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College Football Coaches: The Pros and Cons of Nebraska’s Bo Pelini

College Football Coaches: The Pros and Cons of Nebraska’s Bo Pelini

Great college football coaches don’t come along too often. Nebraska was lucky enough to have two in the last century. However after the retirement of Tom Osborne in 1997, the Nebraska football program has been floundering under the leadership of Frank Solich, Bill Callahan and current head coach Bo Pelini.

If you wonder whether Pelini is leading the Nebraska program in the right direction, just ask a Huskers fan. But be warned, they seem to be clearly divided into two camps. The “stay positive and everything will work out for us,” or the “Pelini must go!” camp.

The patient fan thinks Pelini is growing into his job and will eventually turn into the great coach that everybody was hoping for when he arrived. While others think he is a loose cannon that doesn’t have the temperament to be a head coach at the BCS level.

At least he is not Bill Callahan

Bo Pelini

Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini

The good news for Nebraska is that Pelini is definitely a step up from Bill Callahan. The bad news is four 9 win seasons in a row and no championships in the last 10 years for this storied program. Nebraska was the winningest team of the 80’s and in the top 5 in the 90’s. But they were nowhere near the top 10 this past decade.

Whatever you may believe about the man, I think there is no denying that from a Huskers fan’s perspective, if he doesn’t start winning more than 9 games a year and a few conference championship soon, he will be dubbed a failure. This is how it works at storied programs. And why we usually don’t see them go more than 10 years without bringing in a great coach, and winning some type of championship.

Are Nebraska’s Expectations Unrealistic?

This is a tough situation for Pelini because whether he wants it or not, when you coach for a big-time program like Nebraska that is used to success, you’re automatically going to be measured against other great college football coaches like Saban, Switzer, Carroll, Meyer, Jimmy Johnson, Stoops and especially Nebraska coaching legend Tom Osborne.

Most of these successful college football coaches had the built in advantage of being located in better geographical locations for recruiting, and over half of them have been caught for cheating at sometime during their coaching careers. But many fans tend to forget these things when all they want is success for their team. Since Pelini doesn’t seem like the cheating type to me, and Nebraska’s geographical location will always be a disadvantage,  maybe the expectations for him to succeed on the level of other great college football coaches are a little unrealistic.

Nebraska’s Recruiting Problem

What makes Pelini’s job even more difficult is recruiting. As I talked about in my “Will Nebraska ever be a Dynasty again?” article, recruiting has been a major hurdle to overcome for Pelini and his predecessors after Osborne.

The good news is Pelini isn’t just sitting back and hoping great players come his way. He’s brought in an outside research firm to give him advice about the steps he can take to land the 4 and 5 star prospects who in the past were on Nebraksa’s radar early, but in the end eventually got away to the other major powers like USC and the SEC schools. Nebraska then had to settle for second-tier talent. So Pelini is now learning what questions to ask his potential recruits, along with knowing when to pull the trigger and get these recruits earlier in the game. It’s a gamble either way. But one that Pelini will ultimately have to make to succeed.

Bo Pelini’s Temper Tantrums

Pelini needs to learn to keep his emotions in check in the heat of a game. Most all of the great college football coaches out there have tempers, but their anger and emotions are usually directed towards the refs. They all are able to dial it back and keep it in check so they can focus on the game. You never want it trickling down to your players and assistant coaches, and having them lose their focus.

Much of this stuff is overblown by the media when it comes to Pelini’s outbursts. They have mostly taken place AFTER his teams have already fallen apart on the field. But it still brings up another question. Why are his teams falling apart during games, and not playing consistently from week to week? Many of these problems can be traced back to coaching. But it’s also about the lack of 4 and 5 star recruiting depth that can sometimes hurt you late in the tight games against the better teams.

Nebraska is the New Iowa

Nebraska v Iowa

Nebraska v Iowa

Despite four 9 win seasons, Pelini and Nebraska have won only 47% of their games against teams that had over a .500 record. And they’ve won only 40% of their games against teams in the top 25. Those numbers will probably have to improve dramatically in order for Pelini to keep his job.

Sporting News recently had Pelini as the 6th best coach in the Big 10, one place behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, who as Pezgordo pointed out in his article Betting On College Coaches, is only about a 60% lifetime winning coach whose teams have not lived up to their recruiting and NFL draft rankings.

I think one of the worst fears of any Husker fan is that Nebraska turns into another Iowa. A team that struggles to win 8 or 9 games each year, with the occasional 10 win season and BCS – bowl game tossed in every 5 or 6 years. Just good enough to keep the job for their coach, but not good enough to win any championships. Clemson went through the same thing with Tommy Bowden for what seemed like forever before they finally got fed up and canned him. The question is would Tom Osborne have the stones to fire Pelini if he turns out to be a good but not a great coach?

Great College Football Coaches Win Now

Alabama's Nick Saban

Alabama's Nick Saban

When we talk about the great college football coaches of the past and present, the one thing that most all of them have in common is it has never taken them long to get a program on track and start winning championships. Meyer, Stoops, Carroll, Saban, Jimmy Johnson and the other great college football coaches past and present have been able to win some type of championship within two or three years of taking the job. When college football coaches start going beyond the 3 year point, fans start getting impatient. The warm fuzzies over their new coach begin to wane and the pressure to win becomes even greater.

One thing that a coach with a loose gasket like Pelini doesn’t need, is more pressure. Athletic Director’s used to give a coach a 5 year window to turn a program around. This will be Pelini’s 5th season. If Nebraska doesn’t get off to a strong start this season, the pressure is going to be like nothing Pelini has experienced before.

Pelini is an Average Coach

I try to keep an open mind when it comes to predicting the future of head college football coaches. But my gut feeling tells me that no matter how hard Bo Pelini works to become a better coach, or how much Osborne may like him,  in the end the amount of success he has at Nebraska will be closer to what we are seeing with Ferentz at Iowa. I just think it takes a great and proven coach to raise a program like Nebraska to another level. Not one that is still learning on the job.

Nebraska will also discover that when they do find that “special coach,” it will also attract more of those special players and  recruiting will improve. Right now the Huskers are in a bit of a quandary. If Pelini has another 9 win season does Osborne continue to ride it out with him, or does he go another direction? After 5 years of mediocrity and Bo Pelini, the fans will probably tell Osborne everything he needs to know.

What is your opinion of Bo Pelini and where do you think he belongs on the list of past and present college football coaches? Thank you – GoSooners.


5 Responses to “College Football Coaches: The Pros and Cons of Nebraska’s Bo Pelini”

  1. PE says:

    I think the book has yet to be written on Bo Pelini. The jury is still out. I think he will be better overall after a few more years than Kirk Ferenz, but not a lot. Unoless he gets better at fixing certain things that’s hurting his teams year after year. If he doesn’t improve the program pretty significantly in the next 3 years, he’ll sadly be out the door. But he’s not on a hot seat now, and there is the “if” factor…you have to admit, if a few things would have went a little different, he’d had 2 championships to his name in 4 years. He’s been extremely close to winning 2 championships…lost by a total of 4 points in those 2 games…had the refs not put a second back on the clock would we be having this conversation? I know, close only counts in horse shoes, but I keep going back to this…if he is that close with only 2nd tier talent that he’s had so far with the few exceptions (N. Suh, Prince, and others – proving that he can develop players), then what’s it going to be like when we do win a championship, or start getting into BCS games and the talent level increases?
    The one thing that is really the telling factor to what is happening to Pelini is the turnover ratio…we are a horrible fumbling team and we are not creating turnovers or getting the ones back we loose, and our penalties are way out there. Both point to coaching, not talent. And that’s good news. I think to some extent talent follows good coaching. But even so we were hanging with Wisconsin pretty good before we imploded, and we were hanging with S. Carolina before we imploded. If he can get his teams to not do those things and improve substantially in those areas, and compete at the level he has already shown he can,it bodes well for what can happen if the talent level increases.
    Now, if he can just fix those nagging little problems…

  2. PE says:

    I also want to point out that Pelini didn’t do himself any favors by not going out and getting top tier coaching talent. He could of; Nebraska can certainly afford it. By that I mean experienced coaches with big names because they earned it…we could have at least made attempts at getting a Gus Malzohn, a Dana Holgerson, heck even a Mike Leach or Rich Rodriguez, or any one of a number of great coaches that have been available recently who could have most likely been pursuaded to come to Nebraska. Instead he went out and got a bunch of guys that he just really gets along with (some are from his hometown), are “his guys”, but have no resumes to speak of. Very little real experience. Certainly none at the elite level. A bunch of no names. One has to ask why? Is it because of ego? Or a brilliant stratagie we just can’t see yet? What’s this “my guy” stance all about anyway and why is that so important? Could he stand being the head coach and have a guy with a bigger name under him, possibly stealing some of the limelight? I honestly don’t know but the questions naturally comes up. Why choose no name coaches? Big name coaches tend to attract big recruits. Big name coaches also tend to win…that’s how they got their big names. Their football accumen is proven and unquestioned. It leads you to ask is the football knowledge there? Could these guys stand up to a Gruden for example? Or are they anywhere near there? Suddenly it seems Nebraska has turned into a proving ground for young coaches, and that’s a problem. That is usually done at schools like Akron or Cincinatti or places like that where coaches historically have cut their teeth. Not at a place like Nebraska. Or Michigan. Take a look at what Brady Hoke has done and look at his results…BCS game in year 1. Because he brought in top coaches to help him. And look at their recruiting now. They did it right.
    Bo Pelini could have gone out and get top tier coaching talent and hedged his bets a little. It would have generated quite a buzz and gave us much needed momentum in re-building our program. More eyes would be upon us as they are in Michigan right now. Instead he choose the path less travelled. We won’t know if it was a good decision until it’s all over, but I fear it may come back to bite him in the end. Unless becoming the next Iowa is OK with everyone.

  3. GoSooners GoSooners says:

    PE…I think we can both at least agree on Pelini and Nebraska needing to recruit better than they have to this point if they want to call themselves one of the elites of college football. Having top 25 classes aren’t bad, but this is Nebraksa we’re talking about. They need to be inside the top 10 in recruiting on a halfway consistent basis..

    As I’ve pointed out here before, since the beginning of the BCS, there has been only two teams who have won the national champioship without being in the top 10 in recruiting leading up to that game. And that was OU way back in 2000, and Auburn, who was barely out of the top 10 in recruiting, but as we all know had that 5 star player named Cam Newton that put them over the top.

    Like I said, Pelini has done okay, but he’s been far from great on the recruiting trail. He did have a couple of good defensive teams when the Huskers were in the Big 12. But keep in mind that Suh and those good early defenses weren’t Pelini’s recruits. They were primarily Callahan’s players.

    What concerns me about Pelini now is he is in a tougher division in the Big 10 than he was being in the Big 12 north. Plus Pelini lost his DC brother to FAU. And the Nebraska defense fell off somewhat last year from years past. They ended up giving up an average of about 360 ypg on D, when most of your good BCS bowl quality teams are closer to the 300 or less ypg range unless they have one of those kinds of special offenses like Okie State had last year.. So the Huskers have a ways to go on both sides of the ball.

    Recruiting well is a must for here on out. He CAN’T let coaches like Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke out-recruit him on a regular basis because he will never be able to outcoach those two on the field. He needs the elite players to compete against the elite teams. If he can’t, he’s going to end up like Ferentz, and maybe have a decent BCS bowl quality team every 5 years or so. But I know Huskers fans, and I doubt they would accept those kinds of results.

    Personally, I wish the best for you guys. My Sooners and the Huskers were great rivals for many many years. And I’ve had nothing but positive experiences when I’ve met Nebraska fans at the games. The two teams used to almost mirror each other. That’s why I was always a big fan of Nebraska when they weren’t playing OU. I would like to see them do well in the Big 10.

  4. PE says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I like your perspectives and it sounds like you have nothing but respect for our program and we appreciate it.
    I think moving to the B1G was a mistake for the same reasons you point out…it’s tuffer and that is exactly what we don’t need!
    I thought at first that Bo was going to be the guy. Not so much now. I wish he was our defensive coordinator frankly. Up until last year everyone thought we’d at least have a great defense every year. Not so much now. We have nothing to hang our hat on. I was always hoping we’d go out and get the likes of an Urban Meyer or a Nick Saben. He’d then go out and bring in top top top coaching talent and we’d be back on track to elite level again. Instead, we made a gamble on a guy that had never been a HC before and look what’s happened. The fact is both our offensive coordinator and our defensive coordinator combined have 1 year experience at their respective postions. I hope we’re not being short sighted, but I don’t think that was the smartest move hiring no names you think are going to become big names. It isn’t working out so well so far at least. You don’t do that at a place like Nebraska. You go out and get an experienced coach, as big of a name as you can find, you don’t develop them. We chose the latter unfortunatly and it might be coming back to bite us. I give him 3 more years tops to turn it around. The thing is, he’s got a lot to fix…the turnover ratio, fumbles, lack of causing turnovers, numerous dropped passes, the penalties and subsequent total implosions and just stupid mistakes this team makes are all coaching issues. Not talent issues. And they don’t seem to be getting much better. On top of that, he isn’t the best recruiter of all time either. But how does that get better without more winning? If your not a huge winner, and he isn’t, at least not yet anyway, you better have a big name. It means we’re effectively betting on the cum with Bo. The only way to increase recruiting, besides just tightening your belt and developing better systems, those sort of in house things, is have big name coaches. There has to be some sort of attraction other than “we used to win a lot” for kids to choose to come here. I point to what the smart people at Ohio State did…after a massive scandal and school sanctions I might add…they went out and hired a big name, Urban Meyer, and he immediantly went out and put together a top 5 recruiting class and brought in a good staff. They are extremely happy in Columbus these days. That’s who Bo has to compete with now. That’s what Nebraska needs to do if we are going to get back to elite status I feel. I like the traditions and all that we are, but sometimes sticking to things so tightly as Nebraska tends to do, keeps you from making the necessary changes needed to stay competitive and up with the times. Just think if Urban Meyer was coming here? And brought in a top 5 class…this state would be buzzing! Momentum would be ours. Top 5 every year, playing for tittles and attracting some of the very best recruits coming out of the prep ranks year in and year out. That’s what the fans of Ohio State are looking forward to right now. And why not Nebraska? We still have our name and traditions and facts (5 NC’s, 3 Heismans), and our past success. We are one of the best programs ever. Won more games since 1960 than any other program. But that hides the last decade long trend downwards. We have lost our dynasty status. And the only way to fix it is get a big name coach and the top notch staff he brings, or hire someone like Bo and hope he turns into a big name coach and takes you to the promised land that way. Both are valid stratagies of course, those big name coaches came from somewhere after all, but my gut tells me Bo will never be at the level of a Meyer or a Saben. I hope I’m wrong. But we’re kinda stuck being positive and hoping for the best.

  5. GoSooners GoSooners says:

    PE…I think you make some great points about the importance of coaches. I wouldn’t get too down about it. Every great storied program has gone through the same things Nebraska is going through right now. OU went through 10 years of hell and 3 different coaches after Switzer retired. Remember that even USC and Bama had some long dry spells of bad or mediocre seasons before the right coaches came along. And recently Michigan. It’s all about bringing in somebody who is the “Now” coach. Somebody who has a foundation and has had recent success, especially since half of these 18 year old kids could care less what a school did in the 80’s because they weren’t even alive back then. They want to be on a team who can win NOW.. And a school needs to hire a coach who has “connections” around the country, and can bring in the best staffs. The great coaches know they can’t do it by themselves. They bring in people who are equally football sharp, who they have great chemistry with, and who they can trust. The problem is not every coach has the luxury of these connections.

    The importance of having a great staff could not be more true than at Oklahoma. When Stoops came on in 1999 he hired an allstar staff of Mangino, Leach, Venables and his brother Mike. It didn’t get any better than that crew. Stoops needed it because in many ways he was in the very same position as Pelini was in not having ever been a head coach before getting hired at a major program. I think the biggest difference between Stoops and Pelini are their temperments on the field. Pelini is more like Stoops brother Mike. But I believe another maybe bigger difference is I’ve heard that Stoops having coached in 3 different conferences and who had just won the NC under Spurrier, had more connections around the country to the great coaches than just about any other coach in the country. That’s why he’s done a pretty good job of bringing in very good and experienced assistants whenever one has moved on. But you’ve got to have the best. When all of these assistant coaches from the 2000 NC team finally got their calling and moved on to other schools, Stoops never quite accumulated another staff of their equal again, and subsequently OU hasn’t won another national championship since that 2000 team. But they’ve still been successful. Maybe someday Stoops will get that great combination again of special coaches and players where everything comes together for another championship. But the main point I’m trying to get across is it’s not just about the head coach. He is the “attraction” the school needs. Then comes the great staff that brings it all together.

    Thanks for posting your comments. I think I learned some things about Nebraska. And I can certainly appreaciate your enthusiasm and knowledge about your school.


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