Unreality finally caught up to Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers faithful are unable to accept reality that the halcyon days of Tom Osborne in the 1990s – national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997 -- will never return.
And so Bo Pelini was fired on Sunday, two days after his team won a game; the Huskers came from behind to beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime on the road to improve 9-3.
Pelini posted three 10-win seasons and four other nine-win campaigns to compile a 67-27 record in seven seasons. He also won or shared three Big 12 North Division titles and one Big Ten Legends Division trophy.
But the Cornhuskers were never in the national title picture with six four loss seasons and this year’s three-loss record. And there were embarrassing numbers put up against the defense, even though Pelini’s forte is that side of the ball as a former defensive coordinator.
Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon ran for 406 yards in Nebraska’s 59-24 loss at Madison three weeks ago. Two seasons ago Pelini advanced the Cornhuskers to the Big Ten Championship game by winning the Legends title. But then the Cornhuskers surrendered an apoplectic 70 points in a loss to Wisconsin.
The wonder is Pelini survived that 2012 Big Ten championship game to return in 2013. One reason may have been Osborne was the athletic director, and he didn’t want to be the one who fired Pelini before he retired. He likely recognized time had run out on Nebraska’s future and it’s now just another Top 25 program.
Pelini’s records were a reflection of Nebraska’s talent – good but not great. Teams with great talent don’t give up the embarrassing point totals the Cornhuskers surrendered each year under Pelini, whose forte is defense as a former Nebraska defensive coordinator.
Good doesn’t generate donations from spoiled alumni at a place like Nebraska. Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst says money isn’t an issue; Nebraska can spend money to compete. But what that statement fails to recognize is other programs are spending the money – money it didn’t spend until the past two decades -- too.
There are other reasons for programs catching up to Nebraska in the recruiting game, but the final nail, orchestrated by Osborne, was leaving behind old recruiting bases to join the Big Ten. As Big 12 and Big Eight members, Nebraska successfully recruited Texas and California.
Now Nebraska’s recruiting base is the Midwest, with its declining population base in the Rust Belt cities. Nebraska is just another school from the Midwest trying to supplement its roster with talent in the fertile South. Only Ohio State, with its rich Ohio talent, still has a strong Midwest recruiting base. Other schools must draw from other states.
Another primary reason is Nebraska no longer has an edge on facilities and funding. Nebraska always understood the value of facilities and funding to recruiting – from stadiums to weight rooms to training tables and any other shiny bauble that attracts athletes not necessarily interested in an education.
Osborne used to land his helicopter on a high school campus to recruit a player. He tried that with Marshall Faulk in New Orleans, and it might have worked if he hadn’t recruited the future three-time All-American running back at San Diego State as a cornerback.
Memorial Stadium in Lincoln may not be Jerry’s World
but it was always full with enthusiastic fans. The fans were famous for applauding a losing team for its effort as it walked off the field.
The arms race that is college football has leveled the playing field. How do you think Oregon rose from decades of mediocrity to national prominence? The Ducks did it with Nike money from Oregon alum and Nike founder Phil Knight. Oregon’s football building, costing $68 million and measuring 145,000 square feet, is a place of luxury.
Sure, Oregon is the extreme, but every school that is in the Top10 rankings these days has upgraded its facilities to some degree to attract in the recruits.
But let’s not forget what else kept Nebraska’s program rolling in the 1980s when Osborne couldn’t win the big game yet provided momentum into the 1990s. Nebraska offensive Dean Steinkuhler revealed that ugly secret years when the NFL bust who won the 1983 Outland Trophy admitted he used steroids in college.
UCLA coach Terry Donahue hinted at the performance enhancing drug advantage before the teams played in 1988 after having lost to the Huskers in 1983 and 1984 by the combined score of 84-13.
“In my opinion, in 1983 and 1984, Nebraska was not a normal college football team,” Donahue said. “You can take that for what it's worth and you can interpret that any way you want.
"They were the most unusual team, other than one other I've faced, in 13 years as a head coach. Their players were not typical college football players. Last year, they were.”
Donahue was lambasted for his inferences in the media, a reaction that wouldn’t happen today. The media would side with a coach willing to speak up.
And let’s not forget Lawrence Phillips Osborne protected the infamous running from charges of domestic violence as he continued to play him. Osborne couldn’t get away with that in today’s environment.
In the days before parity, Nebraska simply outmanned weak opponents in the Big Eight such as Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State before Bill Snyder built the program. It wasn’t that much different that Woody Hayes at Ohio State and Bo Schembechler as the Big Two outmanning the Little Eight.
Michigan State has kept up with other schools in the arms race, but ultimately what made the difference with the Spartans developing into a Top 10 program is the ability head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff to identify talent and develop it.
Bo Pelini is a good coach, but good is only good enough when a program can outman its opponents. That’s no longer possible at Nebraska.