OpEd: The "Airing of Grievances" for 2012 Nebraska Football Is Over

Eric Francis

I never was a big fan of Seinfeld. Can't really explain why; it's not like I disliked it. But obviously many people enjoyed it, and it remains a part of modern pop culture. Perhaps it's biggest contribution is Festivus - a holiday for the "rest of us" who weren't big on celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza. For those of you who watched Seinfeld even less than I did, part of the Festivus celebration was the "airing of grievances".

Ever since the Big Ten Championship Game debacle, many Husker fans have expressed dismay with what happened. CN's Brian Towle and Brandon Cavanaugh have provided their perspective on the state of the program, and I encourage you to read them if you haven't already. I don't necessarily agree with everything they've said, though. Doesn't make their opinions wrong or bad, mind you. I just have a different take.

Some of what has been said (not just Brian and Brandon, I must add) comes off as a Festivus' style "airing of grievances". I hope it's cathartic. But when you dig in, there's a few things that don't really add up. Not all of it, mind you. Nebraska's defense was epicly bad against Wisconsin. Wasn't a whole lot better against Georgia. And yes, the numbers rivaled some of Kevin Cosgrove's worst performances.

Some have tried to raise the echoes of 2007, pointing out that Bill Callahan was fired for having a defense that bad. That's half true. Bill Callahan had a bad defense in 2007. He also had a bad offense, at least while Sam Keller was the quarterback. Remember those first two games of October 2007? Missouri was up two scores before ESPN even switched over to the game, and cruised to a 41-6 victory. The next weekend, Oklahoma State cruised to a 38-0 halftime lead in Lincoln. That's right: in six quarters of football, Nebraska was outscored 79-6 and didn't score a single touchdown. Nebraska also failed to dent the goal line in another four consecutive quarters in the next two games against Texas A&M and Texas. Yes, we saw some bad defense in 2012, but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as 2007. This season's "miracle comebacks" were against teams like Michigan State, not Ball State. Just a little bit of a difference.

People have also thrown out Tom Osborne's rationale for firing Callahan back in his face:

"It isn’t just a matter of wins and losses; it’s how you do it. If you lose by a field goal and play well, that’s a little bit different than getting blown out three or four times. I tried to make sure that they completely understood. It isn’t all about winning and losing. Believe me, I understand that. If you lose a fairly large number of games by a significant margin and you have fairly good players, which I think we do, then I think there are some systemic issues. I think the players were treated well. But there was something wrong evidently."

Yes, Nebraska had four losses this season, and those were four games where Nebraska didn't play well. But a six point loss is not a blowout. A 14 point loss to Georgia where the game was tied at the start of the fourth quarter was not a blowout. Now, two blowout losses are a bad thing, but that's not the quite the same situation as 2007.

Some fans don't like Taylor Martinez. He's not a media friendly guy like Peyton Manning. He doesn't even make you want to root for him like a Joe Ganz or Zac Taylor. But he puts up big numbers both with his legs and now with his arm. Yes, ball security is still an issue at times. But the idea that an all-Big Ten quarterback should have been benched gets more and more absurd every day. It's OK not to like him. It's OK to point out his weaknesses. But he's Nebraska's best quarterback since Eric Crouch.

Some people don't like Bo Pelini's animated nature on the sideline. That's his nature, and he's never going to completely change. It isn't always negative, though.

He has tried to reign himself in on the sideline the last years, though he still gives an earful to players that make mistakes. But if you think that this somehow damages Pelini's relationship with players, you are absolutely and completely wrong. Will Compton heard the criticism on the radio, and sought out the media to put that idea to rest.

"People don't understand or know what's being said (on the sideline)," Compton said. "Yeah, it might look bad. But people have to realize we're out there, bullets are flying, comments are going to be made. At the end of the day, (Pelini's) our leader. We look to him. This program is coach Bo. We wouldn't be where we are today without him. I don't want people thinking the wrong thing about him."

Some fans don't like Pelini's recruiting. Some of his results have been spotty; just look at the issues in the front seven on defense this season. But on the other hand, the offense has more playmakers than we've seen in many, many years. He changed recruiting coordinators a couple of years ago, and promoted Ross Els to recruiting coordinator. Els has his own issues (special teams), but the Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon likes Els' work in charge of recruiting: "Now it's Ross Els, who's challenged some old ideas, created tentpole weekends in the summer and the fall, and generally seems to be making headway."

Some say Pelini doesn't care or put enough effort into recruiting. I'm not sure I buy it. We saw all-too-well the results of putting too much effort into recruiting and not enough into actual coaching from 2004 through 2007. Could Pelini get better? Yes. But it's not like he doesn't try. Ask defensive tackle commit Maliek Collins, who gushed about the attention he received last weekend from Pelini.

A lot of people still don't understand how Nebraska selected a coach in 2007 who has never been a head coach. It was a fair criticism then, but that decision is made and sealed now. And it's not like those other "more experienced" coaches have done better than Pelini. Paul Johnson's record at Georgia Tech is worse than Pelini's. Heck, Nick Saban's 34-24-1 record in his first five years as a head coach isn't even remotely close to Pelini's 48-20. Yet people still throw out the ridiculous alternatives: Jim Tressel (essentially banned from coaching on the college level with the NCAA's show-cause order). Kevin Sumlin (46-19 record is close, but also was blown out at home in his last conference championship game).

Pelini's reputation as a defensive guru has taken a beating this season. He's got work to do to fix the defense, but that's his background. His long-term track record suggests that he'll figure out what went wrong, and frankly, his comments and actions the last couple of years indicate to me that he already knows what went wrong. The fixing already began, but haven't manifested themselves yet. This isn't professional sports where you can make a trade or dip into the free agent waters to fix holes in your roster. You have to recruit players to come and help you, and that's a long term process. Pelini has made changes in recent years, but those players haven't hit the field yet.

How'd it get this bad? Let's think back to 2009 when the offense was absolutely horrible. Obviously the coaching staff made a concerted effort to find playmakers on offense. Problem is, it looks like they may have dropped the ball on defense. You can't keep swinging from one extreme to the other. Eventually you have to balance things out and have both a solid offense and defense. Are these more recent classes a little more balanced? We'll find out.

That's why I think Nebraska fans need to stick with Pelini. That doesn't mean being happy with continually losing four games each season. It means understanding that Pelini has shown that he's capable of bringing us a team with a good offense and a good defense. Problem is, he hasn't done it at the same time. Nebraska has a good offense, and it should be good next season as well. We'll find out soon enough if the players who sat out this season can be the difference between a mediocre-to-average defense and a decent defense.

Pelini isn't going anywhere just yet. Winning nine or ten games for five straight years would be celebrated at most schools. This isn't exactly a glass half full/half empty argument. Ten wins is more than "half-full". I compare this more to a situation like a chef. Pelini took over a restaurant in shambles, and found a way to put out some nearly award-winning meals in 2009 and 2010. But all of a sudden, sometimes Pelini has served up some meals that are downright inedible. Has the master lost his touch, or did he not have the right ingredients this season? If it's the latter, and he's assembling the right ingredients again, we're well served to wait. If it's the former, Nebraska will need to find a new chef.

That's why I preach patience. Bill Callahan taught us there are things much worse than losing four games a season. In time, we'll learn whether Pelini has, in fact, lost his touch, or if this was a bump in the road. In today's sporting culture, though, patience is a difficult thing. It's too easy to call for heads to roll in an attempt to hold people accountable. But when you are quick to fire, it just starts a vicious cycle of mediocrity that becomes difficult to escape.

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