LINCOLN — Harvey Perlman took over as chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2000, which just happens to be the same year the school’s frustrating 16-year drought of conference football championships began.
When coach Mike Riley’s first Cornhusker team last fall went 6-7, it was just the third losing season in a half-century in Lincoln — all three of those coming on Perlman’s watch.
Even Perlman concedes that if his tenure as chancellor were judged on football alone, it would have to be considered a failure.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t had a better experience in football, which is critically important to the state and fans,” he said.
But Perlman says there’s a lot more to the story of what’s transpired in and around Memorial Stadium over the past 16 years. And in the most wide-ranging, in-depth interview he’s given on the recent history and current state of Husker football, the retiring chancellor recently shared his thoughts with The World-Herald.
Perlman noted he had the misfortune of coming in the wake of the unprecedented career of Tom Osborne, one of the most successful and innovative football coaches of all time and a tough act for any coach to follow. To fail to recognize that, Perlman said, doesn’t give the legend his due.
And Perlman cites other circumstances no one could have anticipated.
Who knew that Steve Pederson, a Nebraska native who was universally seen as the right man for the athletic director’s job in 2002, would so disrupt the department’s culture? And what would have happened after 2003 if the high-profile NFL head coach whom Pederson had lined up to coach the Huskers — a would-be “wow” hire Perlman won’t name — had not subsequently backed out?
Few anticipated that Bo Pelini, the defensive guru whom then-Athletic Director Osborne and Perlman brought in to restore Nebraska football, would prove to have such an “embarrassing” on-field temperament — which Perlman doesn’t deny was a major factor in his firing.
And Riley’s first team, Perlman said, was hamstrung by the insular team culture Pelini had left behind.
Perlman said there are still no guarantees that the Riley hire will work out. But between Riley’s respected coaching acumen, recent improvements to recruiting and Nebraska’s return to leading-edge innovation with moves like the hiring of football personnel expert Billy Devaney, he truly believes Nebraska is closer to being relevant on the national stage than it’s been in some time.
“I am confident we are currently as well-positioned as we have been at any time since Tom coached to reach a high level of success,” Perlman said.
Athletics represents a small part of what happens on a college campus, far less important than teaching, research and developing the state’s young talent. But athletics is also one of the most visible parts of a university, playing a critical role in connecting students, the public and alums to campus.
There’s no doubt when it comes to NU athletics, Perlman — retiring next month as the school’s second-longest-serving chancellor — has gained many detractors.
Some still express anger over the 2003 firing of Frank Solich, Osborne’s handpicked successor on the Husker sideline, feeling it’s the root of the drought that has followed.
Fans also still criticize Perlman’s decision to extend the contracts of Pederson and coach Bill Callahan in 2007. Their firings months later cost athletic boosters $5 million.
Perlman certainly got an earful from fans during Riley’s first season, marked by several close losses and some embarrassing ones, including to perennial Big Ten doormats Illinois and Purdue. Some say it showed that Perlman and Shawn Eichorst, the athletic director Perlman hired in 2012, don’t know what they’re doing.
“You destroyed the Husker football program,” read one of the tamer emails Perlman received in the wake of the Purdue loss.
Perlman’s athletic legacy also has defenders.
James O’Hanlon, who served for more than two decades as the school’s faculty representative in athletics, said Perlman got Nebraska into the Big Ten, and he leaves the school well-positioned in most of its athletic programs and facilities. Most of the criticism he hears seems rooted in Pederson, a hire that was widely supported at the time.
“Everybody thought that was the perfect appointment,” he said. “It just turned out not to be.”
Beyond football, there have been other athletic successes during Perlman’s time as chancellor, including the school’s second, third and fourth national titles in volleyball.
O’Hanlon said many also don’t recognize what a major player Perlman was within the NCAA, a respected, go-to person on issues of national policy.
Osborne, who served five years as athletic director under Perlman and is still regarded by many as the godfather of Nebraska athletics, in an interview last week had little to say about Perlman.
Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten and the new research campus at State Fair Park “are significant accomplishments that Harvey will be remembered for,” Osborne said. He declined to comment further.
Pelini and Pederson have repeatedly in the past declined to comment on their time at Nebraska.
For his own part, Perlman doesn’t shirk from responsibility for what has happened on the football field during this century. While it’s the athletic director’s decision whether a coach should be fired or hired, the chancellor gives final approval to all such moves.
“We made some decisions that were controversial, and they were decisions I approved,” he said.
And he agrees that athletics are important. That’s especially true in a state like Nebraska that takes so much pride in its history of football success, including five national championships and the fifth-highest win total in college football history.
Perlman said any assessment of what’s happened since has to begin with Osborne, “a very unique and extraordinary coach” whose sustained success over 25 years has been unmatched by any coach in college football history.
“You don’t give him full credit if you think that once he’s gone it will be easy to replicate that level of success,” Perlman said.
Nonetheless, Perlman said, he’s disappointed with the results.
But in 2002 — the first year Solich played with a roster largely devoid of players signed by Osborne — Nebraska went 7-7, ending a 40-year streak of winning seasons in Lincoln. That was followed by a 9-3 regular season in 2003 that included an embarrassing 38-9 home loss to Kansas State.
Husker fans were restless. Pederson fired Solich.
While most fans seemed supportive of the decision, others believed that Solich should have been given more time to recruit with his new staff, the first major reshuffling of coaches since Osborne retired. Nebraska also took heat here and nationally for firing a nine-win coach. Pederson said the move showed Nebraska’s commitment to winning national championships.
Perlman last week said he still thinks the Solich firing was justified, citing a drop-off in recruiting and the program’s general downward trajectory. Solich has since shown himself to be a good coach during a long career at Ohio University, Perlman said, but at the time he was unproven as a head coach.
Perlman also revealed that when Pederson made the move, he already had lined up an NFL head coach for the job, one who “led us to believe that he was available and willing to do it.”
Perlman would not name the coach, but says “everyone would have said ‘Wow.’ ”
He last week said it was not Dave Wannstedt, the Miami Dolphins coach who was one rumored target at the time, but Perlman declined to entertain other names. Other coaches on NFL sidelines at that time included Jon Gruden, Marty Schottenheimer, Butch Davis, Tony Dungy, Steve Spurrier, Herm Edwards and Bill Cowher.
In the end, the coach got cold feet, contract negotiations dragged on, and the coach decided to stay with his team.
“The error in judgment Steve made was he was so confident he’d get him, he didn’t have Plan B,” Perlman said.
The search became agonizing, dragging on for 41 muddled days. Perlman publicly defended the search and Pederson at the time, but he now admits that it was embarrassing.
Finally, Bill Callahan “just kind of fell in our lap’’ when he was fired by the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, Perlman said. It was NU’s only choice, he said, and at the time it appeared it could be a good hire.
But Callahan’s first season in 2004 produced the first losing record in Lincoln since 1961. And after two promising seasons, the wheels fell off in year four.
When Nebraska trailed Oklahoma State 38-0 at halftime during homecoming week in 2007, fans left the stadium in droves.
Two days later, Perlman fired Pederson — citing not the on-field results, but strife that Pederson’s style was creating within the athletic department. By the end of the 5-7 season, Callahan was gone, too.
Perlman said he’s still puzzled with how the Pederson era turned out. When hired in 2002, he had been highly recommended by Osborne and others, seen as a department insider who understood and appreciated the state’s culture and traditions. Instead, department employees said he’d instilled a cold, corporate and stressful environment.
“I don’t know what happened,” Perlman said, only citing “the enormous pressure” Pederson had been under due to the lengthy coaching search.
Perlman was criticized for not being more aware of the problems before his costly extension of Pederson’s contract earlier that year — a fault he accepts. He also acknowledges that he was lucky when Osborne, who had been most unhappy with Solich’s firing, agreed to return as athletic director to restore order.
At Osborne’s invitation, Perlman joined him in the search for a new coach. In the end, they interviewed five coaches and picked Pelini, whose only head coaching experience had been the Husker bowl game after Solich was fired in 2003.
During seven seasons in Lincoln, Pelini never failed to win at least nine games. But he also couldn’t end Nebraska’s frustrating championship drought, three times falling in conference title games and often losing badly on big stages.
Pelini’s on-field tirades also became a source of embarrassment for many Nebraskans, including Perlman. And at some point — Perlman’s not clear when — he decided that he’d had enough.
Perlman described Pelini as “a very complex person.” Off the field, he was a great family man who was engaging, warm and gracious, Perlman said. Their dealings, he said, were always friendly and civil.
“But when he got on the football field, we know what his personality was like,” Perlman said. “At some point, that became embarrassing to the university. It was defining Nebraska in the minds of people around the country. When I’d travel around, the conversation wasn’t the great history of Nebraska football or the academic achievements, it was the ‘crazy coach’ on the sidelines.
“That just couldn’t continue.”
One major blowup occurred during a controversial loss to Texas A&M in 2010, Nebraska’s final season in the Big 12. Cameras caught Pelini berating officials and angrily dressing down quarterback Taylor Martinez, providing juicy fodder for lip readers.
Perlman the next day publicly admonished Pelini, something he now acknowledges may have been a mistake. Some thought he should have handled the matter internally. Perlman at the time thought it was important to make it clear to the public that the university did not condone Pelini’s behavior.
Osborne also tried hard to mentor and counsel Pelini, Perlman said, and over time Pelini was given “lots of ultimatums’’ regarding his sideline behavior.
At times there were periods of calm, but the issue never went away. After a big win over Ohio State in 2011, Pelini angrily confronted a reporter in his postgame press conference. Later that night he went on an expletive-filled rant against Husker fans, private comments that were taped and later embarrassingly leaked to a national media outlet.
“It would be less than honest to say we weren’t becoming restless,” Perlman said of such incidents.
Then against Iowa in 2013, speculation about his job status swirling, Pelini seemed to come unglued. He came close to striking a referee with a swipe of his cap. Afterward he used profanity in his postgame press conference and appeared to call out his bosses, declaring, “If they want to fire me, go ahead.”
Given Perlman’s strong feelings about Pelini’s behavior, it’s surprising that he and Eichorst didn’t fire Pelini then. It probably should have happened, Perlman said last week. But he said a lot goes into such personnel issues, including the timing, fairness to the individual and concern for student-athletes.
“It wasn’t something we didn’t talk about,” Perlman said. “On balance, we just didn’t think the timing was right.”
The firing would come a year later after another winning season that still fell short of fans’ expectations. Perlman said it’s “fair to say” the 2014 firing was due both to Pelini’s failure to get the program over the hump as well as his temperament.
The decision on hiring a new coach fell to Eichorst, whom Perlman had hired as athletic director from Miami in 2012 to replace the retiring Osborne. Perlman had conducted that A.D. search outside the public eye, utilizing a head hunter. Some program insiders were upset that the search appeared to give short shrift to the department’s internal candidates.
Criticism of the Eichorst hire escalated when he announced his decision on a new football coach.
Literally dozens of possible names had been circulated among fans and the media. But no one had mentioned Riley, a veteran Oregon State coach whose career coaching record was not much above .500.
Perlman still defends the hire. It’s one thing for fans to suggest that the university should just offer Nick Saban $10 million, which would most likely result in Alabama simply boosting the championship coach’s pay to $12 million, Perlman said.
Eichorst, working privately through a network of agents, friends and other contacts, had identified five or six head coaches who were experienced, good recruiters, good cultural fits for Nebraska and, most important, potentially available, Perlman said. And while Riley’s cool and calm demeanor — a big contrast with Pelini — was appealing, that isn’t why he was hired, Perlman said.
“Shawn had watched Mike for a long time,” Perlman said. “All the word you get on the national market is he was the most underrated football coach in the country. He had never had the resources and support necessary to display his full range of talents.”
Riley’s first season didn’t exactly restore the faith of fans, the team starting out 3-6 before rallying to a 6-7 finish. But Perlman remains hopeful.
Any transition to new coaches, with new plays and systems, is going to be difficult. And this transition was made tougher by the strong relationships Pelini had forged with his players based on his “us against the world, no one is going to help us but ourselves” culture, Perlman said.
“I think a transition from that culture was going to be difficult no matter who was the coach,” Perlman said. “All things considered, it wasn’t surprising we had a disappointing season. What was surprising was how resilient the team became and how well they played toward the end.”
Looking ahead, Riley and his staff seem to be finding their footing in recruiting, Perlman said. Nebraska is innovating in football again with its approach to creating the best all-around experience for student-athletes and its NFL-style talent evaluation. Riley also showed with his decision to fire his defensive line coach that he’s willing to put the success of the program over any personal loyalties, Perlman said.
At the same time, there are never any guarantees with any hire a university makes, whether it’s a promising researcher, a new dean or a football coach, Perlman said.
“I think we are as well-positioned as we can be,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, firstname.lastname@example.org