LINCOLN — It didn't take long after the Bo Pelini era had officially ended at Nebraska for the school's passionate followers to turn their focus and hopes upon whom Shawn Eichorst will select as the 29th football coach.
While there will always be disagreement as to whether Nebraska's athletic director made the right move Sunday in firing the fiery football coach, Nebraskans were fairly united Monday in their hope that the next coach can return the Cornhuskers to the greatness Pelini was never able to achieve during seven years on the sidelines.
"We've had the shock, and now we wait for the awe — who is next?" Hal Daub, a member of the NU Board of Regents, said Monday. "I think Shawn Eichorst is on top of his game and will proceed deliberately and without fanfare."
Eichorst put no timeline on that task Sunday and would not comment on what he's looking for. But given the strengths of the university's football program, including a strong, loyal fan base, first-class facilities and abundant resources, Eichorst spoke confidently of finding "a great coach to lead our storied program."
The Pelini era officially ended Sunday morning, two days after Nebraska finished its 9-3 regular season with a 37-34 overtime win over Iowa. In a 20-minute meeting between Eichorst and Pelini at Memorial Stadium, the athletic director told the coach that the school was ready to move on. Eichorst described the meeting as cordial and professional, saying the coach seemed to agree it was best that coach and school part ways.
Eichorst said he fired Pelini after assessing the "totality" of the program's performance — on and off the field. But it didn't take long for Eichorst, in the midst of his subsequent press conference at Memorial Stadium, to get to his core reason for dismissing a coach who'd won at least nine games in all seven of his seasons at Nebraska.
It's a reason that will be familiar to fans, boosters and observers who have followed Nebraska in the Pelini era: When the Huskers had to win a big game against a top team, they too often lost, many times by a large margin.
"I didn't see enough improvement in areas that were important for us to move forward and play championship-caliber football," Eichorst said. "We just — for whatever reason — weren't good enough in the games that mattered, against championship-caliber-quality opponents. I didn't see that changing at the end of the day."
Since joining the Big Ten Conference in 2011, Nebraska is 4-9 against opponents ranked in the Associated Press top 25. NU lost eight of those nine games by double digits. In Nebraska's lone appearance in the Big Ten championship game, it suffered a traumatic 70-31 loss to Wisconsin.
That's the same school where Eichorst spent six years as an athletic department administrator. The same school that throttled Nebraska 59-24 on Nov. 15. The same school that has won or shared three Big Ten titles since 2010 and plays for a fourth Saturday.
In the end, Pelini simply wasn't able to break a drought of seasons without even a conference championship that has now reached 15 years at Nebraska — a major source of frustration for a passionate fan base that had grown accustomed to seeing decades of conference and national championship football.
"Although we did win a bunch of games, we didn't win the games that mattered the most," Eichorst said. "We gave Coach ample time, ample resources and ample support to get that done, and now we're headed in a different direction."
So the 46-year-old Pelini was out, finishing with a 67-27 record overall. Pelini did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the World-Herald. He told the Associated Press via a text, "I'm good! Thanks for asking!"
Eichorst's Sunday morning statement announcing the firing naturally caused a furor in a state where cheering on the Cornhuskers each fall seems rooted in people's DNA. Fans had long ago split into two camps, the Bo-lievers and those who thought it was time for Bo to go. That division continued on social media and radio talk shows Sunday.
No one was more critical of the move than Pelini's players, who have always professed adoration for and loyalty toward their hard-nosed, tough-loving coach.
"Biggest mistake you ever made," quarterback Tommy Armstrong wrote on his Twitter account.
And the man whom most Nebraskans trust on all matters football — former national champion coach and Athletic Director Tom Osborne — didn't offer his blessings to the move. Osborne, who hired Pelini in December 2007, declined to answer questions but said he felt bad for the coach and all of his staff.
But Eichorst also had the backing Sunday of campus Chancellor Harvey Perlman and several boosters.
Jay Noddle, a longtime booster from Omaha, said he had been sensing a level of resignation setting in among fans, one that could have threatened the Huskers' record streak of consecutive sellouts if it had continued to fester.
"There is something missing," he said. "We need to be able to get this program successfully to the next level."
And while he said there no doubt would be division and anxiety among fans, he predicted much excitement within the program and the state when Eichorst announces his new coach, whoever that is.
That's already the next great speculation among fans.
Gov. Dave Heineman declined to comment Monday when asked whether he supported the decision to fire Pelini. But speaking as a fan, he called on Nebraskans to demonstrate support for the players and the program.
"It's really tough on the players," Heineman said of the coach's firing. "This state really supports them. They are a great group of young men."
Per the terms of Pelini's contract, which runs through the 2018 season, he is owed about $7.9 million. His assistants will be owed roughly $4 million total.
Eichorst said those dollars, due to be paid in monthly installments, would come out of athletic department reserve funds. The payments could also be reduced if the coaches gain other employment.
Husker associate head coach Barney Cotton will coach Nebraska in its coming bowl game.
Pelini will long be remembered at Nebraska for his fiery and passionate leadership, a style that produced some big wins but also a rash of even bigger losses.
Husker fans had first fallen in love with Pelini during his single season as NU defensive coordinator in 2003. Hired out of the NFL by then-head coach Solich, Pelini instantly restored a downtrodden Blackshirts unit. Fans and players alike were struck by his fire. His brief tenure ended after Solich was canned at season's end and Pelini coached NU to a bowl win over Michigan State.
Pelini returned to Nebraska four years later as the school's 28th head coach, hired by Osborne to replace Callahan. Callahan had just completed a 5-7 campaign, just the second losing season at Nebraska since 1962. Pelini, who won a national title with LSU as its defensive coordinator, was hired to rebuild the defense and restore the school's winning culture.
His first team in 2008 suffered blowout losses to Missouri (52-17) and Oklahoma (62-28) but finished the year on a four-game winning streak, which including a 26-21 victory over Clemson in the Gator Bowl and a dramatic 40-31 win over Colorado.
Nebraska arguably had its strongest team of the Pelini era in 2009, when the Huskers — behind Outland Trophy winner and Heisman Trophy finalist Ndamukong Suh — finished with the nation's No. 1 scoring defense in a 10-4 season. NU came within one second — and one point — of upsetting Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game.
In the resulting Holiday Bowl, the Huskers smashed Arizona 33-0. "Nebraska's back, and we're here to stay," Pelini proclaimed afterward.
But that impressive conclusion to Pelini's second season in many ways would mark the pinnacle of his tenure.
That season was also marked by a loss at Texas A&M in which network TV cameras repeatedly caught Pelini berating players and officials. He was publicly rebuked by Perlman for his behavior and later apologized.
The Huskers moved to the Big Ten in 2011 and lost by 31, 28 and 17 that season to Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina, respectively. In 2012, the Huskers' six-game winning streak in the Big Ten was bookended by a 63-38 loss at Ohio State and the 70-31 pasting by Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
In 2013, Nebraska finished the regular season 9-4 and lost four games by double digits — three at home. That season also saw more controversy over Pelini's behavior and demeanor.
A two-year-old tape surfaced in which Pelini privately lambasted and cursed NU fans and the media. And then during a season-ending home defeat against Iowa, Pelini drew a flag for swiping his hat within inches of a ref, responded tersely to a sideline reporter in a nationally televised interview and then used profanity in a postgame press conference. Pelini also appeared to dare Eichorst to fire him after the game.
Eichorst, at the time having only a year on the job, responded the next day by expressing support for his coach. It guaranteed Pelini at least one more year on the Nebraska sideline.
One reason Eichorst didn't fire Pelini at that time, he revealed Sunday, was the coaching staff's desire for more recruiting resources. Eichorst said firing Pelini then would have been the "easy thing" to do, but he was hopeful Nebraska would rebound this year.
Pelini was apprised of expectations for 2014 at the beginning of the year, Eichorst said. He declined to elaborate or specify.
At any rate, public speculation over Pelini's job status began to swirl two weeks ago in the wake of Nebraska's latest big-game throttling, the setback to Wisconsin in which a Badger back set a then-national record for rushing yards in a game. Nebraska officially fell out of contention for the Big Ten title the next week with a 28-24 loss to Minnesota — NU's second straight loss to the Gophers.
Still, Eichorst waited until Saturday night to make his decision. He included Friday's win over Iowa in his assessment, a game in which NU overcame a 17-point deficit on the road.
"Our kids showed great character and resiliency in a tough environment, so it certainly played a factor, but, in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was," Eichorst said. Nebraska wasn't playing for a Big Ten title, and neither were the Hawkeyes.
After Friday's win, Pelini ran briskly off the field. He brushed aside any questions about his job security in a postgame press conference.
"I know what we have going," Pelini said then. "People can make their deductions any way they want."
Eichorst did. He fired Pelini. And he'll hire his successor.
Eichorst has never hired a major college football coach. He said he'll conduct the search himself. No search firm will be used.
That decision mirrors one made by former Athletic Director Steve Pederson after he fired Solich in 2003. Pederson's search dragged on for more than a month, cycling through a variety of names and drawing criticism from the local and national press. Pederson finally settled on Callahan, the former NFL coach. Both were fired four seasons later.
Eichorst said Sunday that he wouldn't pass judgment on that search. "I'm looking forward," he said. "I've been doing this awhile. And I have great faith and confidence in my approach. We will continue to analyze as we're moving forward."
Eichorst repeatedly sidestepped questions on what qualifications he's looking for in a coach.
"I will not comment on or speculate about the process or the people," he said. Each time a reporter offered up a potential qualification — head coaching experience, familiarity with Nebraska — Eichorst answered the same way.
Eichorst said Nebraska will spend what is necessary to get the right coach. The Huskers paid Pelini just more than $3 million per year, while assistants were paid roughly $2.65 million this season. Those figures hover in the nation's Top 25 in terms of salaries, but not in the Top 10. Several Big Ten head coaches and assistants make more than Pelini and his assistants did.
"Resources are not the question here at Nebraska," Eichorst said. "That doesn't mean we're not going to be responsible and good stewards of our resources. I've seen people spend a lot of money and not do very much winning. We're going to get it right."
What he'll be looking for is a coach who can win the games Pelini didn't. In the end, at Nebraska, it is about winning championships.
"I'm not going to lower our standards," Eichorst said. "I don't think Nebraskans want that."
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