LINCOLN — The ball flew well over an Iowa tight end's head, but here came two yellow missiles flying onto the Memorial Stadium turf. Pass interference on Nebraska. First down, Hawkeyes.
Bo Pelini exploded in anger. He screamed his protests and swiped his cap at a referee.
It wasn't the first dance with volcanic fury for the NU coach. In the six years he's patrolled Husker sidelines, his arguments with referees have commanded cameras and eyeballs.
But this time, Pelini's on-field conduct — punctuated by a terse exchange with an ABC reporter at halftime and profanity at his post-game press conference — became the story as speculation percolates about his future at Nebraska.
Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst and Chancellor Harvey Perlman stayed mum on whether Friday's 38-17 loss to Iowa and an 8-4 record would be enough for Pelini to retain his job.
Eichorst told a World-Herald reporter after the game he “won't be making any comments until the season is over.” Eichorst didn't clarify whether his review would occur soon after Friday's game or after a bowl game at least one month from now.
Perlman said: “You'll know when we know.”
It wasn't clear if Eichorst was aware of Pelini's blunt press conference comments when he spoke to the reporter. Reached later at his home, Perlman said he did see Pelini's press conference, but had no further comment.
At the press conference, Pelini shared what the referee told him after the unsportsmanlike call. “He said I got too close to him,” Pelini said. “I thought that was a chickenshit call. Excuse my language on that, but I had never seen anything like that before. I've done a lot worse than that. I saw (Iowa coach) Kirk Ferentz on the other side acting a lot worse than I act. I didn't see a flag come out on him.”
It's possible Pelini's comments will find their way to the Big Ten Conference office, which in the past his issued public reprimands in similar circumstances. Big Ten Conference Agreement 10.01 states in part that "The Big Ten Conference expects all contests involving a member institution to be conducted without compromise to any fundamental element of sportsmanship. Such fundamental elements include integrity of the competition, civility toward all, and respect, particularly toward opponents and officials.”
Pelini also defended his tenure and stiff-armed his critics.
“Let's call a spade a spade — if they want to fire me, go ahead,” Pelini said. “I believe in what I've done. I don't apologize for anybody, myself or this staff. Our record since I've been here (57-24) speaks for itself. This program's heading in a good direction. If you choose not to think so, that's your prerogative.”
Friday's outbursts may well be remembered alongside other Pelini moments, including:
Ľ His fury after NU narrowly lost to Texas in the 2009 Big 12 championship game when referees restored one second on the clock.
Ľ His sideline tirades during the 2010 Texas A&M game, after which he publicly apologized.
Ľ His blasting — and cursing — of fans and media in a 2011 audio tape that surfaced this fall. Former Athletic Director Tom Osborne, who hired Pelini in December 2007 and counseled him through rough public relations terrain, said he addressed the tape with Pelini last year. Pelini apologized for the language and content on the tape, saying it wasn't how he really felt about the program.
Though Eichorst and Perlman stood by Pelini after the tape became public, their silence since has fueled the notion that Pelini is on the hot seat.
After the audio tape incident, his bosses used the phrase “must be held to a high standard,” and after the A&M game, Osborne said it's “very important that going forward we do not see a recurrence.”
Friday's game unfolded as several others had this year. Nebraska committed three turnovers. NU struggled to correctly field punts inside its own 20, which led to NU starting drives at its own 1 and its own 3. Iowa started seven drives in Husker territory, winning the field position battle despite gaining seven fewer total yards.
After the game, the Hawkeyes rushed en masse to the trophy on Nebraska's sideline. Pelini dodged them, shook Ferentz's hand, and looked for his family. He walked off the field with one daughter to cheers from the remaining Husker fans who didn't leave midway through the fourth quarter.
“It hasn't been an easy year by any stretch of the imagination,” Pelini said at the press conference. “It's been difficult. This team had a lot to persevere through, a lot to stick together through. They did that, and I'm proud of them.”
Players and assistant coaches who talked after the game praised Pelini for his day-to-day conduct and leadership with them.
“I admire him for his values and what he knows and believes is important in the world,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “The players have learned valuable life lessons besides winning and losing. That'll hang with them a lot longer. Believe me.”
Said offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles: “I've spent five years with this guy, and he's made me the best man that I could possibly be. ... I hope that in ten years I can bring my wife or my girlfriend and I can say, 'This is Coach Bo. This is who made me who I am.”
Wide receiver Kenny Bell opted for dramatic allegory.
“I would play for Bo Pelini against Satan himself and a team of demons at the gates of the underworld,” he said.
It remains to be seen if Bell will play for Pelini in a bowl game.
* * *
Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Kenny Bell at the postgame press conference:
Video: Husker seniors honored before the Nebraska-Iowa game:
Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis: