Football Saturday has almost arrived in Lincoln, Neb., and although this autumn ritual is greeted as enthusiastically there as anywhere in the country, the weekend has never felt more welcome.
One of the wildest weeks in the program’s history nears completion, and maybe Nebraska coach Bo Pelini can twist this maxim —that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
— and apply it to his team.
With the benefit of a couple of days of hindsight, it doesn’t appear Pelini experienced a near-death experience after the Monday revelation of a two-year-old tirade tape in which, at his worst, he cursed and swore at fans he called “fair-weather.” Nebraska brass said the matter is closed. The man who hired Pelini, and the most respected figure in the state, former athletic director Tom Osborne, said he learned of and dealt with the tape a year ago.
But this wasn’t a “move along, folks, nothing to see here” drama. Fans were hurt and disillusioned. Any fan base would be, but for the group that has filled Memorial Stadium for every home game since 1962, the cut ran deep.
My take on the sequence: Nebraska suffered an embarrassing loss before its home fans on Saturday as UCLA scored the final 38 points in a 41-21 victory.
That night, Cornhuskers legend Tommie Frazier posted on Twitter: “I hate saying this by this crap is getting old. How in the hell do you not make adjustments or put your players in a position to compete…”
On Monday at his weekly news conference, Pelini was asked about the comments, and this is where the real trouble started.
“If he feels like that, we don’t need him,” Pelini said.
Of course, Pelini doesn’t need ex-players piling on, but a two-time national championship quarterback gets a certain amount of leeway. Frazier used it, and instead of traveling the high road, Pelini shot back.
The guess here, Pelini’s comments was the final straw for the person who had a copy of the tirade tape. Off it went to Deadspin.com, and the next two days were filled with explanations, accusations and polls about Pelini’s future — and an apology.
Or perhaps the episode had a different catalyst, as somebody suggested to me.
Bo did it.
That’s right. As the alternate theory goes, Pelini leaked the tape to deflect criticism of his program. He has held on to this card, saving it for the right moment, when the din reached a fever pitch.
I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, and this one stretches suspicion.
But I did move toward one conclusion on Thursday after speaking to Nebraska fans at a KC Husker Alumni breakfast on Thursday morning. The most troubling moment of the past several days remains the original domino, the ugly loss to UCLA.
How do outcomes like this continue happening? Last year, it was 70-31 to Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten championship game and at Ohio State 63-38. In 2011, blowouts at Michigan and Wisconsin soured the Big Ten debut season.
Defense is Pelini’s speciality, in the NFL, Nebraska in 2003, Oklahoma in 2004, and a national title at LSU. The Ndamukong Suh-led defense of Pelini’s second Huskers team as a head coach in 2009, was the first to stand up and shut down the Big 12’s high-flying spread attacks.
What’s happened over the past couple of years is befuddling and confidence-eroding. Nebraska’s overall success has risen under Pelini, who succeeded Bill Callahan. But the occasional knockout loss, the hothead behavior and falling short of making the Cornhuskers competitive in a national championship race are enough to question the program’s leadership.
Goals like a Big Ten championship and a BCS bowl — it’s been more than a decade for either — remain available. The schedule is favorable, and maybe the wagons are circled with an us-against-the-world mentality.
Improve fortunes, and watch fallout from a two-year-old tirade fade into the background. Lose progress and Pelini will fully understand Nebraska has no fair-weather fans but ones who demand change.