When Darin Erstad was tabbed to succeed Mike Anderson as head baseball coach of Nebraska, heads were scratched, jaws were dropped, and some, including a few of us at Corn Nation and Tiger Tom's, were dowright flabbergasted and just a little perturbed. There were good, experienced candidates out there with head coaching experience AND Nebraska roots. What in the blue hell was Dr. Tom Osborne thinking going with the inexperienced Erstad?
It just might have had a little something to do with the fact that the good Doctor had already hit his number on the Come line back in December of 2007 picking up the dice and giving them a roll on the flagship program at the University of Nebraska. Oh, who am I kidding, he was rolling them on the the flagship program of the entire STATE. And bones were being rolled on the current LSU and former Nebraska defensive coordinator named Mark "Bo" Pelini.
Don't think so? Then follow along as we take a look at just where Bo stacked up against the other candidates in the mix. And while we're at it, let's go a step farther and stack it up against a "safe" hire - which turned out to be the ultimate proof that there is no such thing.
THE SAFE HIRE
After having only two coaches in 35 years, NU suddenly found themselves having to hire three in a 10 year period. The most tumultuous of the three occurred in 2003/04 with the search to replace Frank Solich. AD Steve Pedersen (nicknames not printable) seemed determined to make a name for himself with a big splash hire, the actual fit for the program be damned. Dave Waanstedt's name was thrown around for awhile. Then there was the Houton Nutt debacle which subsequently familiarized hordes of Husker fan Magnum PI wannabes with flight plan websites.
With the cat out of the bag on the Nutt's midnight visit, he quickly skittered back to Fayetteville to pledge allegiance to the Pigs..at least for a couple more years. This turned Pedey's attention to Bill Callahan. And at the time, he not only looked like a good safe pick, he seemed to outshine the other two. He was a former NFL head coach who had taken his team to the Super Bowl. He was known as an offensive innovator. He had the Midwestern college background at Illinois and Wisconsin. Barry Alvarez lauded him as a recruiter. He was a Chicago boy like Devaney. This was absolutely going to work.
And, long story short, we all knew how that worked out. The hire was made on resume, rather than on the qualities that make for a successful program. And what are those?
THE WILD CARD
OK, I won't insult everyone's intelligence by suggesting that Pelini was somehow a mystery hire who no one saw coming. He still had many fans who had become enamored of his fiery demeanor and the passion with which his defenders played in his one year in Lincoln. They were a little hot about the token interview Pelini was given by Pedersen and hoped the door would open itself again before someone else gave Bo a shot.
But there were three other names being bandied about, and each seemed to be a safer hire than the wild card who was also known for couple of explosions - one with Bill Snyder postgame after a 38-6 drubbing of NU in which Snyder left the starters in and aired it out late, and the other on the sideline of the of the Alamo Bowl in his one game as head coach.
Paul Johnson - head coach Navy - Johnson had led Navy to a 45-29 record and 5 bowls in 6 years, no small feat. He also ran a lot of option football with split bone and Wing T sets, a fact not lost on Nebraskans who hungered for a return to grind it out football.
Jim Grobe - head coach Wake Forest - after some lackluster years, Grobe's Deacons had suddenly put together a two season run of 20-7 that had included an ACC title and a BCS Bowl appearance.
Turner Gill - head coach Buffalo - what Gill had done at Buffalo was being regarded as even more amazing that either of the above accomplishments. Taking the Bulls to a bowl game was right up there with Federline snagging Spears when she was at her hottest. And he also had a little bit of a connection with the program, not to mention with the guy doing the hiring.
Bo Pelini - DC LSU - Rave reviews for his defenses at every stop, but folks were wondering 1) would he just be a hands off guy with the offense while just focusing on the D and 2) could the guy hold it together? These were real concerns at the time.
So how did the quiet and thoughtful Osborne decide that the fiery Pelini was the guy for the job? The same way that the fiery fun-loving Bob Devaney had decided that the quiet, thoughtful Tom Osborne was the guy to take over back in 1973.
While the Devaney - Osborne and Osborne- Pelini personalities couldn't be more different, all three shared a common philosophy.
Relate to and connect with your players - if they know you care about them as people, they will walk through fire for you.
Winning is secondary - focus on technique and doing the little things right before worrying about things like schemes and playbooks. Trust in the process and winning will take care of itself.
Respect the program and what it means to the state - it may appear silly to outsiders, but it's serious business here.
Recruit the right kids and be straight from day 1 about what is expected - you can't kiss up to kids and promise them the moon then expect them to respect you and do right by the program when practice starts. Just ask Jim Tressel.
So as it turned out, Osborne knew exactly what he was looking for and the up and coming head coaches looking to make the jump weren't it. Grobe stayed home, Johnson and Gill moved up and all three struggle currently though Georgia Tech has had its moments. Including losing to Gill's Jayhawks.
The book is far from closed on Pelini. Temper has been an issue a time or two and time will tell if he brings the Big Red all the way back to a regular place at the BCS table. But the turnaround from the shattered psyche of the Callahan days was immediate and the pride and the recruiting are back. Compared to the other three, he looks like a good and potentially great pick now.
And Erstad? Well, I'm going to have a little trust in Tom this time around and hold judgement for now. And if Nebraska carries the Big 10's banner to the CWS in 3 or 4 years, I can tag this article and pretend I wasn't surprised.