A calculated effort to snare an elite basketball coach resulted in Nebraska committing to having Steve Pederson return as athletic director once Tom Osborne retires. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
During the recent basketball coaching search, concerns were raised by many candidates about who will succeed Tom Osborne when he finally steps down. Osborne recently turned 75, and while he's not leaving anytime soon, it's likely that Osborne will be stepping down in the next few years. Any coach who's accepting a job wants to know who his boss is going to be, and that he has his support. But this search forced this issue on the front burner as something that needed to be resolved immediately.
Early on in the search, Osborne and Marc Boehm targeted Ben Howland initially in their search. Nebraska was hoping to make a splash hire, and Howland was facing a lot of scrutiny at UCLA. He needed assurance that he'd have support from the administration if he moved to Lincoln, and wanted an assurance that a face friendly to him would be there - even after Osborne retired. Sensing he was in the driver's seat, Howland took the initiative to suggest who he thought would be the perfect successor. They had worked together in the past, and this individual was intimately familiar with Nebraska.
Osborne gasped at the suggestion initially, but Howland assured him that this candidate had changed. He had realized that mistakes were made in the past, and had learned from them. Osborne has always believed in redemption and giving people another chance, but this would be even more difficult than the decision to reinstate Lawrence Phillips after a half-season suspension. So Osborne and chancellor Harvey Perlman made a secret visit to Pittsburgh to talk to Howland's friend. It would be a tough choice to make, but the opportunity to hire a head basketball coach with Final Four experience was just to lucrative to simply dismiss, no matter how unorthodox the idea of hiring Howland's friend would appear.
That friend's name? Steve Pederson.After the initial shock of the suggestion wore off, Osborne and Perlman began to analyze the suggestion a little more logically. During Pederson's previous stint at Nebraska, he had managed to upgrade the facilities yet keep the budget in good shape. Pederson's problems were in how he dealt with people: the staff and his critics. Howland pointed out how Pederson not only realized his mistakes, he regretted them and had sought to change the way he did business. Out went the "efficiency advisors" (think "Office Space"), in came the "team building" advisors to help change the culture.
Osborne and Perlman knew something was up when they walked into the offices at Pitt. At most schools, you'd see televisions tuned to ESPN or to some other sports network...but not there. Instead, it was Lifetime. Pederson hugged both Osborne and Perlman and thanked them both for coming. "Getting fired was the worst thing to ever happen to me at the time, but it was the best thing to happen to me in the end. Ever since, I've learned so much about what I did wrong, and I've sworn to do everything in my power to change." He talked about everything he had done to live the values and to change the way he works. "Give me a second chance," he begged them.
While Osborne and Perlman were convinced, they knew that they had a huge task in front of them to sell Bo Pelini. That took time and some contract revisions, and finally the deal was done. Pederson would remain at Pitt until Osborne was ready to retire. But all this took too long to complete; Howland had just received a vote of confidence from UCLA, and had recommitted to staying as the head coach of the Bruins. So the search went on, though in this case, Pederson proved to be a liability with the next coach. John Groce knew well of the situation that led Frank Solich to Ohio in 2004, and laughed off the suggestion that he'd come to Nebraska with Pederson waiting in the wings.
In order to try to sway Groce's mind, Osborne recognized the first step was to mend the relationship between Pederson and Solich. Pederson went to Athens, and sat down to apologize to Solich over a pitcher of margaritas...but even with the two men coming to terms with what had gone wrong over eight years ago, it was not enough to clear Groce's concerns. So the basketball job went to Tim Miles, who didn't really care either way about Pederson; he was just glad to get a head coaching job in a BCS conference.
The agreement between Nebraska and Pederson is open-ended; Osborne can stay in his current position as long as he wishes. Meanwhile, Pederson will continue to work on his people skills. This summer, the entire athletic department will participate in a rafting expedition down the Monongahela River, and Rick Neuheisel has been hired as a special consultant at Pitt, according to sports information director Lirpa Loof.