LINCOLN — Nebraska can.
That’s the message I got from Shawn Eichorst on Sunday afternoon. That’s the message you should cling to during this long, cold winter.
You can be satisfied with good. You can try harder to be great. Nebraska is choosing the latter. If it sounds like something out of a cheesy CEO seminar, so be it.
Eichorst took a remarkable risk in firing Bo Pelini, a man who’d won 71 percent of his games in seven years and endeared himself — win or lose — to a large swath of the fan base. The athletic director may regret it.
But the action itself is reason for the college football world to wake up and take notice again.
No, this isn’t the 1990s anymore. No, Nebraska doesn’t have the biggest weight room or the most experienced coaching staff. It doesn’t have the same advantages with walk-ons or Prop 48s or offensive scheme.
But just because they’re dead-even with Iowa and Minnesota doesn’t mean they’re satisfied there.
“I am not going to lower our standards, and I don’t think Nebraskans want that,” Eichorst said. “Is it a different day (from the ’90s)? Absolutely. It is a different day for everybody.
“At the end of the day, what are you going to do?”
Since the day he was hired, we had no idea what Eichorst was going to do.
One faction of the fan base thought he was a puppet for Chancellor Harvey Perlman. Another faction of Husker fans feared that Eichorst was merely biding his time here, refusing to stir the pot, packing his career résumé so he could one day succeed Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin.
So much for that.
He proved Sunday he’s as competitive as anybody in his business. He proved Sunday that he understands Nebraska’s tradition and isn’t satisfied with Big Ten trophy games.
“We just weren’t good enough in the games that mattered,” Eichorst said.
The facts are on his side.
In 2012, NU got beat 70-31 in the Big Ten championship game. Over the past two years, the Huskers were essentially eliminated from divisional contention with two weeks left in the regular season.
Its best wins were over an 8-4 Georgia team without its record-setting quarterback, a 7-5 Iowa team, a 7-5 Penn State team and a 7-5 Rutgers team. Since October 2011, Nebraska has beaten one team that finished the season in the top 20. That was Northwestern in 2012; the Wildcats finished 17th.
Over and over, the Huskers have failed to break through. Since Pelini took over in 2008:
» 43 programs have recorded at least one 11-win season, including 29 teams from Power Five leagues. Nebraska’s best finish is 10-4.
» 30 programs have recorded at least one Top-10 season. Nebraska’s best finish under Pelini is 14th in 2009.
» 20 Power Five programs have won at least one conference championship. Nebraska finished runner-up three times.
This year’s Huskers are graduating their Doak Walker Award finalist and their all-time leading receiver. They’re almost guaranteed to lose their standout defensive end, who’s projected as a top-five draft pick. The 2015 schedule is tougher, especially in nonconference with BYU and Miami.
Add it all up and it’s implausible to claim that NU is moving closer to a Big Ten championship.
But rather than address the reasons Pelini couldn’t break through, his biggest supporters made excuses. I’ve received dozens of phone calls and emails the past three weeks. These are excerpts:
“Nebraska’s not that talented. Not that many kids want to play at Nebraska. To win nine games every year with three or four decent players they have is almost impossible.”
“It’s not unreasonable to expect Bo’s team to win a conference or division championship every now and then, but it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if his team doesn’t, given today’s parity in college football.”
“Don’t forget how Coach Osborne struggled his first seven years, too.”
None of those talking points is actually a vote of confidence in the direction of the program. The primary defense of Pelini seems to be: You can’t do this here anymore. You’re foolish to try.
Truth is, Nebraska fans are still haunted by what happened 11 years ago. Bill Callahan is the monster in the closet keeping them awake at night.
“I as a die-hard Husker fan will gladly take nine or 10 wins over five,” one emailer wrote.
“Remember what happened the last time we fired a nine-win coach,” one caller said.
People are so afraid to get humiliated again, they accepted national and regional irrelevance. They overlook a month in which Nebraska was exposed as equals of the Gophers and Hawkeyes.
It’s reminiscent of Nebraska’s attitude before Bob Devaney rolled into Lincoln.
“In many ways, he changed the psychological attitude of the state,” former Gov. Frank Morrison said after Devaney died. “The majority of people had an inferiority complex. He helped unify the state and improve our pride in Nebraska.”
Devaney’s message to the people: “Nebraska can.”
Half a century later, what happened to that attitude?
Pelini’s critics have been cast as pessimists. But the opposite is actually true.
Those calling for change envisioned something more than 9-4. Those calling for change realized that not every potential successor is a monster in the closet. Those calling for change witnessed programs like Baylor, Mississippi State and Kansas State passing NU by.
You think a conference change disrupted Pelini’s program? Missouri changed leagues, too, and it just won to back-to-back SEC East championships.
You think the learning curve for a first-time head coach necessitates more time? Chip Kelly and Bob Stoops were first-time head coaches. They played in national title games in their second seasons. Closer to home, Bret Bielema was a first-time head coach at Wisconsin. He went 12-1 his first season and eventually won three straight Big Ten championships.
You think Nebraska lacks resources to compete? Its football budget this year, according to a university spokesman, is $103 million. That’s comfortably in the Top 20 nationally.
What’s the common denominator here? The same point Eichorst hit over and over Sunday:
Don’t settle. Don’t let the Nebraska of your memory slip away.
On Jan. 1, 1995, the night Tom Osborne won his first national championship, I was 13 years old. I haven’t done any scientific research on the topic, but my hunch is 13 years old is the peak age of sports fandom.
No bills to pay. No jobs to work. No high school sports to practice. No homework to take seriously. Just football. Nebraska football.
It’s Sunday night at 7 p.m., and I’m sitting here alone in the Memorial Stadium press box, high above the wooden bench I occupied on fall Saturdays growing up.
I can tell you with certainty: Nebraska football will never be what it was 20 years ago. Never.
But it can be better than it is today.
It must be.
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