As Husker players have finally broken their silence about Bill Callahan, we're finally getting an idea of just how screwed up the Nebraska football program was during Bill Callahan's four years as head football coach. Not that some signs weren't apparent all along, but not everyone recognized them. Some couldn't see them, some didn't want to see them, some ignored them and hoped that they weren't as bad as they seemed, and some just denied that there was anything wrong in Lincoln.
Before you can really move on, sometimes you've just got to get these things out of your system. I think that's what we've heard from Matt Slauson and Cody Glenn this week. We may hear from some more players. That's fine for now. Get it out of your system. But let's get it over with now and close the book on this sad chapter in Nebraska football history. That allows us to move on and start looking forward to a new era at NU. One we all hope is better than the one we just closed the book on.
With that in mind, here's my take on why Bill Callahan was doomed to failure right from the start:
Let's face it. Some fans never got over Pederson's dismissal of Frank Solich. Myself included. Did we give Bill Callahan a chance? I'd like to think I did, but I can also see the point of view that I didn't. At the very least, Callahan didn't get the benefit of the doubt from some fans right from the start. Did those negative vibes take their toll on the program? I'd argue yes...but even then, it was only a contributing, secondary factor.
One ill effect of Steve Pederson's coaching circus is that by the time Callahan was hired, every other college football coach was already busy in the middle of recruiting season. So, Callahan put together the best staff he could. And with Pederson's obsession with recruiting, the staff went heavy with recruiters. And while recruiting is important, it became clear over time that this staff wasn't very cohesive.
Reports of dissension amongst the coaches first came up in the Iowa State game in 2004 when people outside the Husker locker room heard arguments underway as to how the Huskers should attack the Cyclones. A heavy passing attack led to a 27-7 Cyclone lead, and ironically a switch to a rushing attack got the Big Red back into that game. Dissension became more obvious in the departures of Scott Downing and John Blake, and became public with the comments of Dennis Wagner after Callahan was terminated.
We should have seen it coming when he was hired; his "dumbest team in America" comment was still echoing throughout the football world when he arrived in Lincoln, days after being fired by the Raiders. But then we saw many other players (including two team captains) quit with negative comments about Callahan. Now we're hearing similar comments from Matt Slauson and Cody Glenn. I don't think they are the last we'll read in the paper either.
Callahan's NFL sized playbook simply overwhelmed players. Thousands of plays...all in search of perfection. Players only got a limited amount of time to digest each part of the playbook before the next lesson... there was no time to teach or correct things during practice because the coaching staff had already moved on to the next lesson. So each player muddled through as best they could. And boy, did it show on gameday. Sometimes running three or more different plays on each snap, as confusion reigned supreme.
The funny thing is that oh so often, the opponent was better prepared for what Nebraska was trying to do than Nebraska was. Or was that the sad thing. Or was it so pathetic it was funny?
In any extent, I really question just how well Callahan understood the college game. Callahan struggled at times with understanding college rules. In the NFL, he could use the radio to send in playcalls, but when he had to signal calls in, the calls got messed up so often that both Joe Dailey and Sam Keller had to run to the sidelines after each play to get the next play call. And with the size of his playbook, he never was able to trim it down to something that college players could master. Certainly not first year quarterbacks, even with a spring practice to learn it. Not Joe Dailey, not Zac Taylor in 2005, not Sam Keller.
A few years ago, I used to play a lot of golf. And when I said I played a lot of golf...it's because I stunk. It took me a lot of shots (and golf balls) to finish a round. A retired Air Force officer once called my game "Military Golf". Ball goes left, ball goes right, ball goes left, ball goes right. Left, right, left, right. If you averaged my shots though...they averaged right down the middle of the fairway, even though the only time I actually spent in the middle of the fairway was as I walked from one rough to the other side. Same with Bill Callahan's play calling. Sure, if you averaged it out, frequently it looked balanced, but most of the time it was anything but. Sometimes Callahan "pounded the rock", like in most of 2006. Other times, it was an aerial circus. Unbalanced playcalling burned Callahan several times, such as against Iowa State and Southern Miss in 2004, Kansas in 2005 and 2007, and USC in 2006.
Let's face it. Billy C had his share of embarassing moments. "Dumbest Team in America." "F'in Hillbillies!" The throat-slash. "I'm doing an excellent job." "It's probably too technical for you." Over time, it led Callahan to isolate himself, away from the public spotlight. The more isolated he became, the less people associated with Callahan. Occasionally he'd say the right thing, but you got the idea they were scripted words placed in his mouth.
I touched on this with coaching. But it deserves it's own section. In Callahan's first season, despite the awfulness on display on the field, we were promised that his recruiting would solve everything. But it never materialized. Highly recruited players like Harrison Beck and Leon Jackson left the program in somewhat dubious circumstances. Over time, fans realized that recruiting was only part of the equation when Nebraska got repeatedly blown out by teams with lower rated recruiting classes (Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma State).
Over time, Bill Callahan had his share of head scratchers that made me wonder just what was going through his mind. First one had to be calling for a field-goal from the 1 foot line at Pitt in 2004. (Snap botched, no points scored, I'm screaming obscenities for five minutes.) Sending Beau Davis in to replace Joe Dailey at Texas Tech and asking him to throw the ball over and over for five turnovers which turned a 35-10 loss into a 70-10 blowout. Letting Zac Taylor get assaulted late in the game against Missouri and Kansas in 2005. Throwing the ball on 3rd down against Texas in 2006 when the Longhorns had the wind and clock working against them. Fake punt against Auburn. Not giving Joe Ganz a shot until a struggling Sam Keller broke his collarbone at Texas.
We just needed to get this out of our system, and learn what went wrong so hopefully we aren't doomed to repeat it.
And so we're not still discussing this this fall. Get this out of our system now, and let's move on.