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Is Husker Nation Travel-ed Out?

Today, I checked flights from Omaha to Orlando around the time of the Capital One Bowl on a whim, and surprisingly, there were now some flights for under $500. Guess some bigwig must have noticed Nebraska fans weren’t buying their allotment of bowl tickets.

If the Big 10 Title Game was under-attended last year, this year’s attendance poor showing by Nebraska and Wisconsin (two-thirds of last years attendance) makes the early woes of the ACC Title Game look trivial. Carrying low momentum into bowl season, numerous Big 10 teams are selling paltry amounts of their ticket allotments. Granted, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Purdue are in worse bowls and/or have less momentum than a year ago, but still, the decline is startling.

Perhaps Jim Delany now questions adding a couple of East Coast outliers to his conference; just examining the travel habits of Nebraska fans, one of the country’s top traveling fan bases, should give the bowls attached to the Big 10 cause for concern.

Traveling fans are a huge part of the college football, both to bowl games and to opposing stadiums. I’ve made many of these trips myself, and while they’re memorable, they are also expensive and time consuming. The average tab for two from Omaha to Chicago runs around $1500-$2000; when my father and I went up from his apartment in Ames to go to Minnesota game last year, our expenses were around $300, but that was without hotel.

While fans in the past had short drives Lawrence, Manhattan, Columbia or Ames when Nebraska was in the Big 12, now Husker Nation has only two conference neighbors that are within a six hour drive. A large reason that Husker fans didn’t journey to Indianapolis was similar to why the NCAA had to go to pod seeding for March Madness: they were saving up for the bigger game. But beyond that, it’s clear from Nebraska’s huge presence in both Minneapolis and Chicago meant that fans now madk their plans further in advance, when costs were less. It also could indicate that traveling Husker fans are more likely to congregate at the easiest road game for them to get to with a surplus of tickets. This year, it was Northwestern, last year it was Minnesota, next year, it could probably be Purdue.

It will be interesting to see if schools like Minnesota and Northwestern start to follow the plan of Iowa State and make it harder for visiting fans to buy tickets to their team’s game without scholarship donations. This is doubtful; Northwestern is so bashful about their bowl ticket sales they don’t even release such data.

Looking at the Big 10, travel is even more of a concern for schools like Wisconsin and Ohio State, who look as if they will be giving up an annual road game in the Midwest to take a trip to Rutgers or Maryland. This arrangement will likely not hurt Nebraska, as they will only make the Rutgers or Maryland trip once every ten years, assuming the Big 10 stays at eight conference games as the SEC and ACC are doing. Still, with the Big 10 opening east coast offices, the question has to be asked, is it too much travel?

With the disappointment at the Big 10 Title Game coupled with the travel anxieties of Nebraska fans mean that Nebraska’s travel reputation will be taking a hit in the coming years? For the first few years of the Big 10, that’s possible, as Husker fans feel out the new locales. But after seven or eight years, Husker fans should once again rule the bowl scene. As I wrote last year, inevitably Nebraska will be getting drop in the Big 10’s bowl order to go to Phoenix and play a Big 12 team in what used to be the Insight Bowl. But super-conference are about the television eyeballs and not about fans waiting in long lines at Eppley Airport.

Memorial Stadium East?

Memorial Stadium East?

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.

Husker Losses’ Un-Definition: Conference Realignment’s Aftermath

We all knew there were going to be certain causalities when Nebraska moved from the Big 12 to the Big 10. The long series with Big 8 rivals all ended, and new schools, schools to the east of Lincoln, will now dot Nebraska’s conference schedule. Granted, this is the way major college sports has to move, from small regional conferences to larger ones that merit more TV revenue. The unfortunate part is that now, when you loose to a school like Northwestern, there’s this sense of un-definition that comes with the displeasure of loosing.

I was at Nebraska’s 9 home loss to Iowa State back in 2009 that featured eight turnovers, four inside the five yard line. I felt so horrid about the loss, when Nebraska beat Iowa State the next year 31-30, I left Jack Trice Stadium fumed over the fact that Nebraska hadn’t beat Iowa State worse than they did. That’s what you get out of the regional series. Contrast those two games to Nebraska’s home loss to Northwestern this past year, and you see what fans loose in conference realignment. While I still burnt on the Iowa State loss after a year, the Northwestern was just a loss. Maybe I jst assumed they were a pasty going, maybe it was the lack of history between Northwestern and Nebraska, or maybe I knew Nebraska was primed for a let down that week. Either way, the ghost of another formerly forlorn program in purple nicknamed “wildcats” was there to leave my heart empty that day; it’s just this program was from Chicago, not rural Kansas.

For Northwestern, it almost isn’t fair: the best coach in college football not named Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Mack Brown, or Les Miles just happens to be a Northwestern alum. Without Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern is likely struggling to get a conference win in the new, tighter Big 10. With him,  Northwestern walked into Memorial Stadium and completely worked Nebraska for four quarters, making plays the second the Huskers let their guard down. The Big 10 schools should all chip and help Arkansas (or another big-time school) offer Fitzgerald $8 million a year, and another $5 million a year to pay his assistants.

And in their own city, Northwestern alumni rank tenth or eleventh among Big 10 alumni in the city. Michigan and Michigan State probably wanted to be in the same division as the Wildcats so that they each get a fifth-conference home game every other year. Northwestern alumi care more about the Cubs, the Bears, the Bulls, and the Blackhawks over their football team. Plus, drum up the fact that Northwestern alumni Mike Wilbon and Mike Greenburg just happen to be major ESPN personalities, and the Wildcats’ success becomes particularly annoying the more it gets pumped. Consider all this, and I guess I have some reason to get pumped about playing Northwestern next year, even if the school is 531 miles and another culture from Lincoln.

The Northwestern loss showed Nebraska the realities of the Big 10 and of the super-conference: you have to win multiple big games in a row in order to play for the conference title or have a shot at an at-large BCS berth. In 2010, Nebraska had to win one big game, against Missouri at home, in order to get to the Big 12 Title Game. The next week, they went to Iowa State, played a so-so game, and were able to escape with a win. Michigan State was thought would be the de facto Legends Division title game, and given the special defense Bo Pelini designed for that game, he apparently thought the same. But the next week, Nebraska arguably played a game at home no worse than the game they played in Ames a year ago, yet got worked. Of the six teams that Nebraska will play every year in the Big 10, Northwestern’s program right now is fourth or fifth. In the Big 12 North, the fourth best program of the dissolving division were the Colorado Buffaloes, fresh off the Dan Hawkins-disaster.

So here we are in the new era of college football, the Nebraska-Northwestern series. Could this be an interesting series? Maybe; Iowa has drummed up some passion against Northwestern after Fitzgerald handed the Hawkeyes their first loss after a 9-0 start in 2009, so anything’s possible. There is something of a culture class: uppity, city academics, versus a rural farm school. But maybe this is just wistful thinking, a sign that Nebraska may end up as Arkansas has in the SEC (until Texas A&M and Missouri joined). At least Nebraska’s capable of putting 20,000 red shirts in Ryan Field every other year (did it at Minnesota), not that Wildcat Nation will find that embarrassing.

Could it be a sea of red?

Tim Miles: At Least He Looks the Part

Saturday I awoke to see one of my Facebook friends had already bemoaned another stint of Nebrasketball irrelevance because of the hiring of Tim Miles as Nebraska’s men’s basketball coach. While he’s not a wow-hire, Miles has  two qualities that give a chance to succeed at Nebraska: one, he has a recruiter/spokesman’s personality, and two, he’ll recruit and sign Nebraska high school players.

To the first point, Doc Sadler didn’t work as an AQ-conference coach was because he was from the Bobby Knight-John Thompson red-faced -yelling sschool. Great players didn’t want to play for him, and the players who did come to Nebraska didn’t stay here very long. Miles is a young, bright media face who tweets during halftime. While he might not be able to sign a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, Miles should give Nebraska a positive voice that isn’t hoarse from screaming and wears on players like John Gruden’s did.

Osborne with his new protege.

To the second point, the fact that Miles had four Nebraska natives on his current CSU team  must have been impressive to Osborne, maybe more so than it should have been. Miles is a South Dakota native who spent most of his career coaching in the Dakotas and Minnesota. While Nebraska doesn’t produce a lot of D-I players, keeping the few will do go a long in endearing Miles to the Nebraska fans. Look at this way: if you sign the T.J. Pughs and Wes Eikmeier of rural Nebraska instead of letting them go to Iowa State or Kansas, then at least Nebraska fans will come and support them. Barry Collier had worse record at Nebraska than Doc Sadler did, but was kept after his sixth year while Sadler was fired. The reason: Collier recruited a bunch of local players his first year at Nebraska, endearing him to the locals. If you’re going to serve a bad basketball product, at least buy it locally.

But Nebraska’s inability to hire a great basketball coach stems from the fact that there’s no urgency to win in college basketball, even at major programs. Look at Maryland and Missouri, the two best jobs that opened last year. Missouri hired a coach had been to the NCAA Tournament once and hadn’t won sixty percent of his games at Miami (Frank Haith). Maryland, in a basketball-first league, hired a coach who had been to the Sweet Sixteen once at a mid-major (Mark Turgeon). Given Nebraska’s lack of interest in basketball for the last twelve years, Miles may be the best hire they can get. Even coaching at the school where a long-time Osborne aid is the football coach, Ohio coach John Groce may have his sights set on a bigger job, like Illinois.

In the video below, Miles talks a lot about something that many Nebraska beat writers have been pointing out about Nebraska basketball: raising the standards of a program. Colorado State had finished no better than sixth in the Mountain West the previous seven year before Miles arrived at CSU. Miles had just two scholarship players on his first team but improved every year. At North Dakota State, Miles upset both Wisconsin and Marquette after the school jumped to Division I, and Miles’ players continued to win after their coach left. Maybe Nebraska has found a coach who’s peaking; either way, it’s a better resume than Sadler had when he came to Nebraska (two years, one NCAA bid, one NIT bid, with Billy Gillispie’s players), and everyone supposedly loved him.

I’m not going to say that I’m uber-thrilled with Miles’ hiring at Nebraska, but I am going to watch his introduction today with some optimism. As long as he can recruit local players and there aren’t too many empty seats at Pinnacle Bank areana(or worse, Creighton fans), it will justify a six year tenure, which is what Osborne is going to give a coach if he makes the postseason by year three. When Sadler was named the Nebraska men’s basketball coach, he brought a combative bravado that wore thin over time. Miles looks like a long-term, positive builder, which is exactly what Nebraska needs.

(More Husker Posts)

Update: In his introductory presser, I thought Miles came across very well as the fresh-faced CEO that Nebraska basketball needs. He talked very postively about creating buzz within the fanbase, exactly what Nebrasketball needs to succeed (and fill the new arena.) I had forgotten the North Dakota State connection with Craig Bohl that undoubtedly helped him land the job.

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem very eager to talk about recruiting Nebraska when he was asked about recruiting, instead speaking of the Big 10 and old Big 12 north footprint. Hopefully, he will maintain his old connections and sign local prospects, but I wish someone would have asked him about the Nebraskans he had at CSU.

One last carp: why in the world did we have to hear so much about Doc Sadler? Clearly, everyone cares about him more now that he is gone than when his teams took the court.

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