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Tom Osborne at Nebraska: A Crisis of Corn-fidence

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"Whether you were a walk-on or a non-scholarship player, from Nebraska or another state, you are a valuable member of this family and a key factor in our school's storied history and tradition of excellence. We want you to know that you are always welcome in our home."

Things have a way of coming full circle on you. Tom Osborne was head coach of Nebraska forever. Okay, no, not Joe Paterno forever, but a full quarter century (1973-1997), more than enough time to leave a truly indelible imprint on the school and its athletic history.

Osborne's teams were always the same. You knew what you were getting: teams that would outhit you on every play, offensive athletes who ran the triple-option better than anybody in the country, and defenses who knew where you were going before you did.

Osborne passed the buck to his longtime assistant, Frank Solich, much like it had been done for Tom back in the early 1970's. Frank did an impressive job, posting a 58-19 record from 1998 through 2003, with only one season of less than nine wins. He didn't bring home any national titles, and only one trip to the title game, which might mildly disappoint some schools’ fans. Of course, nobody at Nebraska was disappointed, because they appreciated the solid values Solich taught his athletes and that he put a winning squad on the field each year, even if they didn't finish every season 12-0.

Then came Steve Pedersen. I personally have a bias against Pedersen because I am a former University of Pittsburgh student, and Steve was never really liked around town. He was all about trying to create 'new beginnings,' even if it meant shunning the history in favor of something more 'popular' or flashier. For instance, one of the things that drew the biggest ire was his move to eliminate all "Pitt" references within the athletic department (including limitations on sales of any apparel adorned with the old blue and yellow script Pitt) in favor of "Pittsburgh." Nobody went for that move, and eventually the school reverted to calling itself "Pitt" in the athletic arena.

Steve eventually jumped ship to return home to his school of preference, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Steve had been very highly recommended for the position by the very same ex-coach, and now U.S. Congressman, Osborne, and he was seen as a man who would be able to lead the university's athletics department to bigger and better things (i.e. the elusive national championship) while still holding dear all that was cherished by Husker fans and alumni as part of a rich history.

Boy, was that a poor evaluation! Granted, Pedersen was hired as the athletic director and had oversight of more than just the football team, but Husker football was really the only school sport that was both nationally competitive and nationally followed for any significant period of time. Therefore, Pedersen knew that his mark would be made on the football field. Pedersen's first mark was left on Frank Solich's ass when he booted him out the door after a 9-3 season.

The justification that was provided was Solich's poor record against traditional rivals Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado (which is a fair criticism — Solich was 7-6 against them). The justification is dubious, especially since he made the firing without consulting Osborne, but Pedersen decided he wanted to change course. No problem, right? Well, yeah, when you find out just how much he changed course. Much as he did in Pittsburgh, he attempted to get rid of the old while he brought in the new (which took quite a bit, considering the history at Nebraska). He started with a new head coach, Bill Callahan, who was most well known for having just been fired as head coach of the Oakland Raiders — where he took Jon Gruden's players to a Super Bowl loss and then was exposed as a fraud the following year with his 4-12 record.

That was a strange choice that angered many of the Husker faithful, but Pedersen then took more extreme measures. He had photos of successful alumni removed from the coaching offices and replaced with photos of current players. He did not allow alumni to attend practices, no matter who they were, and severely limited who could attend games. Former defensive end Jason Peter, a member of Nebraska's All-Century team, was denied a single ticket to this season's game against USC when he called over the winter. Pedersen did everything he could to alienate the alumni who had helped to build the program, and was already rolling in sour grapes before the next season even began. Then things got worse. After a respectable start, in the fifth game of the season the Huskers were absolutely plastered by Texas Tech, 70-10. This wasn't just a plain old embarrassing loss, it was the first time Nebraska had ever lost to Texas Tech. Callahan tightened the noose around his own neck when the Huskers wound up the season at 5-6, for Nebraska's first losing season in 43 years.

Over the next two seasons, things improved somewhat, with the Huskers posting records of 8-4 and 9-5 (including bowl games), though Callahan still only managed to go 10-7 in conference and 2-5 against the all-important triumvirate (OU/CU/UT). After decades of option offense, folks in Nebraska thought that this high-flying West Coast offense just wasn't the way to go, and that Callahan needed to go out the door with it.

This season, hopes were high. The Huskers began the season ranked 14th in the country and pasted the University of Nevada in their first game, 52-10. However, things began to unravel in short order. The Huskers held on just long enough to pull out a victory against Wake Forest, then got embarrassed at home by USC (the score was a reasonably close 49-31, but it included two Nebraska touchdowns after the game was pretty much decided). They followed that with a game against Ball State where their 41-40 victory was decided by a dropped touchdown pass for the opponent, a sloppy victory over Iowa State, and two games against Missouri and Oklahoma State where they lost by a combined score of 86-20.

So let's see, what's the tally here: one easy win, two wins that should've been easier, and three complete blowout losses. What happened? Well, Nebraska is rather middle-of-the-pack statistically (as their 4-3 record might indicate), but their supposedly strong defense is giving up an average of 209 yards rushing per game, including a whopping 317 last week against Oklahoma State.

One would think that considering Callahan's poor performance overall, and specifically his poor job of doing what he was brought in to do (beat Oklahoma, Colorado, and Texas), the rest of the season is irrelevant towards his future. Osborne disagrees, saying that it is important to find out if this was just a two game hiccup or a larger problem. I hate to tell you, Tom, but it is probably the latter. Your team can't stop the run, and two of the next three opponents (Texas A&M and Kansas) feature better running games than the one you just faced last weekend. I would be amazed if Nebraska even manages bowl eligibility, but either way I don't think Callahan staying would be a wise idea. Much like other changeover situations, he may not be the root of the problem, but removing him is definitely part of the solution.

All of this led to the quote you saw at the beginning of this article, which was part of an email that Tom Osborne sent out to all of the Nebraska alumni when he was hired as interim athletic director this week. He also put the old pictures back up and allowed some field passes to be available for any alumni who would still like to attend the home games. The good start has restored a little hope with the faithful, and I'm sure that Nebraska fans would like to see Osborne stay on as athletic director, even if it puts a crimp in his plans for governor of Nebraska. Whether he stays or not, it will be a while before Nebraska can build itself back up and truly take pride in its standing within the college football hierarchy.

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