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Why Pelini’s SEC Interest is Keeping Nebraska Stuck in Neutral. And Why Certain Coaches Stay Under the Radar

Bummed Bo

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.

SEC’s New Scheduling Model: Dragging its Feet to Change, Par for the Course in the CFB Universe

Last week, the SEC did what the SEC does: put winning ahead of everything else. Ignoring the trend in college football, the SEC kept its eight-game conference schedule, even though it means there will only be one rotating opponent on each team’s schedule every year. So much for being a “conference”, the SEC is now two small conference with a scheduling alliance and a championship, basically what the Mountain West and Conference USA are.
While I won’t consider myself an expert on SEC politics, I understand that of the seven permanent cross-division rivalries, two are historically important: Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia . The newly christened MissouriArkansas border rivalry is also an important game to play every year, even though the two schools don’t have much history. While the four other rivalries are all well matched (Florida-LSU, Texas A&M-South Carolina, Mississippi State-Kentucky, Vanderbilt-Ole Miss), but aren’t as essential to the respective program’s history. Each of these schools could just as well play a two rotating non-division games a year.

New found rivals

I’m not saying that the Third Saturday in October and the Deep South’s Oldest rivalry shouldn’t be played every year.  I’m not saying that Arkansas and Missouri can’t start up a good border war. The team of my heart, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, had their top rivalry ripped away by Big 12-Texas politics, so I’m sympathetic to their plight. What I am saying is let’s not have Mississippi State and Kentucky play every year just because four other schools have to have cross-division rivals (When I googled “mississippi state kentucky” I got one football image in the first two pages).

Vital that these two teams play every year?

Not as vital as keeping these rivals together

To be a real conference, the SEC needs to play a nine game conference schedule, like the ACC will when they go to fourteen. The Big 12 and the Pac 12 already play twelve, and the Big 10 and Big East will likely both go to nine soon. (Of course, part of the motivation for the ACC, Big 10, and Big East to play nine conference games is to get Notre Dame to join a conference.) If you are only going to have one rotating opponent every year on the schedule, you are no longer a conference. The possibility now exists for a massive imbalance between the divisions of the SEC.

The SEC gave the typical reasons for not wanting more than eight conference games: Florida and Georgia, who play at a neutral site, would be disadvantaged because they would only have three home games every other year (which already happens). Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina want to keep their in-state rivalries together. But I hear the bragging by SEC fans: our conference is so tough, we only need eight conference games a year. To that I say, if your conference is so tough, why are you always teasing Texas for being too soft to play in it?

But I get it in this regard: the SEC is about winning championships, not just conference but national. While I’m not a fan of this decision as a whole, I do respect the drive to win, which is hard enough to do in college football as it is. The SEC is so great as a conference, they can only play eight conference games a year, and yet, it still gives fans quality games at home. Hopefully, the SEC will get so add two more teams and establish four four team divisions, so scheduling can be a little easier.

A Nebraska Fan on the Arkansas Situation

I have to confess something; as college football fan, and specifically, a Nebraska fan, I feel bad for Arkansas. Maybe it’s because both of us have been the mutual object of the scorn of Texas, and both Arkansas and Nebraska are small states without major cities. And because of their small population, both programs had to make hard choices to leave their historic conferences and move on to super-leagues.
In an odd twist of fate, it was the man who replaced and was succeeded by Steve Pedersen (Nebraska’s prodigal son) at Pittsburgh , the athletic director who had to make the tough call on Bobby Petrino. In a small state like Arkansas, a major football program isn’t just the state’s identity; it’s one of the few major business. Los Angeles has the Lakers, film industry, and countless others to go along with it. In Arkansas, it’s football and that’s it.


Petrino’s firing just represents the futility that surrounds the rural program who hasn’t lived up to the expectation of the past. After twenty years, Arkansas’ football program had finally surpassed Texas and become elite again. On top of which, the Razorbacks no longer had to listen to the Longhorn’s mocking that they had deserted their SWAC rivals; with Texas A&M and Missouri joining the SEC, the Hogs could now boast to Austin that they were ahead of the expansion curb, in the place where it matters most: the homes of Texas high school players.

But to get there, they had to take a chance on a questionable coach. Jeff Long hired Bobby Petrino because, after the school had a decade of Houston Nutt, an average coach who wasn’t bad enough to get himself fired quickly. Ultimately, Bobby Petrino may just be a more successful version of Mark Mangino; a successful coach whose issues got hi relegated to a rural job, although Petrino’s was much better than Mangino’s.

So now Arkansas is open again; at least now it’s a better job than it was when Petrino took over. Oddly enough, Nebraska’s Pelini is rumored to be on Long’s list. Not surprising the two states have the same taste in coaches.

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