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So Who Was Steve Pederson's "WOW" NFL Candidate from the 2003 Nebraska Football Coaching Search?

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The NFL head coach that was Steve Pederson's first choice in 2003? Was it actually former San Diego head coach Al Saunders, shown here in 1988?
The NFL head coach that was Steve Pederson's first choice in 2003? Was it actually former San Diego head coach Al Saunders, shown here in 1988?
George Rose/Getty Images

Outgoing Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman sat down with Henry Cordes of the Omaha World-Herald last week and discussed his time in charge of the Lincoln campus, with Monday's story focusing mainly on football. (Please, NO!) Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview concerned Steve Pederson's lengthy and much-maligned coaching search that stretched for over a month that eventually resulted in the hiring of Bill Callahan.

Perlman also revealed that when Pederson made the move, he already had lined up an NFL head coach for the job, one who "led us to believe that he was available and willing to do it."

Perlman would not name the coach, but says "everyone would have said ‘Wow.' "

He last week said it was not Dave Wannstedt, the Miami Dolphins coach who was one rumored target at the time, but Perlman declined to entertain other names. Other coaches on NFL sidelines at that time included Jon Gruden, Marty Schottenheimer, Butch Davis, Tony Dungy, Steve Spurrier, Herm Edwards and Bill Cowher.

In the end, the coach got cold feet, contract negotiations dragged on, and the coach decided to stay with his team.

"The error in judgment Steve made was he was so confident he'd get him, he didn't have Plan B," Perlman said.

Many people have assumed that Perlman was referring to an active NFL head coach at that time, and locked in on Steve Spurrier, who was coaching the Washington Redskins in 2003. Would Spurrier be a "WOW" candidate? Probably, since he had won a national championship at Florida. But since Spurrier resigned as Washington's head coach on December 30, 2003, it would not appear that Spurrier was the coach that "decided to stay with his team."

So who is it?  I note that the article didn't specify an "active" NFL head coach. And then I recalled a candidate who fits this description:  Al Saunders.

Wait? Al Saunders?

Let me explain.  The name may not mean much to you now, but Saunders was head coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1986 through 1988 - so he has that on his resume.  More importantly, Dick Vermeil told the Kansas City Star that Saunders turned down the Nebraska job - shortly after the Omaha World-Herald reported that Pederson's coaching search was nearing completion.  The next day, Pederson sent a plane to Little Rock, Arkansas on that infamous mission to bring Houston Nutt to LIncoln.  In other words:  Nutt was a rushed Plan B.

But Al Saunders - a WOW hire?

It sounds kind of silly now, as the years fade on Saunders resume. But let's turn back the clock to 2003.  Saunders was in his third season as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, which led the NFL in nearly every offensive category and were favorites to get to the Super Bowl.  Priest Holmes and Trent Green in their prime, and Saunders as the mastermind behind it.  The Chiefs lost to Indianapolis in the playoffs in a shootout because the defense couldn't stop Peyton Manning...but that's not Saunders fault.

Would the KC Chiefs offensive coordinator in 2003 been a WOW hire on New Years Day 2004?  Probably, considering the number of Chiefs fans in the Nebraska area who were very familiar with the excitement at Arrowhead. And let's be honest, it's not whether you think Al Saunders would have been a WOW hire, but rather whether Harvey Perlman (who thinks that Nebraska was "lucky" to hire Mike Riley in 2014) considered him a WOW hire.

One reason Saunders may have turned down Pederson is that he might have spied the opening in Oakland created by, yes, the firing of Bill Callahan.  But the Raiders turned to Norv Turner, and Saunders would remain in Kansas City for two more years before becoming a bit of a nomad around the NFL, never completely recapturing the magic of 2003.  Would Saunders have been a better choice than Callahan at Nebraska?  That's impossible to say, though Saunders' resume was arguably better than Callahan's.

Only Harvey Perlman can really confirm who he was talking about.  But looking back at the situation, the most likely candidate to me is former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders.