Nebraskans have something for Bo Pelini as he runs onto the Memorial Stadium field today: a Big Red chest bump.
More than three of every four Nebraskans — 78 percent — approve of Pelini's job performance as the Cornhuskers' head football coach. Only 8 percent disapprove.
The World-Herald Poll shows strong support for the colorful coach in his fifth season as Husker-in-Chief.
Yes, he has racked more unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in big-game losses (two) with his lip-reader-mortifying sideline histrionics than his teams have won conference championships (zero).
But most Nebraskans admire his jutting-jugular-vein passion, the way he wears his heart on his sweatshirt sleeve. And they must appreciate that Pelini has returned the Huskers to seasons of nine wins and annual bowl games.
“He's very honest, and he does the best he can,” said 81-year-old Omahan Jean Jacobsen, who with her husband, Donald, has been a longtime season-ticket holder.
Though they recently had to give up their tickets, they're old-school, true-blue Big Red fans — their Army captain son flies the Husker flag on game days, even in hostile territory — who have been with the Huskers through thick and thin and care deeply about the tradition and the man in charge of keeping it.
“I like the way that I've heard from some inside the program that he's such a good figure to the players, almost like a father figure,” Jean Jacobsen said. “He's all-around great; I just love the guy.”
The timing of the poll might have brought out some sympathy votes for Pelini. It surveyed 800 registered voters from Sept. 17-20, after Pelini left the Sept. 15 Arkansas State game at halftime with medical problems.
That was also before Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne, who hired Pelini, announced his own impending retirement.
The strong numbers came despite a Sept. 8 loss to UCLA. That could be a sign that Nebraskans have developed more realistic expectations than in days gone by, when they expected a conference championship and major bowl every year, said Dan Hawkins, a University of Nebraska at Omaha sociologist.
“Expectations must have been lowered,” said Hawkins, an assistant professor of sociology who must have learned something about fans' expectations while growing up in Green Bay, Wis. “There has to be some impression that he is moving in the right direction.”
To be sure, the poll did not reveal unconditional love for Pelini. When asked, “What do you think of Bo Pelini?” only 29 percent answered “strongly favorable.” Twenty-three percent merely were neutral.
And a startlingly high number — 14 percent — of people in a supposedly universally football-crazy state said they didn't know, or didn't care, about his job performance.
“How can they not care?” asked an incredulous Jacobsen.
Pelini's teams have given Nebraska fans some notable thrills. The Huskers beat Oklahoma in 2009, their first win over the Sooners in eight years. They dominated Arizona in the 2009 Holiday Bowl. They used the biggest comeback in school history to beat Ohio State in 2011.
Pelini also has authored some notorious spills.
In 2008, his obscenity-laden rant at officials drew a 15-yard penalty that aided Virginia Tech's game-winning touchdown drive.
In 2010, Pelini melted down during a bizarrely officiated loss to Texas A&M, drew a penalty and berated quarterback Taylor Martinez on the sideline.
In the 2012 Capital One Bowl, Pelini lost a season's worth of carefully maintained sideline cool as South Carolina creamed his team in the second half.
“He's Bo. He's passionate, and that's what Nebraska football is all about,” said Phani Tej Adidam, a professor of marketing and management at UNO.
As for the times Pelini goes too far, Adidam said, “They're willing to tolerate a cranky cousin as long as he's delivering, or is going to deliver.”
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Nebraskans believe that Pelini, this early in his head coaching career, still holds promise of future Big Red football glories.
At least not yet.
It's worth noting that Nebraskans felt the love for Frank Solich in 2000. They gave Tom Osborne's hand-picked successor an 86 percent approval rating in The World-Herald Poll, after Solich's first two seasons as Nebraska head football coach.
But less than two years later, the state held Solich, with a 6-3 record at midseason, at a stiff-arm's length. Only 53 percent approved of his coaching.
Here and now with Pelini, “They are still patiently waiting for him to deliver,” Adidam said. “But it is not an unlimited, indefinite waiting game.”
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