover, hiring a guy who was struggling to get to .500 seems like an even more terrible decision, but sometimes context is everything. Today Brian Towle (@BrianRTowle) takes the lead - with some help from OTE regular Salt Creek and Stadium (@SaltCreekCN) and Mister Mike (@MisterMike_NU). They have some good thoughts from an insiders point of view, and I hope you all get a better picture of why it was time to move on. Enjoy the piece, and when you're done, go ahead and follow these guys on twitter. They're very entertaining. - JC
Bo Pelini had to go and Mike Riley had to be hired
by Brian Towle, Corn Nation
Hello Off Tackle Empire, today I am here to talk to you all about why the Nebraska Cornhuskers were justified in both firing a nine win guy in Head Coach in Bo Pelini, as well as hiring perpetual cup-is-always-full man in Mike Riley out of Corvallis despite quite a bit of evidence that the school was insane. Jesse had asked me, Salt Creek and Stadium, and Mister Mike to give you all our unique perspective on what went down, and hopefully shed some light on some of the darker aspects of the decision. When we're finished, hopefully you'll understand that this went beyond just one guy saying a few mean words, and also was more thought out than just hiring the first guy that walked in the door. Sometimes, these things are a lot more drawn out than they appear.
However, first and foremost, I want to address something that just annoys the ever loving shit out of me. Namely, this ridiculous idea that Nebraska has this grandiose expectation of National Titles every season. Because honestly, that's crazy. Sure we want wins, but you have to understand where these 'expectations' are coming from...
When I was a kid back in the 90’s, Nebraska was pretty stellar, right? We had won three championships in four years, which easily should have been four in five years (thanks ‘94 Orange Bowl officiating crew), and you would generally expect that fandom reached its fever peak at that moment. At around 1997, we were approaching 'snooty' territory when it came to expectations for our team, right? Well, I don't think that's totally the case.
Back then, Nebraska was winning Big 8 Conference titles at a fairly decent clip. In fact, they had won eleven Conference titles - either shared or outright - since 1972, the last National Championship Nebraska had to its name. Is that a lot? Yes, definitely, but at the same time, that’s a lot of Conference Titles without winning a National Title. Sure there were some really close calls, and some not-so-close calls, throughout the 80s and early, early 90s. The things is, those opportunities - the failed two-point conversion, the ass kickings by Miami in Miami, etc. - just left Nebraska fans more frustrated than before. When the run of titles from 1994-1997 finally came, Nebraska fans felt justification for their attitude due to their patience in being beaten down in bowl game after bowl game. They had more or less paid their dues to this point. Heck, before the ‘95 Orange Bowl win over Miami to win the 1994 National Title, Nebraska hadn’t won a bowl game since 1986 in the Sugar Bowl over LSU. That was certainly not without the opportunities, either.
The bottom line is that Nebraska's level of 'expectations' for their team weren't totally built on the back of some unsustainable stretch of winning. No, it was really something much more involved. And honestly, this is where we can start talking about the origins for Nebraska fans' relatively modern impatience with not winning. Where did it begin? Well, it kind of all starts with championships... of any kind. Specifically, the last time Nebraska won a Conference championship was when Eric Crouch was a Sophomore QB. That team, which couldn’t stop fumbling the football to save their lives, defeated a Texas team - that beat them in Austin earlier that year - for the Big 12 Championship. That year resulted in a domination of Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl, and prompted some fans to wonder if we should have been invited over Virginia Tech to the Sugar Bowl to take on Florida State for the National Title.
Then 2001 happened and the will of the fan broke. Nebraska got clowned in back to back games by Colorado and Miami, and since that time, Nebraska has won zero conference championships, and subsequently, zero national championships.
I'm sure you're asking yourself, "What does that have to do with firing Bo Pelini?" A lot. It turns out that sometimes expectations can mean a lot of different things, and more often than not, those expectations are a lot more reasonable than they appear.
When Bill Callahan was fired by Tom Osborne in 2007 right after the season ending game versus Colorado, the Husker Football program was hurting badly. You could argue that the once great - and not all that long ago great - Nebraska program was in "shambles," and the proof was right there in the W/L column. Nebraska had just endured its second losing season in almost 36 years, and that overlooked that beautiful gem in 2002 where Nebraska finished 7-7. Things were not exactly all well on the Western Front.
The fanbase had narrowed down its choices for the next head coach down to two men. Bo Pelini and Turner Gill. The fans were still up in arms over seeing Bill Callahan - the outsider - tear this program apart. It would be down to the two guys who understood Nebraska's culture. One of these men would be the Chosen One and whomever was picked, that coach would be the right man for the job. Nonetheless, when pushed for a sentimental favorite by a vast majority of the fanbase, Pelini was the one who needed to be at Nebraska. He was the opposite of the offensive-specialized Callahan, he was a person who had been at Nebraska as a coach before - even if it was only one season, and he had the knowledge of what the program expected from his time with Frank Solich.
So, Osborne picks Pelini and things start to move in a positive direction. A successful 9-4 season in 2008 culminating in a Gator Bowl win over Clemson, followed by the 2010 season where literally :01 was all that came between Nebraska - and Pelini - and their first Conference Title since 1999. That was followed by an ass kicking of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl that ended infamously as Coach Bo Pelini exclaimed "Nebraska is back, and here to stay" as he received the bowl trophy. We probably all should have known that was a bad omen.
In 2010, things started off very well for the Huskers. Taylor Martinez had a big time coming out party with big games on the road against Washington and Kansas State. The Huskers were 5-0, and were all the way up to #5 in the nation with hated rival Texas coming into town. The Longhorns, who had beat Nebraska in Arlington for the Big XII title the year before to remain the thorn in the Huskers side all this time, were bringing in backup Garrett Gilbert and arguably their least talented team since the two had met up. This was going to be a statement game. Matter of fact, Nebraska had this game circled back in July.
It was all right there for the taking. A national audience, the ranking, the momentum. And then, in that moment where everyone was watching and waiting for Nebraska and Bo Pelini to take the next step….. thud.
Garrett Gilbert led the Longhorns to a 20-13 victory in front of a shocked sold out crowd of 85k+ inside Memorial Stadium. The whole hype, everything that had been building, the excitement of the season, all of it, took a steel toe to the taint. Still, the season was not lost. Win out, play up to their potential, get to that next level. All of that was still on the table, and for a while it looked like the team - and Bo - understood that.
The Huskers came back with a big time win at Stillwater over Dana Holgerson's Oklahoma State Cowboys, and then they completely kicked Missouri's ass from the first play on. Two more quality victories for the season down. Sure, there was some worry when Nebraska needed an interception - off a fake extra point - to secure the victory versus an Iowa State team that seemingly had Bo’s number. Those things happen though, and it was all back up to a fever pitch as the #9 Huskers headed to College Station for a Saturday night showdown with Texas A&M. Same excitement as the Texas game. Same stakes. Same audience.
This was the game that really started so much of the division between Bo and the nation, and it was so many different thigns. It was the game of Taylor Martinez - allegedly - texting his father in the locker room, leading to Bo Pelini screaming at him on the sideline for the entire world to see. It was the game where Bo Pelini went ballistic and got an unsportsmanlinke conduct penalty at the worst time for his team. Oh, and this was also the game that Bo's brother, DC Carl Pelini, went after a photographer on the field after the game. It was not a good look for the University, and it certainly wasn't a good look for Pelini. The season would end with another loss - after gaining a decent lead - against Oklahoma in Nebraska’s last Big 12 Title game appearance, and then another defeat by a Washington team that Nebraska thoroughly destroyed in Seattle earlier that year. The Huskers best chance of a Big XII - and perhaps national - title went fluttering in the wind.
Which brings us to today...
The conference title is the white whale that Nebraska - both fans and the program - wants so that they can feel like they are somewhat relevant again. It’s not a CFP appearance, nor an at-large New Years Super 6 appearance. No, it's much simpler right now. You could put Nebraska in the Texas Bowl as long as they were Big Ten Champions, and there would be much rejoicing in the land. The kids that Nebraska are currently recruiting have no idea about Tom Osborne’s titles, or the greatness of Eric Crouch. They just know Nebraska used to be good. The fanbase wants to get back to good. Add that all up and from an on-field purpose, there are suddenly pretty legitimate reasons why Bo Pelini had to go. The standard was hardly National Championships, but after seven years and squandered opportunities, Pelini had still not obtained even a conference championship. It was time to move on.
Sure, since Nebraska has been in the Big Ten, there have been many good moments with Bo Pelini at the helm. Beating Michigan State on a Taylor Martinez to Jamal Turner out route with less than :20 in the game is one of them, and so is the largest comeback in school history with the come-from-behind shocker over Ohio State in Lincoln.
However, if you want the start of why Bo Pelini really had to be dismissed, that game is where it all sort of makes sense.
It’s been made famous - or infamous, whichever you prefer - that Coach Bo Pelini told his fanbase to fuck right the fuck off after the Ohio State victory. This, mind you, came after Russell Wilson and Wisconsin cleaned Nebraska’s clock in Madison on national TV. But, listen again to what Bo had to say, specifically about Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald.
"Fuck him too."
That was sort of a recurring theme during the Pelini reign in Lincoln.
Now, Bo Pelini did a couple of things very, very well off the field in Lincoln. He got players to graduate at a pretty decent clip, and he didn’t mess up with the NCAA - save some bullshit about books, because, hey, NCAA. However, his talents also included causing friction and headaches for most of the local media, support staff, and fanbase as it sought to interact with the 105 proper.
To say that Bo Pelini disliked a majority of the local media is an understatement of epic proportions. His biggest ally in the local ranks was - and still seems to be - Steve Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star. The last column of the Bo era from the Sipple computer was this one, which was released just a few hours before Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst fired Bo Pelini. The whispers were that this piece, which Sipple asks the people and AD Eichorst to keep Pelini and his staff around, was asked to be written by Bo himself late Saturday, when it became obvious that he may lose his job.
On the other side of the flame, you found many "antagonists" against Bo in the media, so to say. Target A1 from Bo-lievers was, and still is, Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald. Chatelain was the man that got into a spat with Pelini after said Ohio St. game where the Deadspin tape came from. Dirk has been seen as a man who "tried to get Bo fired" and such, even though he’s won the AP Nebraska Sportswriter of the Year multiple times.
Want more examples? Mitch Sherman of the OWH had to endure phone calls for pieces that put Pelini in a negative light, from Bo himself. There are plenty of stories about Pelini yelling at softball umpires in a way you’d be flat embarrassed to admit you paid your season tickets to pay his salary. There were moments he’d fry on other beat reporters and support staff in Lincoln over what seemed to be the smallest things. Sadly, there are so many stories about Bo flying off the handle and such that went far outside of the football realm.
Nonetheless, if you want to look at in-house stuff, there are still plenty of red flags and issues to address. We can start with the flareups with his brother Carl (who Osborne, Nebraska Athletic Director at the time, NEEDED to jettison off to Florida Atlantic… to fail). The way Pelini went through Secondary coaches like underwear was hardly good for Nebraska. Micromanaging his first OC Shawn Watson with decisions about who to play or not play at any given time. Then there were the facts that he would run people out of town for one thing (Quentin Castille for weed) yet not do the same to a guy he needed (Randy Gregory).
One of the worst things? Word on the street is that Bo and his brother Carl, on the morning of that Texas game, went to the basement of the Cornhusker-Marriott in downtown Lincoln and confronted a man who ran one of the many Husker insider message boards and had grown too close to Bo's inner circle. They took the time to track him down in his room and cordially invited him to meet them. The actual meeting was reminiscent of Bo nose-to-nose with TMart on the sideline versus Texas A&M, with the type of language that - as you've probably come to realize at this point - only Pelini could add. The exact reason for their confrontation is still a mystery, but regardless, there’s been very little in denying this happened from all sources contacted. It should also be noted that Bo, in his post-Texas, Tuesday press conference, admitted he didn't do enough pre-game work to have the team properly prepared, and it was his fault they were not ready.
Then there was the last leaked audio tape of Pelini. The post-firing conversation, recorded and released by a player, from his last meeting with the players at Lincoln Northstar that came out was colorful as ever. it shouldn't have been a surprise that Bo used that language for the occasion, though. I mean, he had just got paid from the University and he did not need to be around them anymore. The last thing I would imagine would have been Bo saying something to the extent of "hey, we parted ways, that’s all I got". No, he had to say his piece before he moved on.
So… after all that, me saying "if it was about wins and losses, Bo Pelini wouldn’t have ever been fired," would be an insane thing to say. That much should be clear as a whistle to you folks. Yes, Pelini was a good coach, but he also happened to be a bad person to be around. New Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst saw this, and wanted to rid himself of Pelini. And honestly, you couldn't really blame him. After all that, it really becomes clear why Mike Riley, from a personality standpoint, was hired just a few days later.
Riley, for all his faults, has always been a glass half-full type of guy. He is a man who had very little to work with in Corvallis, but he and his staff used all the positives they could, and they did it to the hilt. Pelini was notorious for telling folks how hard things were, in Lincoln. Direct flights were hard, and recruiting to the location he was at was hard. For Riley and his staff, it’s not how hard it is, but what positives they can accentuate.They always looked at the bright side.
Now Riley and his staff have their nirvana, a school that is the only football game around, a budget that is seemingly unlimited, state of the art facilities, a fan base that supports them come hell or high water - for now, and the ability to make the best out of anything.That doesn’t mean that Riley will be successful on the field at all, obviously. This whole experiment from a wins and losses standpoint could completely fail and people might start to think that keeping Bo, for all his awful traits, was the better option due to his ability to win nine games.
However, we won't know how that goes until games are played. For now, Riley has won over the people that Pelini never could. Mike Riley has been personable with the media, so much so hat some don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. He’s been very approachable with the fanbase. His staff has done so much with social media which has been a pleasant surprise. From a recruiting and branding perspective, his coaching staff didn’t take mid-June off, going instead on a 5 day, 4 city satellite camp tour that included Miami, Dallas, LA and Houston. He’s been proactive in recruiting, not only targeting ‘16 guys but also ‘17 and 18 kids.
Has he been 1000% successful? Of course not, especially considering that Nebraska lost their #1 in-state player to Arizona State. However, the fact that Riley and the players are embracing each other for the most part, it’s been proven that Nebraska hired someone they needed at this time. It probably won’t last long, even if Riley wins, and we all get that. He’s at an age (62) where this is probably his last big job, and possibly even his last contract. Not many people see Riley staying more than 6-7 years max, and the thought of how Nebraska will move on from him has already creeped up in some circles. Still, no matter how you look at it, this was a hire that was necessary. Nebraska now has its next guy up, a guy who seems to get it, and a guy who will help repair a lot of the damage done to the reputation of the University. While Nebraska fans are hoping for the best, the results will sort of speak for themselves. In the meantime, the positives outweigh the negatives, and that feels good.
Addendum from Mister Mike: Honestly, my take isn’t that much different than Brian’s. I’ve certainly heard the same things regarding Pelini and his staff behind the scenes. The vast majority of them come from extremely credible sources, folks with close ties to the university, not prone to just talking out of their collective asses to hear themselves speak.
That said, if this staff had gone out and taken care of business on the field, they’d most likely still be employed today. While Brian says it wasn’t as much about the record on the field as it was about the stuff off of it, I personally think it was more of a 50/50 split.