Nebraska has mastered the controversial football coach firing.
At most places, dismissals happen for obvious reasons. The program is losing, fans have grown apathetic, and change is the only option.
But for the second time in 12 years, the Cornhuskers have booted a coach who was winning most of his games and playing in front of sellout home crowds.
Still, Bo Pelini’s firing wasn’t unexpected. Despite winning 71 percent of his games in seven full seasons, there remained no conference championship or signature triumph or pivotal moment that elevated the program to national prominence.
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The Cornhuskers came away without a trophy in three conference championship games under Pelini, two in the Big 12 and one in the Big Ten. There has been no major bowl appearance for more than a decade.
“We just weren’t able to win enough games that mattered,” said Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
The sense was similar in 2003, when Frank Solich was fired after winning 75 percent of his games in six seasons, though Solich’s tenure included a Big 12 championship in 1999 and an appearance in the national championship game for 2001.
Gasps were audible when Solich was fired, and that was the case Sunday as the Pelini news spread.
A 67-27 overall record and never a losing season in league play wasn’t good enough?
A restlessness had been growing in one of college football’s most passionate fan bases. The Cornhuskers not only couldn’t get to the top of their own league, but they also suffered some embarrassing losses. The most recent occurred Nov. 15, when Wisconsin prevailed 59-24 on a day in which running back Melvin Gordon rushed for 408 yards.
A similar loss on the same date in 2003, 38-9 in Lincoln to Kansas State probably made the Solich decision easier for then-athletic director Steve Pederson, who issued a bold statement when announcing the firing.
“I refuse to let the program gravitate toward mediocrity,” he said. “We won’t surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas. I don’t apologize for having high expectations.”
Fans loved it, but the ensuing coaching search proved to be a disaster, with a handful of candidates turning down the job before the program hired Bill Callahan, who had just been fired from his Oakland Raiders job.
When the Callahan era ended four years later, Tom Osborne, at that time the athletic director, gave the job to Pelini in a popular hire. After all, Pelini had turned around the Huskers’ defense in his one year as coordinator in 2003 and was the interim head coach when Nebraska defeated Michigan State in a bowl game.
Osborne stepped down as athletic director after the 2012 season, and now his handpicked coach has been fired. Nebraska starts over with …
Some of the targets are obvious. If the Huskers go with a sitting head coach, Colorado State’s Jim McElwain, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, could be in demand for openings after reviving the Rams. Minnesota’s Jerry Kill, a Kansas native, worked wonders with the Gophers this year.
The top candidate without head coaching experience has to be Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, the former Cornhuskers quarterback.
A wild-card candidate is Jim Tressel, the former Ohio State coach who resigned after the 2010 season when it was revealed he had knowledge of a scandal that put the Buckeyes on probation. Today, Tressel is president of Youngstown State, which is also looking for a coach after former Kansas State offensive lineman Eric Wolford was fired last week.
The search is on, and Eichorst isn’t using a search firm.
“I’ve seen people spend a lot of money and not do a lot of winning,” Eichorst said. “We’re going to get it right.”
The Crimson Tide has turned it on at the right moment. Alabama roared back from a halftime deficit and beat Auburn 55-44 in the highest-scoring Iron Bowl ever and will take on Missouri in the SEC championship game on Saturday in Atlanta. Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper was special, changing the game with two third-quarter touchdown receptions.
The Ducks are playing like champions, swatting away rival Oregon State 47-19 and steaming toward the Pac-12 title game on Friday against Arizona. Oregon has some additional incentive besides making the College Football Playoff bracket. The Wildcats handed the the Ducks their lone loss this season.
Six of the Seminoles’ 12 victories have been by a touchdown or less, including a 24-19 victory over Florida on Saturday. Look for Georgia Tech to keep it close in the ACC championship game, but for Florida State to prevail.
Reports out of Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday were troubling. Athletic director Brian Mackin will be fired and the football program dropped later this week. “Unless something changes before the weekend ends, I think the odds are very high it ends this week,” Blazers coach Bill Clark told ESPN.com. Clark, a first-year coach, does not have a contract, and the team doesn’t have nonconference games scheduled beyond 2016.
Committee of one
Projecting the College Football Playoff
▪ Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Baylor
▪ Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Florida State