Another end to a Husker season, another round of Bo Pelini-leaving-Nebraska rumors. This year, the rumor was less reliable than in years past (Football Scoop tweeted Arkansas was on the verge of hiring him), but still, Pelini was again linked to another high profile job. After Nebraska’s meltdown in the Big 10 Title Game, Pelini’s constant flirtations for the SEC causes begs the question if Pelini’s wandering eye is hurting the program. To judge that, one has to ask what Nebraska is and what works there, and what Bo Pelini is, and where he works.
Nebraska is an outlier, both from major cities and major recruiting hotbeds. Major changes in college football have gone against Nebraska: more games being on TV, fewer recruits wanting to come north because of the weather, more committed programs in the middle of college football. But to succeed at an outlier, you need to find a coach who gets the outlier. Consider Tom Osborne and Bill Synder: both grew up in smaller cities in smaller states and went to smaller, non-DI colleges. Both achieved long-term success by molding average players into stars. Who else fits that profile? Chris Petersen, who grew up around Sacramento and went to UC Davis, and Charlie Strong, who went to Central Arkansas, in his native state. Pedersen has stayed at Boise State (in a city that is the exact mirror of Sacramento), and Strong looks like he’s turning down Tennessee to stay at Louisville.
Now look at Pelini. Pelini went to a large Catholic high school in Ohio, then to Ohio State, a major program in a state with lot of FBS-ready talent. He’s friends with Bob Stoops, who turned down his alma mater (Iowa) and instead found longevity at Oklahoma, surrounded by the best high school football talent state in the country, Texas. Pelini worked for Michigan alum Les Miles, who has now twice turned down his alma mater to stay in talent-rich Louisiana. Pelini knows he’s got a rawer deal then Miles and Stoops by the players who sign for him.
Husker fans, why do you think Nebraska’s seniors laden defense got completely worked by Wisconsin on Saturday night? Kansas State’s defensive talent is no better, and the Wildcats were shutting down offensive juggernauts in the Big 12. Reason: Pelini had a fire when he first came to Nebraska, and the players then had the motivation to embrace discipline after the Bill Callahan-debacle. After an initial burst with Callahan’s recruits (and Ndamukong Suh), Pelini was left with a bunch three-to-four star recruits who needed coaching. For stretches in 2009 and 2010, Nebraska had to play perfect on defense just to stay in the games, including two against Oklahoma. After nearly three years of having to win without any mistakes, Pelini was exhausted from coaching up Prince Amukamara and Phillip Dillard, and had no energy to develop Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley.
Consider also how Pelini’s post-game press conference demeanor has changed: in his first few years, there were times after losses he looked like he wanted to fight a reporter. Now, he looks relieved after wins and despondent after losses. Watching this change, I have wondered if he’s the kind of coach who burns bright for a couple of years, but burns out after seven or eight years because he’s all motivation and no innovation. He has innovated: changing Nebraska’s offense after the 2010 season gave the program a huge edge coming into the Big 10. But again, look at the defense, where Pelini puts in most of his time. There isn’t one star, sure-fire high NFL draft pick on that unit.
This leads to the question of whether or not Turner Gill would have been a better hire than Pelini. Indeed, some have written that Gill should have replaced Osborne as head coach in 1997. (Perhaps Osborne forgot how Bob Devaney choose him as Nebraska’s next head coach over many of his veteran assistants). At the time, Pelini was a hotter commodity and Gill had only a 7-17 record at Buffalo, but that wouldn’t have been a determent to a Husker fan base who remembered Gill for his playing days and his work with Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost, and Eric Crouch. As Osborne and Gill were such good friends (Osborne was the best man at Gill’s wedding), it may not have been the ideal situation for Osborne to hire a coach he was so close to. But given Gill’s steady hand, he may have been the better fit long-term.
Pelini’s not headed to the SEC if he continues to have looses like he did on Saturday. But in any case, fans have to wonder if his heart is in his job 100% and how many sorry press conference they may have to endure.