On Coach Mark “Bo” Pelini
I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in.
Okay, so I realize that in my last post I basically all but promised that I was not going to blog about football again for a while. And I really meant it. But considering the news broke yesterday that Pelini was dismissed by Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, less than 48-hours after his team completed the biggest comeback in a road game in school history, I guess I kind of feel the need to put my thoughts out there. In part because a lot of people have asked me for my opinion and I don’t feel I’ve given them a very clear answer. Mostly because I just need to put into words why I, someone who genuinely tries not to call for a coach’s job, finally agree with this decision.
It’s been one of the crazier weekends in recent memory. I went from saying on Thursday that I was done caring about Pelini-led teams, to finding the Huskers down 24-7 and wishing Pelini would just go, to watching them rally back and hopping right back on the bandwagon, hearing of his firing via text message and just feeling utter revulsion, then acceptance, and finally, sometime last night, support.
But first things first, I do want to clarify something. Nebraska football, both the team and its fans, have always had a strong tradition of giving credit where credit is due. When Ricky Williams ran all over our defense in 1998, the Husker fans famously chanted “Heisman” as he walked off the field, and similarly when our players end their practices with prayer, they say “If we lose, we’ll stand by the road / And cheer as the winners go by.” It’s a tradition that has given way in recent years to jealousy; pointless, smug shit talking; and unending negativity. It’s a tradition I would like to uphold today.
So let me start by saying that this is not about Pelini being a bad coach. He’s not. As many people have pointed out, he’s the only coach in history to take over a team that had a losing record and win 9 games each of his first 7 years. That is a good accomplishment. And the claim that he hasn’t won any big games simply is not true. Last year’s victory over Georgia in the Gator Bowl is a good place to start. The program sorely needed that win, and he got it. The year before that, unranked Nebraska upset #20 Michigan, again at a time when we really needed to keep the momentum rolling. But I think his best moment, which most Husker fans have already forgotten, was in 2010 when after failing to show up against a miserably bad Texas team, Pelini rallied his players to knock off back-to-back unbeaten teams, first #17 Oklahoma State on the road, then #7 Missouri at home.
I also want to give him credit for how hard his job has been, more so than I think people realize. As I said, I thought Pelini’s best coaching moment came in 2010, though the end of 2009 would be a close second, as Nebraska nearly upset undefeated Texas in the Big 12 Championship, then shut out Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. Either way, after 2-3 years, it seemed like Pelini and his staff might have been building a contender, putting the pieces together.
And then between 2010 and 2011 we change conferences to the Big Ten. I think this was a good move and that we are better off, but I think this made the job harder for Pelini than many realize. Not only did he have to adjust to new opponents, new opposing coaches and coordinators, but it also completely changed his recruiting dynamic. Nebraska coaches can’t recruit in Texas and Oklahoma the way they used to, and the recruiting territory it opened up, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and, now, the D.C. area, is devoid of programs we have any history or rivalry with. Nebraska can be a hard sell to recruits to begin with (cold weather school, located in a small, quiet city) and this change certainly didn’t do the man any favors.
That said, this was still the correct decision on Eichorst’s part. Because I don’t think Nebraska can be good. I don’t want a program that wants to be good. I want a program that aims for greatness, even if it means taking a tumble or two along the way.
The question is, then, what if Pelini was just on the verge of greatness? After all, as everyone points out, it took Osborne 9 years before he won an outright conference title. Who’s to say Pelini wouldn’t follow the same arc? Well, I don’t buy that for a second, and here’s why:
If things were ever going to be different under Pelini, they would have been different this year.
All the talk last year was about Pelini’s hot seat. Would a 9-win season save his job? Did he need to win the conference in order to be safe? It was inescapable, and it never let up.
If that didn’t galvanize the team, nothing will.
When they lost to Iowa, the dreaded 4th loss of the season, it seemed Pelini’s days were numbered. And after his now-infamous press conference, I think everyone, myself included, thought it was only a matter of days. Instead, Eichorst came out in full support of Pelini and said he would be leading our team into the future. The team rallied one last time and upset a much more talented Georgia team in their bowl. Fans and players chanted “Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo!” during the trophy presentation.
If that didn’t give the program positive momentum, nothing will.
Over the offseason, we saw a much more open-minded Pelini. He allowed reporters at his spring practices and fall camp, showed us a different side of his personality than the rage-filled boor we’d grown accustomed to on the sidelines and in interviews. These moments gave the program great press, scored huge points with the national commentators, and, most of all, were fun.
If that didn’t allow the team to come to this season loose and focused, nothing will.
And none of it has happened.
I really thought things might be different at the start of this year (and I know I wasn’t the only one). The players talked differently. They carried themselves differently. For a while maybe they even played differently. Even the fan base seemed to have changed.
By the time Michigan State rolled around we got our first indication that this was no different. By the time Melvin Gordon clocked out early, a new FBS record in hand, we got our final, bitter confirmation: we were watching the same season we’d seen play out six times before.
I commented during that game that I didn’t think Pelini had learned anything in his time as a head coach. In fact, in a lot of ways I think you can say he’s regressed. For all the complaints you can put on his early teams, they showed up to play and they played their best football at the end of the season. They were tough, not the least bit flashy, and they didn’t always win, but they rarely felt out of the fight.
Now it’s the exact opposite. Now Nebraska will dazzle you with their finesse in September and be fighting for scraps come November. They’ll impose their will on opponents… as long as those opponents don’t push back. At all.
Pelini either can’t or simply won’t fix this problem. What keeps causing these collapses. What keeps inspiring these blowouts. Why his teams never seem to show up for a full game. Instead we get quotes about executing (which has always been a bit too similar to Callahan’s excuse that the players were making mistakes). Instead we get reminders of his accolades.
A coach who informs us, after getting embarrassed on national television in a conference championship game, that he doesn’t have to apologize for 10 wins is not a coach I want leading my team.
Or a coach who’s likely to win those championship games in the future.
I sincerely wish the best for Pelini. I hope he finds a soft landing spot and another head coaching job some day. I hope he learns from mistakes he made here and builds a perennial national power. I hope we see him in the playoffs every year.
But if there’s any reason to believe he could have taken Nebraska further, I just don’t see it. Time for a change in Lincoln.
Go Big Red.