History of Nebraska football coach hirings and firings ignite cases of spoilers, déjà vu

Former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan was part of a long coaching search for the Huskers following the firing of Frank Solich. 

Nebraska football has had 32 coaches and mentors in its illustrious history. Each has had his own story of triumphs and shortcomings, etching out his own unique page in the always-growing Husker history book.

Well, maybe some aren't so unique.

Here are how a few previous coaches found their way to Lincoln, and how some found their way back out. You may notice some similarities along the way.

* * *

Bernie Masterson

Bernie Masterson, after being welcomed with open arms in 1946, coached the Huskers for just two seasons. The former Husker played under previous Hall of Fame coach Dana X. Bible and was the athletic board's top choice to replace George "Potsy" Clark, who went 4-5 in 1945. Masterson's salary was $8,000 in Year 1, $9,000 in Year 2 and $10,000 in each of the final three seasons.

"Bernie Masterson is coming back among the home folk," John Bentley wrote in the Dec. 6, 1945, edition of The World-Herald, which announced the hiring of Masterson. "This announcement was greeted in almost every section of the commonwealth with those two famous words: 'Hoo Ray!'

"Those who demanded a name coach may be disappointed. Fortunately, Bernie will have at least five years to prove his gridiron precepts."

Well, not quite.

The downhill spiral started soon after 1947 began. In the Jan. 28, 1947, edition of The World-Herald, Sports Editor Floyd Olds commented on the resignation of two Husker assistant coaches, Glenn Presnell, who retired, and Gomer Jones, who took a job at Oklahoma.

“Loss of Jones to another Big Six school is painful, because there was a time when any job on the Nebraska staff was more attractive than a similar position on any other conference campus. And it isn’t just the Sooner job offered more money ... Nebraska could have matched the Sooner offer in salary without hurting its athletic budget. But Jones would have departed anyway. He simply thought the future looked better at Oklahoma. ... In Jones’ mind, at least, something is wrong about Nebraska’s athletic setup, somewhere along the line."

The following season added to the frustrations for a fan base hungry for a return to success. The Huskers had finished with a winning record in 20 of 21 seasons from 1920 to 1940. By 1947, NU was in the midst of its seventh consecutive losing season.

Nebraska went on to lose its final game to Oregon State, concluding a 2-7 season that saw the Huskers go 0-5 at home.

Still, in the Dec. 5 World-Herald, a headline read "Masterson Fields 'Too Much Blame,'" citing injuries and lack of experience for the team's shortcomings. The defense of Masterson came from Bentley, director of athletic publicity at Nebraska.

In that same edition, the moment of Masterson's eventual downfall was published. NU's coach went on a tirade on a local radio program, blaming the alumni, fans, press and radio for the losing stretch.

Gregg McBride in a column addressed each topic.

"First, the alumni. This body is one of the strong bulwarks of any successful athletic organization. These are the men and women whose sons are counted upon to man varsity teams. These are the men and women whose enthusiasm helps make a university great.

"Second, the fans. These are the men and women who pay their money at the gate and whose financial support makes possible an intercollegiate program. Their money, indirectly, makes it possible for coaches to receive substantial salaries.

"Third, the press. These are the reporters who are asked to interpret and report the progress of the team and record the game proceedings. In view of the miserable showing made by Coach Masterson's teams the last two seasons, the only charge that could be leveled at the press would be that most of the writers were 'too charitable' toward Bernie and his aids.

"Fourth, the radio. Bernie probably dug deep for this one as the men at the microphone certainly have been doing their level best to keep the last 18 games interesting 'from a Nebraska viewpoint.' Their coloring of reports in several instances was so terrific they had me believing Nebraska actually had won several games which were lost by decisive margins."

Effective March 1, 1948, Bernie Masterson quit, stating "Circumstances beyond my control and yours make it seem advisable to me, after very careful deliberation, that I submit my resignation ... I take this step with but one thought in mind — the welfare of my alma mater."

Nebraska Chancellor R.G. Gustavson added "The real principle involved here goes past the football seen. I regret that Mr. Masterson has resigned because of the pressure from a segment of public opinion which by no stretch of the imagination was unanimous over the state."

Masterson was replaced by the man he took over for, Clark.

* * *

Bill Glassford

The World-Herald scooped everyone when it came to Bill Glassford's hiring.

Even the University of Nebraska.

As written by Floyd Olds in the Jan. 30, 1949, edition of The World-Herald:

"Before the regents had made any announcement, we learned that the decision had been made. We phoned Glassford at his Durham, N.H., home, and reached him more than an hour before the job formally was offered."

After being issued a congratulations, Glassford responded "Certainly I'll accept, in a hurry. I'm delighted to come to Nebraska. The opportunities there are wonderful. I'll be able to leave almost immediately, as soon as I can catch my breath and realize my dream actually is coming true."

The overall reaction, from writers, fans and players, was that Glassford was an intelligent coach who would be a strong fit for Nebraska.

And, to start, he certainly was.

Glassford went 4-5 in his first season and in 1950 led NU to its first winning season in a decade. However, in his last five seasons, Glassford went 21-28-2. Still, his contract called for a five-year option that he could opt into.

He didn't. Abuse is cited as one of the reasons Glassford elected not to return to the NU sidelines.

"It is known that during the past two years Mrs. Glassford and young son Gary have been subjected to considerable abuse by persons apparently anxious to pressure the coach into resigning," Gregg McBride wrote in the Nov. 17, 1955 edition of The World-Herald. "This abuse became so great the last two years the Glassford phone has been disconnected almost every night."

* * *

Frank Solich

Frank Solich's Nebraska roots are well known, which allowed him to step in the program's biggest shoes upon Tom Osborne's retirement.

The decision to let Solich go was met with as many mixed responses in 2003 as in 2017.

The World-Herald's Dirk Chatelain rounded up responses, including from then-I-Back Cory Ross.

"Everybody thought somebody had died," Ross said. "This is like a big thing. It's not just rumors in the papers. We don't have a coach right now. It's crazy."

Steve Kriewald, a junior fullback at the time, said it wasn't fair and that Solich got a "raw deal."

Outside of Husker nation, then-Utah coach Urban Meyer had a strong opinion.

"Can you believe they fired him with nine wins?" Meyer said. "I tell you what: College athletics are screwed up right now."

Opinions on the matter had the state divided, and, in some cases, even individuals. World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel, immediately following Nebraska's 31-22 win over Colorado, wrote that NU should retain Solich for another season.

"With his job on the line, and distractions lined up from the Flatiron mountains to the Flatiron Cafe in Omaha, Solich came, saw and kicked Buff. ... How do you fire a guy who wins nine games? ... It's time for Athletic Director Steve Pederson to come out of the woodwork and say something. What that something should be is that Solich is his man, at least for another year."

A day later, after the emotions of a victory over Colorado had settled, Shatel reevaluated his thinking.

"It was easy to write that Solich deserves another season, with a 9-3 season, even though I've known all along that Pederson's decision was never about a record or number of wins. It was about 'direction' and 'improvement.'

"Let's be honest. It was never going to include Frank Solich."

* * *

Bill Callahan

"We want Bo! We want Bo! We want Bo!" fans chanted after the Huskers' 2003 Alamo Bowl victory, which Pelini coached. They'd have to wait.

Nationally, several rumors of who would be the next NU coach were swirling. Names like Pelini, Al Saunders, Urban Meyer, Houston Nutt, Mike Zimmer and Brad Childress, among others, were mentioned.

But none of then-Athletic Director Steve Pederson's list ended up on the sidelines of Tom Osborne Field.

"Maybe Pederson's ego got in the way, making him think he could get anyone he wanted," Shatel wrote on Jan. 3, 2004. "Maybe this job isn't as good as Pederson thinks, although, at $2 mill a year, it ain't bad, either."

But even that price wasn't enough for Nutt, who said his heart was in Arkansas — although Pederson later said that the job hadn't been offered to anyone, let alone for that dollar figure, by Day 35 of the search.

Fans weren't happy with the wait, which had surpassed five weeks.

In a Voice from the Grandstand piece, Omaha's Daren Schrat wrote "I think since Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt declined Steve Pederson's offer, then NU should hire deposed Oakland Raiders Coach Bill Callahan. That way, Callahan would move from coaching the "dumbest team in America" to working for the dumbest athletic director in America."

By Jan. 7, 2004, the first connection between Callahan and Nebraska was made. And finally, on Day 41, Callahan was hired to a six-year deal with an annual salary close to $1.5 million. But the fit was never quite right.

Featuring a West Coast offense, he went 27-22 in four seasons, missing out on bowl games in 2004 and 2007 and going 12-12 in conference play. His 2007 team gave up 38 points per game, including 40-plus on six occasions.

Tom Osborne made a quick decision after Callahan's final game, a 65-51 loss to Colorado, to look elsewhere.

Shatel summed up the era with one paragraph.

“Someone asked if I felt bad for Callahan," he wrote. "Well, you never want anyone to lose a job. And I don't think it was his fault that he was hired here, that his system was a bad fit, that it was all ill-fated. It was a hire of desperation by Steve Pederson. Callahan was offered NU football. He took it."

* * *

Bo Pelini

Bo Pelini's ties to Nebraska — he was the defensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2003 — and his noteworthy defenses at LSU landed him the head coaching job in Lincoln.

The welcoming was, for the most part, gracious among Husker faithful, but skeptics existed nationwide.

"It's a gamble, of course," Tom Shatel wrote in the Dec. 20, 2007, edition of The World-Herald. "And not everyone in college football is impressed. ESPN.com graded the recent hires in college football and gave Nebraska a C-plus, offering that it looked like NU settled for comfort when it could have found a better coach.

"We're happy to have you, Coach. Better late than never."

And it was his passion that stood out during an ugly departure, along with his consistent record, meltdowns and friction with the media, fan base and athletic department.

From a wins and losses point of view, Pelini went down in Husker history as the third-winningest coach with a record of 67-28. Only Bob Devaney (101) and Osborne (255) have more for NU. He never won less than nine games in a season but also never more than 10 — more consistency.

The division hit its peak in September 2013 when Deadspin released an audio tape of Pelini tearing into the fans and local media, including Shatel — you can read Shatel's response and listen to that tape here. Warning, there's offensive language.

On Nov. 29, 2013, Pelini and the Huskers were on the wrong end of a 38-17 game against Iowa, which featured Pelini drawing a flag for swiping his hat at an official and a postgame press conference where the coach said: “If they want to fire me, go ahead. I believe in what I’ve done.”

A year later, following a comeback victory over the Hawkeyes, then-Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst delivered the news.

"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.

"Although we did win a bunch of games, we didn't win the games that mattered the most. We gave Coach ample time, ample resources and ample support to get that done, and now we're headed in a different direction."

Pelini wasn't going out silently, though, delivering one last profane audio tape that called out his A.D. Again, warning for explicit content.

Did Nebraska make the right decision to fire Mike Riley?

The Huskers decided to move on from Mike Riley today. Do you think Nebraska made the right choice?

You voted:

Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.