This week, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini found his way onto the Hot Seat Top 10 countdown for the first time.
For those looking from the outside, it probably seems strange. Pelini has won at least nine games in each of his first five seasons, including three 10-win campaigns. He has also won four division titles during that time.
Say what you will about his behavior or methods, but Pelini has proven an ability to coach in the best conferences, though conference titles as the head coach have alluded him.
Despite his success, there have always seemed to be rumblings about Pelini around the Nebraska program.
Part of it has been the fit. Pelini’s antagonistic, seemingly-always-profane fits of rage along the sidelines grew old quickly in a town as Midwestern as corn itself.
Coaches cursing, as CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd pointed out, is neither new nor surprising.
However, Pelini’s rants often rival Frank Martin stares for most ominous in sports. Pelini often looks unable to control his emotions, which in turn becomes a problem – especially when a team comes off the tracks.
It’s not so much the team that has become derailed, though. More to the point, it’s been the defense. That’s difficult to explain because Pelini made a name for himself as an exceptional defensive coordinator capable of motivating his players to execute his well-orchestrated gameplans.
Since coming to Nebraska, the Cornhuskers have taken part in several of the worst defensive performances in program history.
(It should be noted that it’s not entirely a fair comparison. This is the pinnacle of up-tempo spread offenses that have resulted in more points being scored.)
The defensive letdowns and embarrassments have been numerous. The Huskers allowed 52 points to Missouri (in Lincoln) and 62 to Oklahoma in 2008. They surrendered 48 and 45 to Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively, in 2011. Last season Pelini’s defense gave up 63 points to Ohio State, 70 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and 45 to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
Even this year, Nebraska has allowed 34 points to Wyoming and – most recently – 41 to UCLA. Both of those games came in Memorial Stadium.
What Big Red faithful didn’t need was to be reminded of just how far their once dominant defense had fallen.
Yet that’s exactly what happened when Pelini put his team in black jerseys – that represent the famous “Blackshirts” in Nebraska history to distinguish the first-team defensive players.
Pelini’s team jumped out to a 21-3 lead before the 2013 Blackshirts allowed UCLA to score 38 unanswered to end the game.
The next part isn’t entirely Pelini’s fault either.
Legendary Nebraska QB Tommie Frazier went on a Twitter rant following his alma mater’s loss to the Bruins. He called on Pelini to fire defensive coordinator John Papuchis and the entire defensive staff.
Pelini responded when asked about Frazier’s comments, saying, “If he feels like that, we don’t need him.”
While Pelini is justified in defending his guys, this doesn’t seem like the most appropriate time to attack one of the most storied figures in program history. The good will that accompanies winning doesn’t follow humiliating defeats.
Monday afternoon, an anonymous tipster delivered what might be the most damaging blow in Pelini’s faltering relationship with the Nebraska fan base.
The tipster sent to Deadspin an audio recording from 2011 that clearly captured Pelini saying, among other things, “(Expletive) you, fans. (Expletive) all of you.”
After disgracing the famed Blackshirts and chasing that decision by metaphorically returning fire on beloved Cornhusker Frazier, some might argue his actions already said what his words did in 2011.
Therein lies the problem: Pelini’s temper flares up at times when it simply can’t – such as after a game when people around him might have an audio recorder or when confronted with critical comments.
There’s no question that this unnamed individual picked the most opportune time to try to sink Pelini. The strategy might work if the defense doesn’t find immediate improvement.
For his part, Pelini took “full responsibility” for his quotes Monday night.
Pelini is not a bad coach. He’s a proven coach with terrible restraint.
It might have cost him a relationship with the fan base. And unless Big Red starts winning big again, such a strained relationship will almost certainly cost Pelini his job.
Nebraska returns to the gridiron this Saturday to face South Dakota State (Husker tickets are available for as low as $20.) If Pelini wants to quiet his critics, a convincing win is a must.