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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.