In my recent column
I stated that the university needed to decide what type of football team it strives to have. Is NU an academic institution also supporting a football team that has fun, spirit-inspired regional rivalries, but also gets steamrolled when the real football “Programs” come to town or does it aspire to be the Program doing the steamrolling?
The question I implied needed answering was hypothetical because the answer was provided in the 1960’s when Bob Devaney took NU Football from two decades of irrelevance to, at times, unbeatable. Big donor support skyrocketed and insisted NU had a tiger by the tail that it wasn’t going to be allowed to let go. NU is a football Program with a capital P, it’s a machine, and first and foremost it’s a business.
Fan passion for a football team is absolutely imperative, but for no other reason than they are the consumers of what the Husker business sells; skyboxes, seats in the stadium, branded merchandise, and advertising that nets way more when more people are watching. NU has marketing teams on staff and PR firms on retainer to ensure fans stay invested and God-forbid don’t go to the movies on Saturdays.
Unfortunately what marketers can’t do is improve the product they’re promoting, in this case the Husker football team and that’s where NU has a wing-dinger of problem right now. The team doesn’t live up to the hype and putting it through the spin-cycle has become ineffective.
Most unhappy fans don’t seem to be saying 9 wins is a terrible thing but Nebraska Football doesn’t aspire to 9 wins as the norm; no major football Program (remember the capital P) does. Nine win seasons only work when occasionally feathered in-between are better seasons that earn at least a modicum of conference hardware. Manufactured-rivalry trophies don’t count, but it also doesn’t help to not win those either.
If you doubt the validity of that premise, just compare the perceived job security of Pelini and Saban, the two coaches often stitched together with both having at least 9 wins for 6 straight years. Frankly if Bo produced Nebraska’s results at Alabama it’s a solid lock he’d have been jettisoned last year after the Iowa blowout-tirade and highly unlikely he’d have survived 2011 after getting rocked by 3 of the 4 ranked teams played and handled by the equivalent of Vandy (NUrple).
Most stats and efforts to prop-up the Huskers lately don’t pass the eye test. The “Wake Up to Your Worst Nightmare” banners, complete with a section-covering Blackshirt skull logo, is an embarrassing faux-pas, because the defense hasn’t performed for years and the Blackshirt tradition itself is in tatters to the point Gregory yawned when getting one 7 games into the season, saying he’d already written them off. Some motivation. Then after having them for 1 game, half were given back and no one can agree whether anyone should wear them.
It doesn’t matter which side of the Blackshirt debate you take when the real issue is that no one agrees what it should be. It dilutes the tradition, kills the promotion, and it’s also humiliating to have the Gopher faithful chuckling about how if Saturday was their worst nightmare, they should visit Lincoln more often.
Even if you covered the whole stadium with a smack banner, which actually isn’t a bad idea lately so the fans can’t see what’s happening on the field, reality will always ring true. After 11 games NU sits in the nationally maligned B1G with a 4 - 3 conference record, 0 - 3 against ranked teams, tied for 5th
in the weakest division), 9th
out of 14 in Total Defense, and 10th
out of 14 in Rushing D in a run-heavy conference. So wait a minute, was that “Welcome to Your Worst Nightmare” banner maybe intended as a warning to NU fans? A 2014 conference crown is already impossible and with 3 of NU’s most prolific players leaving from a team that was touted as being the best since ’09, any 2015 forecast of improvements would require hope to trump logic.
Next, every school has a look, feel, and culture that has been developed over decades. Nebraska’s has always been rurally-sophisticated and familiarly cordial; being knowledgeable about their team, recognizing that the hard work gets done in the trenches, and appreciating their opponent. A modest group that widely cringed when Steve Pederson etched in stadium granite "Through These Gates Pass the Greatest Fans in College Football" because bold and in-your-face is hardly a prevailing thread in the fabric.
Pelini, widely regarded as a good man in conscience, has through his brash public temper and closed-curtain policy regarding windows into the program, has exceeded the comfort level of a significant chunk of the fan base. Success in academics and off-field incidents have been admirable, but the prevailing national picture of NU football over the past 7 years has been painted by embarrassing losses on the field and Bo’s lack of composure on the sidelines. Not exactly the national spotlight warmly welcomed by a generally self-effacing fan base.
Although Saturday was mild in TV visibility compared to the Madison meltdowns, this week’s dress-downs of iconic Ron Brown and fan favorite Joe Ganz, both of which were clearly having none of it from Bo, ultimately crossed the final line for many fans.
Yes, there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty that surrounds change, but the time for change has come. I previously wrote that all Eichorst was likely to do is force Pelini to change assistants, but I had assumed NU wouldn’t lose a rebound game on Senior Day to Minnesota and continue spiraling. The reality is the decision is being made now via Shawn talking with boosters venting their wants as they would ultimately shoulder the costs of salary buy-outs if that’s what they’re demanding. Harvey and Shawn will discuss risk-reward and we’ll likely hear from the elusive AD probably after the Iowa game. Either way, after the Minnesota loss, the change assistant train realistically left the station last year when there were abundant reasons and zero actions.
Opponents of releasing Pelini will say no right-minded coach will come to NU where they fire 9 win coaches which is ludicrous. Tell any coach worth their salt they’d be paid 3 to 4 million per year and have a 7 year eternity in the coaching profession to win a conference title and they’d ask “what’s the catch?” A more valid concern would be allowing Bo to replace assistants and wondering what right-minded assistant coach would come to NU to work for a guy regularly seen eviscerating his assistants on national TV?
I doubt any true NU fan wanted Pelini to fail, he brought a fresh start and quieted the God-awful Solich v. Callahan war. He’s generally a likeable guy when all is well, but things stopped going well years ago, he’s professed repeatedly to have no answers, he failed to comport himself better as promised, and the resulting effect has Husker Nation as divided as they were prior to his hiring.
To truly be Nebraska Football, the product has to be better than 4th
or worse in the conference for 3 of 4 years and a coach hired to fix the defense can’t finish 9th
in league Total Defense over 4 years. There will be average years for any team, but when style always beats substance fans can’t decide if they should be buying into the program’s hype or just be accepting mediocrity.
Ultimately folks become ambivalent which ends up shrinking their financial investment. There were actually pockets of empty seats near kick-off for a big game on Senior Day. They eventually filled in, but it’s the first sign that passion is waning. It seems impossible, but if the status quo remains and ambiguity continues to inch forward, there will be a frigid November day in the not so distant future where one of those seats goes unsold and that day would probably live in infamy for at least a generation.
Yes Nebraska Football is a Program and a business that needs trophies, a PR machine, and big money donors to maximize its potential, but it was seeded with humility and sprouted with an abundance of honest pride. After all’s said and done, it’s time for NU to stop selling a program that doesn’t live up to its billing, face the truth of how fractured the base has become, and start getting to fixing what’s broken. It’s time for a change.