Warren Powers used to tell a funny story on Tom Osborne. It was 1973, Osborne's first year as Nebraska head coach, and Powers was a holdover assistant from Bob Devaney's staff.
Osborne had just been elevated to head coach. He wanted to show the players he meant business. So, before the first game, he told the team to be on the bus by a certain time, or the bus would leave without them.
Well, it was time to go. So Osborne headed down to the bus. He looked around. He couldn't find it. He asked someone where the bus went.
They said it already left.
Without the head coach.
Coaches teach. They prod. They pull. Mostly, they push buttons and hope that they work. Frequently, they have no idea if it will.
Which brings us today, on the north shores of Lake Michigan, and a Nebraska football coach pushing buttons and hoping one works.
Six games. Six wins. Bo Pelini laid down the gauntlet two weeks ago, immediately after the last game, the debacle at Ohio State.
Was he stating the obvious? Grasping for the right straw? Or was this a brilliant motivational ploy to light a fire?
We'll get a peek, today, at Northwestern's diminutive Ryan Stadium (49,000), where the Big Red faces a must win.
Right. Must win. Northwestern.
Don't ask. Go with it. This is Nebraska football, circa 2012. Trying to get something going. Trying to get on the Red Line to the Big Ten championship game.
So think of the rest of the season as a subway ride. Six stops to go before Indy. Can the Huskers stay on the Red Line? Or will they get off early?
Did Coach Bo's mandate do the trick?
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It's worth a try. The Huskers have attention issues. They lose focus. They can't handle prosperity. They don't much like adversity either.
What Pelini might have done that night, amidst the haze of a devastating loss, was give them something to focus on.
Six weeks. Six games. Knock them off, one by one. It won't be easy. But, maybe, just maybe, it's a project this team can wrap its arms around, week to week.
Beat Northwestern and nothing is decided. Beat Michigan? Forget the celebration. Got four more to go.
Pelini is a man of his process. But sometimes circumstances force a coach to go outside of his playbook and call an audible.
Is that what Bo was doing here? He says he was just trying to encourage, to provide hope.
“Motivation is about reality,” says NU assistant Ron Brown, who started at NU in 1987. “Now, you may use a fictional story or device to get them to that reality.
“When Bo said that, the first thing that hits my brain is: Wisconsin last year. They lost to Ohio State at night. Then Michigan State on a Hail Mary. They have two losses and everyone is counting them out.
“But they win out and go to the Rose Bowl. So what Bo said is mathematically a reality.
“He's telling them, we can still win the Big Ten championship. And we have to win out. And I think every one of them knows, we can put together a string of victories and get it done.
“It depends on how it hits each kid, but it should motivate them.”
The coaching staff spent some time during the bye week pushing buttons. Brown said he told his running backs an Aesop's Fable, about a pack of wolves and the rabbit. The top wolf chased after the jackrabbit but couldn't catch him. When he returned to the pack, they asked why he couldn't catch him.
“The wolf said I was running for my lunch, but the rabbit was running for its life,” Brown said. “The moral to the story is, who has the highest stakes?”
Or, are the Huskers the wolf or the rabbit?
It's time for them to decide something.
Pelini has been introspective of late. Humble. He readily admits he doesn't have all the answers. He offered an insightful thought earlier this week, about how sometimes you find out it's not going to be easy, and you have to decide whether to fight for what you want.
It's been more evident than ever: Pelini and his young staff are still learning how to do this and they don't have a lot of answers right now.
Bo is the head coach. He and his staff are paid handsomely to figure this out. They'll get rewarded or get the tab at the end of the proverbial day. It's on them.
But at some point, the players have to execute. The players have to lead. The players have to do it.
Remember last March? The day before spring practice started? One by one, the Huskers talked about accountability. Leadership meetings in Pelini's office. The bus ride after the Capital One bowl when everyone had had enough.
We heard it again in August. It was what everyone wanted to hear. We bought into it.
What we know now is, these guys talk a good game.
They need to play a good game today. But nobody knows what to expect. Pelini says he has an angry team. But then quarterback Taylor Martinez shows up pointing a finger, not a thumb, for his turnovers.
Is that Taylor being Taylor? Do his teammates have his back? How red-faced are they about Ohio State?
We get the answer today, a big day for a season that feels like it could go either way. The Huskers will be tested. They face a little bit of a mirror image in the Wildcats, who will be well-coached, have an explosive play-maker in Kain Colter and rely on offense to solve their problems.
It's a toss-up game, in many ways. Who will play better offense? Who will make enough stops on defense? Will there be more purple or red in the seats?
The Red Line to Indy awaits. The doors close at 2:30. Will the Huskers make it on time?
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