LINCOLN — Gary Barnett pulled Northwestern football out of the ashes in the 1990s by somehow winning 10 and nine games in back-to-back seasons.
Then went 5-7 in 1997.
Barnett got rolling again a few years later at Colorado, winning 10 in 2001 and nine in 2002.
Then went 5-7 in 2003.
That puts Barnett among some current or former college football coaches who might look at the nine-win streak that Nebraska and Bo Pelini started in 2008 and appreciate it. Or at the least, they see it a little differently than fans or media or analysts when sitting down and assessing what it takes.
“There's a different perspective for the people on the outside than the people in the business,” Barnett said. “When you're in the business, you know how hard winning any game is. To put together a couple nines is tough, but to put together as many as Nebraska has and Bo has, that's really hard.”
Pelini will be trying to notch his sixth consecutive nine-win season Friday when Nebraska (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) plays host to Iowa (7-4, 4-3) in an 11 a.m. game at Memorial Stadium. If the Huskers fail, they'll get another shot in a late-December or Jan. 1 bowl game.
They'll play 13 games this year, including the postseason, as they did in 2008 and 2011. They played 14 in 2009, 2010 and 2012 because of appearances in conference championship games.
Last year, 38 FBS programs won nine games, and 50-plus still cling to the hope of doing it this season.
So it raises the fair question of whether a nine-win campaign means the same as it did before the evolution of the 12-game regular season. Nebraska started its previous NCAA-record run of 33 straight nine-win years during a 10-game regular season under Bob Devaney in 1969, and Tom Osborne negotiated through 11-game regular seasons for 18 of 23 years between 1973 and the formation of the Big 12 in 1996.
But times also were different back then, Barnett said, when the larger scholarship numbers and smaller television opportunities benefited the haves and kept down the have-nots.
“There's so much more parity now than there was back when you played 11,” said Barnett, now a color analyst for Sports USA Radio. “So, to me, that overrides any 'cheapening' that might have occurred because of playing 12. It's just so fragile. Your existence is so fragile.”
Only Nebraska, Alabama, Oregon and Boise State started 2013 riding a five-year streak of nine-win seasons. Alabama and Oregon already have made it six, leaving the Huskers and Broncos (7-4) scrambling to keep pace.
Alabama and Nick Saban actually are no further removed from their last season without nine wins than Nebraska (the Crimson Tide were 7-6 in 2007, and later vacated five wins by an NCAA ruling). Texas and Mack Brown had a streak of 12 straight stopped when they finished 5-7 in 2010.
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Urban Meyer had run off eight straight nine-win seasons between stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida before the Gators posted an 8-5 record in 2010. Virginia Tech hit 7-6 last season to halt an eight-year run of nine-win seasons under Frank Beamer.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is impressed that Nebraska has a chance to keep alive its streak despite a host of injuries, including an injury to fourth-year starter Taylor Martinez at quarterback.
“Eight wins, playing three quarterbacks — I don't know how many teams in the country could have pulled that off,” Ferentz told The World-Herald.
“But they keep winning … (nine wins) it's getting harder and harder in college football. And that's for every program. There's a lot more parity than there's ever been.”
As with Barnett, Ferentz has watched potential good streaks get sidetracked just as they seemed to be starting.
The Hawkeyes won 11, 10 and 10 games from 2002 to 2004, followed by a 7-5 season. They won nine, 11 and eight between 2008 and 2010, then back to 7-6 (and 4-8 in 2012).
Asked during his weekly press conference about Pelini being under fire despite the nine-win streak still having life, Ferentz said one common denominator in sports is that whatever you're doing is “never enough.” And he noted that there are more avenues for expression from fans and critics than ever before.
Asked if he would be in trouble in Iowa City with a six-year streak of nine wins, Ferentz joked: “I don't know that. I'd like to find out, put it that way. How is that? Like to find out.”
For Pelini, the satisfaction of winning nine is somewhat negated by the Huskers having four losses in each of his first five seasons. His six-year record at NU is 56-23, with no conference championships or BCS bowls.
“I expect to win them all,” he said this week. “We have high goals and those goals will remain high, and the standards will remain high, as long as I'm the head football coach.”
The nine-win standard had to be rebuilt after the Huskers' 33-year streak was disrupted in 2002 with a 7-7 finish under Frank Solich and then not met three times under Bill Callahan between 2004 and 2007.
But for any of the fifth-year seniors that trot out of the tunnel Friday, nine wins is all they know.
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“Guys really take pride in getting that done,” NU fullback C.J. Zimmerer said. “Coach Bo told us maybe only five other teams or something have done that over this span. So it's really cool to be a part of that.
“It's just a great group of guys that have made that the culture here, to not have anything less than that.”
Assuming Nebraska gets to nine again, the underclassmen will be left to keep the streak going.
“We know the number, that nine or 10 wins is where we've kind of been around, so that's important for the program,” redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose said.
“I think that's just a credit to our program and how we maintain it. We'd like to get up to the next level, but we're not worried about something like, 'Are we going to make a bowl game?' every year. There's nothing wrong with being consistent.”
Barnett said some nine-win seasons are better than others, and Nebraska should relish what it has done if it stays seated at that table through 2013.
“To do it the way Nebraska has done it this year is really remarkable,” he said. “They've had to come from behind, had to do it in spite of turning the ball over, with an injured quarterback. … To a lot of people that sounds like excuses, but it's reality and the reason it is as hard as it is.”
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>> Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after Wednesday's practice
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