Coach Pelini Dismissal No Surprise
The message flashed across smart phones and I-Pads Sunday morning, and soon Twitter was ablaze with news that Bo Pelini, head football coach at the University of Nebraska for the past seven years, had been dismissed from his position by Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. Pelini had guided the Cornhuskers to at least nine wins in each of his seasons at the helm, but never won a championship in the two conferences in which Nebraska competed during his tenure – the Big XII and the Big 10.
In a lengthy news conference Sunday afternoon, Eichorst underlined the main reason he decided to take the program in a new direction, saying “At the end of the day, I didn’t see enough improvement in the areas that were important for us to move forward to play championship caliber football. We just, for whatever reason, weren’t good enough in the games that mattered against championship quality caliber opponents … and I didn’t see that changing.”
Critics of the move will emphasize the number of games Pelini’s teams won in each of his years as coach. Proponents of the firing will point to the magnitude of the losses.
True, Pelini’s win percentage was better than 90 percent of the coaches in college football today. The culture of Nebraska football – ever since the legendary Bob Devaney took over the program in the 1960’s – will not accept anything below the 99th percentile. While under the leadership of Pelini the Huskers perennially beat, and beat up on, the weaker opponents in both their conference and non-conference schedule. By the same token, they were consistently humbled by the elite programs along the way.
That trend seemed to have been most pronounced since the school joined the Big 10 in 2011. In that year, Nebraska roared through a non-conference schedule with four straight wins over Chattanooga, Fresno State, Washington and Wyoming. At 4-0 and ranked 8th in the polls, the Huskers traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for their first-ever Big 10 game against the 7th-ranked Badgers where they were blown out 48-17. The team would go 5-3 in the conference and suffer a final slap in the face in the Capital One Bowl, losing to South Carolina 30-13.
2012 was perhaps the most indicative of the team’s tendencies during the Pelini regime. A 3-1 non-conference record included wins over schools like Southern Miss, Arkansas State and Idaho State. The lone loss was on the road to UCLA 36-30. The Huskers then won at home to open their Big 10 schedule, beating Wisconsin 30-27, only to hit the road and be thrashed the following weekend by Ohio State 63-38. Winning the remainder of their regular-season games put Nebraska into the Big 10 championship game in Indianapolis for a rematch with Wisconsin. In the big game, it was all Badgers in a 70-31 drubbing (a game that was over at halftime, 42-10). The Big Red would finish the season 10-4 after a loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
2014 has been a season which has followed the same script, and Eichorst had undoubtedly seen enough. The Huskers played two teams this year who were ranked in the top-25 when the games took place, losing 27-22 to Michigan State (a contest that was not as close as the final score indicates) and then allowing over 400 yards to running back Melvin Gordon in a 59-24 loss at Wisconsin (a game the Huskers led 17-3 early in the second quarter).
Nine wins per year is good enough for many schools in the NCAA, and many coaches have kept their jobs for years with less success than Bo Pelini enjoyed. It is not good enough for a proud university, and state, like Nebraska. As Eichorst said, the Husker football team was not good enough in the “games that mattered.” The games that matter are championship games, and the games that lead to championship games. Another factor in Pelini’s dismissal could have been the fact that, when he was hired, Pelini was known as somewhat of a “defensive wizard,” bringing LSU’s defense to prominence in the tough Southeastern Conference. Under Pelini, the Nebraska “Black Shirts” defense never approached the elite levels the Husker faithful have come to expect.
The good folks in the University of Nebraska administration will now go to work on finding a replacement for Pelini, a coach well-known for his strong personality and fiery sideline demeanor. The name which will be heard the most in the next few weeks is that of Oregon Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost, quarterback for Nebraska’s National Championship team in 1997. The rumors that Eichorst will go after Frost are so strong that, according to a story in The Oregonian, Oregon AD Rob Mullens felt the need to address the situation and ask for some restraint at his news conference in advance of this week’s Pac-12 championship game between his Ducks and Arizona. “For the most part, people respect and understand what’s going on and the time constraints and will be respectful of that,” said Mullens. When asked specifically about Frost and Nebraska, however, he added, “No one has reached out to me on that one.” He should probably expect something soon.
Other names rumored to be in the running to head up the program according to the Lincoln JournalStar, include Colorado State Coach Jim McElwain, Georgia Coach Mark Richt, Jerry Kill of Minnesota, Kyle Whittingham of Utah and Mark Stoops at Kentucky, among others. The list is long, and no decision should be expected before the end of the college football bowl season. After all, the best candidates will be busy with their teams until at least the first week in January.
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