McKewon: Pelini the CEO reaches crossroads

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini

LINCOLN — Though it's actually as flat as a washboard, Bo Pelini has always been a guy to coach with gut. His strategic compass, however intricate it might seem, still points true chutzpah. He doesn't get easily discouraged. And if he does, the mood does not last very long.

He took all of five minutes to move past the back-cracking he got in his old Horseshoe stomping grounds before declaring Nebraska had to “win out.” He took perhaps a night to mourn his team's fetid performance in the Big Ten title game before choosing Georgia as a bowl opponent.

So it was not really surprising that, after a disastrous blitz call in the Capital One Bowl that led to an 87-yard, nail-in-the-coffin touchdown for the Bulldogs — a call beneath Pelini's intelligence, one from the gut, running at cheetah speed into the oncoming, chugging train of good sense — that the coach would spend a chunk of his postgame press conference calling the 2013 team a “force,” subtly promoting next year. It was shrewd, actually. A CEO move.

This after a year of doubling down on his culture, of nudging aside doubts about losing stars like Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. The seniors would carry the day. The military training would be the difference. The defensive scheme would be “more multiple,” creative, dangerous. The blitzes would get home.

Pelini sincerely believed all of it would come to pass. His default setting is certitude. And until 7 p.m. Dec. 1 — kickoff in the Big Ten championship — he was right, cutting the figure of a leader who brings his own assistants close to speaking their idea of poetry.

And then, during the course of a month, in two games, he was wrong. This game, the best of any in the world, is cruel like that. The full extent of Nebraska's weaknesses came to bear. A crisply done Pelini presser after the Capital One Bowl can soothe sour stomachs, but it doesn't change what Indianapolis and Orlando made clear. And we'll set aside the usual Rewind format to discuss it at length.

This is the crossroads. A head-coach-in-training is now a man in full.

Pelini is CEO of a company that once flirted with bankruptcy. That company now produces steady, respectable returns. Five years ago, fans left Memorial Stadium in disgust. Now that stadium is expanding. Nebraska football is not a corrupt company. It promotes scholarship and humanitarian pursuits. A Husker doesn't turn down an autograph request. Family.

It's a good, sustainable regional business. There are too many resources, too much tradition — and enough good athletes — for it to fall too deeply into debt.

The company's shareholders want more. Fans, boosters, students, professors, pundits. Husker Nation.

And they're prone to examine every inch of that program to extract more return on their investment of emotion, money and time. Well, it's the story of many American businesses. Far be it from me to shield Bo from the joys and pressures of pigskin capitalism. He signed up for it.

His gut is ahead of the curve in some areas. He's right about recruiting mobile, athletic quarterbacks — a trend that's trickling up to the NFL. He's right about a no-huddle offense wearing down giant defenses like Georgia's. He's right, in theory, that college quarterbacks struggle to make the deep, tricky throws more than they do the 5-yard curl, so taking away the curl has long-term benefits.

But he lags behind in understanding the sheer amount of effort, confidence, salesmanship it takes in his entire staff to be great at recruiting every position. His culture apparently isn't strong enough to prevent a consistently bad turnover margin (108th in the nation) or penalty yards (95th). His teams handle general adversity OK, but when they feel wronged — like Ameer Abdullah's lost fumble in the third quarter of the Capital One Bowl — or embarrassed, they struggle to overcome it.

And a disturbing stat embedded inside the Pelini defense's performance points to a problem that prevents the greatness Nebraska, and its shareholders, seek.

Heading into Monday's BCS national title game, here are NU's rankings in opponents' long plays from scrimmage:

>> 30-plus yards: 94th (29 plays)

>> 40-plus yards: 98th (16)

>> 50-plus yards: 111th (11)

>> 60-plus yards: 107th (6)

In 2010, Nebraska gave up 15 plays of 30 yards or more. In 2011, Nebraska gave up 21 plays of 30 yards or more.

Select big opponent running plays, and the numbers get worse:

>> 30-plus yards: 114th (13)

>> 40-plus yards: 121st (10)

>> 50-plus yards: 123rd (8)

>> 60-plus yards: 117th (4)

In 2010, Nebraska gave up four runs of 30 yards or more. In 2011, Nebraska gave up three runs of 30 yards or more.

These are astonishing changes. You can't win conference and national titles attached to those numbers. And you can't tie those numbers solely to personnel. Personnel is not tackling Todd Gurley on third down. Personnel isn't a bridge collapse twice per game.

I pose again the question I did a month ago: Who on Pelini's staff can provide a perspective on how to fix what's wrong that Pelini doesn't already have? Rick Kaczenski, who worked in Norm Parker's zone-based defense at Iowa, maybe could. Parker, who retired after the 2011 season, must have known something about stuffing the run, since the Hawkeyes have given up 10 runs of 30 yards or more in the past three years. That's three fewer than Nebraska gave up this year.

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Of course, Kaczenski left Iowa to work in Pelini's scheme. So who on NU's staff does that leave?

Maybe it could be defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who hasn't necessarily been around much, but lives and breathes the game. But the man Pelini's designated as his best defensive assistant stands mere feet from Bo on the sideline during games. They have the same vantage point, and it's Pelini, not Papuchis, who dialed up a seven-man blitz on third-and-12 even though Nebraska had stopped Georgia several times on third-and-long already.

Would a CEO in the business world want one of his two top vice presidents sitting in all same meetings, examining the exact same data from the same perspective?

Now, to the offense.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez is an elite running quarterback. He moved into that echelon in the Michigan State game. He's learned how to better protect the ball in traffic and subtly read defenders.

He's not there as a passer, especially when offensive coordinator Tim Beck's best calls have been used and defenses start to adjust.

Martinez's passing numbers in the first half of games this year: 69.6 percent completion rate, 1,769 yards, 14 touchdowns, five interceptions.

Second half numbers: 52.9 percent completion rate, 1,102 passing yards, nine touchdowns, seven interceptions.

Let's compare Martinez with the player I considered the Big Ten's best coached quarterback, Penn State's Matt McGloin.

McGloin's first-half split: 60.2 percent, 1,830 yards, 15 touchdowns, two interceptions.

McGloin's second-half split: 61.0 percent, 1,441 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions.

Notice the consistency in McGloin? And the inconsistency in Martinez? Don't put that all on the kid.

Some of it is offensive line play — tackles who couldn't protect Martinez as the game wore on. It was the second straight Capital One Bowl in which an SEC pass rush overwhelmed NU's line in the fourth quarter. Pelini pays two coaches to manage five guys.

More of it is quarterback coaching — getting Martinez to play the position better once he has to go away from the scouting report.

Pelini pays no one specifically to coach the most important position on the field; Martinez has to get offseason help from a private tutor. Beck and graduate assistant Joe Ganz tag-team the job now. If Ganz is the guy, Pelini could promote him, but I don't see any offseason changes in staff. Ganz's GA stint is up soon, anyway. Think of him as a freelance intern in the company. You either have to hire him — or let him go to another company.

Now, to recruiting.

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Pelini's had three recruiting coordinators in five years. The first was Professor Ted Gilmore, who spent a couple of years on his heels before finding his stride just as he left the program. Next was Papuchis, who opted for a swing-for-the-fences strategy that brought lots of big names to campus for official visits without closing on enough of them. Now it's Ross Els, who's challenged some old ideas, created tentpole weekends in the summer and the fall, and generally seems to be making headway.

But what's the settled world view of the staff? Is it to protect the western half of the Big Ten? Set up camp in Ohio? To build a team fit for the SEC North — which means recruiting a lot more in SEC country? Is it to maintain all ties in California and Texas? The answer seems to be all of the above. The industry's most diversified company.

That's an incredibly ambitious identity — great ambition defines Pelini's tenure here — but it'll be exhausting without the nation's biggest recruiting budget, won't it? NU doesn't have the nation's biggest budget, if you don't know. Might there be a less ambitious, equally productive tack to take?

There was a comment that struck me after the bowl game. Pelini said it, Papuchis said it, players did. Nebraska had to go back to work tomorrow. Not next week or next month. Tomorrow. As if Year 6 will be yet another building block on Year 5, a natural climb on the path to Big Ten and national titles.

But the business of Husker football seemed strained the last two months. Only Martinez's derring-do and the futility of Big Ten offenses allowed the Huskers to make good on Pelini's “win out” promise. But they were spent at the end of Iowa game, beleaguered against Wisconsin and ultimately overwhelmed against Georgia.

Inside its comfort zone, Nebraska resembled a sturdy, respectable regional company. Outside of it, Nebraska looked like a company that operates from the wrong suppositions and draws faulty conclusions. Save the easy response — just get better players — for college basketball. This is football. There are 150 people on that practice field. Each week in the fall, it's like writing a script, rehearsing the scenes and directing a movie live. It's a significant undertaking. And it crushes the average CEO.

Here is Pelini, at the juncture. A coach trying to revive a national brand. He has the facility resources, administrative support and the athletes. He has ambition to burn, a staff that doesn't backbite or snipe, and a roster that's bought fully into his vision. He wins nine or 10 games per year.

Even in this winter economy, the shareholders want a bigger return. It'll take more than Pelini's chutzpah to deliver it.

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