I am young enough that I knew nothing of Nebraska during their championship run in the 1990s. So perhaps I'm unqualified to speak about our team and expectations.
My knowledge of Nebraska football begins in 2003. That's right. I became a fan during arguably the worst time in Nebraska history over the last 60 years.
I watched the coaching search debacle, with airplane watching, speeches about mediocrity and hiring the AD's fifth choice. I watched that choice fall to a 5-6 season, no bowl game for the first time in 30-odd years. I watched us in 2005 as Callahan took that 5-6 squad and turn things around for a 8-4 season with a win over Michigan. Fragile hope? I was there for 2006, the Big 12 North championship, the strange post-game celebration of winning the division, the questions of expectations, and getting slaughtered by Oklahoma in the championship.
I was there for 2007. Oh, 2007. Where the frustrations of the previous four years boiled over. Where Nebraska's fan base became fractured, much like our country today. Where the prestige and expectations of the past clashed with hope and visions of the future. I watched as our team exploded, as our fans exploded. I celebrated the firing of Pederson, of Callahan. I said soronora to Cosgrove and his defense. I celebrated the return of Osborne, not out of any reverence, but in belief that if anyone could fix a football program, it was that man.
I was reserved about the arrival of Pelini but sold when I saw the loyalty and the honesty of a man who went back to finish the job at LSU. I didn't worry about it affecting Nebraska - why would it? We had no bowl game to prepare for.
I watched as Pelini and the team grew around each other. Tying Missouri in 2008 and winning a scrappy game against Clemson in the Gator Bowl. Outright division title and disputed loss of the conference championship to a Texas team that went on to be shellacked by Alabama in 2009 while we demolished Arizona in fury. An off-season of conference intrigue resulting in our departure for the Big Ten come 2011. A season best forgotten, yet punctuated by a close loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship.
Another off-season followed, one that saw the departues of Gilmore and Watson, arrivals of Fisher, Raymond and Els. Promotion of Garrison. Sunshine and rainbows and a calm Bo through spring and summer, leading us to believe that Nebraska's Big 12 speed and agility and talent would have no match in the slower Big Ten, that we'd waltz through the conference.
But this isn't what we've seen, is it? I don't feel like I need to recap our season. So what went wrong? Is Pelini not the answer? Can he not lead us to "greatness"? Will he ever get this team to the consistency necessary to challenge for the Big Ten? For national champion consideration?
I hazard to say we're missing the point of college football if we are debating firing a coach who is winning 9-10 games a season. (I'll ignore the statistics here. I don't think they're all that important in college football, where unranked teams beat ranked teams on a regular basis.)
Collegiate sports have always been the pinnacle of amateurism. There is no higher order of amateur sports. I argue that the heart of college sports is that the players are playing for little more than the love of the game. These are players who, if you stripped away all the glitz and glam of our modern sports, if you turned off ESPN forever, if you took away the coaches, would still go out and play football, baseball, swimming, whathaveyou.
They are players of the game. They play for victory because it is something to be achieved, not because someone is going to give them a fancy new car, a million dollar contract, a house.
At Nebraska (or really, any school), we delude ourselves with a belief that the players play for us, for the school, for the state, for the alumni, what have you. I admit, it's a delusion. Our players would play football whether they wore the Nebraska jersey, the Oklahoma jersey, the Wofford jersey or even just a torn up practice jersey. Location simply doesn't matter.
If anything, we are merely sponsors of the game. We are no different than Aflac or Dr. Pepper or even ESPN itself. We are spectators applying arbitrary meaning above and beyond the simple and straightforward goal of any sport: victory. As by-standers, we apply emotional constraints to these games in order to draw ourselves in.
For each team, they share that single goal of winning the game. Why? Because that is the goal. There is no other reason. Rivalries, at the end of the day, are about achieving victory over your opponent. Again, we the bystanders apply this emotional veneer to these games.
I am not saying the players of the game do not appreciate their sponsorship. I assure you, I'm confident that Nebraska's players know that they are, whether it is right or wrong, playing for the pride of the state.
But please, imagine this. Think about your one true passion, that activity that when you fulfill your need for it fills you with a great sense of satisfaction. At the core of this feeling is the same feeling one feels upon achieving victory.
Now, let's add in your family. Your family is there, cheering you on. Now, you love your family. You do not want to disappoint your family. You don't want to mess up, you don't want to shame your family while doing your activity.
And let's complicate it further. Let's add in the distractions of college life, the glitz and glamour of ESPN watching your every move, journalists and bloggers alike dissecting your ability to fulfill your passion.
Could you do that for four months a year, every single week? Could you do that with the hopes and dreams of more than 1.8 million people riding on you?
Multiple that doubt times every player on your football team. That's a lot of doubt, right?
Who has to manage all that doubt? The coaches. Oh, and the coaches have those same doubts, because, like our players, they share the same goal. Victory.
Seems simple enough, right? We should be able to hold our coaches accountable for not managing the doubts of the team well enough. Sounds fair, I guess.
We expect victory. A reasonable expectation, given the nature of sport. We apply some arbitrary touchy-feely goals to those values, such as running a clean program, keeping grades up, etc. But at the end of the day, we're simply looking for "our" team to win, just like every other fanbase.
But if we apply those expectations, every team which does not go undefeated has failed! Not even Osborne managed to go undefeated every year. Should we have fired him? He didn't even win the Big 8 every season nor did he win bowl games. What is different now than 17 years ago?
What has changed that 9 or 10 wins out of 12-13 games is no longer acceptable? If we are to argue winning championships, I point out Osborne again, simply because he's the model to which Pelini is frequently upheld.
Have we forgotten that Osborne took over a two-time national championship team which he had been on staff with for nine years and continued to work with the former HC for nearly twenty years?
Are money and ESPN that much more important now? Is that important to Nebraska's fans now? Is that the emotional veneer we're applying?
I argue that Pelini hasn't done too bad this season. Some points:
- A new schedule which is similar to an independent's schedule - 11 new opponents, 11 new schemes, 11 new tendencies, 11 new coaches to out-think. Not to mention the brutal travel stretches and top tier opponents provided by our friends at Big Ten HQ in Chicago.
- A young team (60% of eligible players are sophomores or lower, including redshirts) with few returning starters, including a true freshman starter on the offensive line and a brand new kicker (Maher).
- New coaching staff: Carl - newly promoted to full DC; Paunchis - newly promoted to defensive line; Raymond (New) - secondary; Els (new) - linebackers; Beck - newly promoted to OC; Barney Cotton - OLine; Ron Brown - newly shifted to running backs; Fisher (new) - recievers; Jon Garrison (newish)- Asst. OC/Tight Ends
- Faces a restless media (his fault) that desires page views and subscription-only articles and material with which to draw such.
- The game against Penn State, with unbelievable circumstances and a socially questionable decision to go on with the game, despite ESPN's glorification of an alleged child molester's protectors.
Despite or because of this, our beloved Cornhuskers have battled through bone-headed errors, brain farts and simply being out-gamed to an 8-3 record heading into Senior Day at Memorial Stadium against a resurgent Iowa squad. If Pelini manages a win on Friday, he will extend his lead among fourth year coaches for most wins. (He is ahead of Paul Johnson by three wins with Ken Niumatalolo dropping off following a disappointing season at Navy. So among his peers, he's actually doing damn well.)
He'll also have four nine-win or better seasons in four years, as did Solich, Devaney and Osborne.
Remember, this is the Bo Pelini that reminded us that football is insignificant in the greater scheme of things. We play for lofty ideals, but it is truly nothing more than a game, an insignificant scuffle between two sets of human beings who, at the end of the day, will go out in the world and live and breathe as we do. We would do well to remember that.
I think it is safe to say this has been a weird year for this team. Had they been in the Big 12, I think we would have won the whole shebang this season.
But we're in the Big Ten and it'll take some adjustment.
We just need to give Bo a chance to prove he can make that adjustment.
Support your team as they strive for the only thing that truly matters in football, victory. Disappointment is okay, stoning is not. Don't stop supporting them simply because they have stumbled.
Go Nebraska, Beat Iowa.