Nutty in Nebraska
If Bill Callahan is the answer, what's the question?
Posted: Saturday January 10, 2004 11:28AM; Updated: Saturday January 10, 2004 11:44AM
One of the more harrowing moments in the life of an athletic director has to be trying to hire a football coach and having grown men reject your millions. Nebraska AD Steve Pederson is a sharp guy, but he'd have had better luck the last month handing out scriptural leaflets at 3 in the morning on the Vegas Strip.
You wondered if the beef had gone rancid in Lincoln. Or if maybe Pederson's prime choice -- perhaps a pro coach with deep college roots, like Miami Dolphin head coach Dave Wannstedt -- didn't become available as planned. To get rejected by NFL coordinators Al Saunders and Mike Zimmer, not to mention Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, has to be an embarrassment to the once mighty Cornhuskers.
And the hiring of Bill Callahan, freshly canned by the Oakland Raiders after a 4-12 season that saw his players turn against him, shouldn't fire up the faithful. Which makes you wonder if firing Frank Solich after a 9-3 season was such a smart move. In the bigger picture, let's consider how far and why Nebraska has fallen from college football's high-rent district.
"I don't know what the pull is with Callahan. Bill Callahan is out of a job," one college coach told us. "They kept saying they were going to get a big-name coach. I mean, is Al Saunders a big-name coach? People who are not in the football world would not even recognize the name."
Callahan may simply have been miscast with Al Davis' NFL crew. Set him down in the quiet of Lincoln and he may turn into the next Tom Osborne or Bob Devaney. But right now, the Pederson-run search is being lampooned in college circles, and that may be in part because of his eagerness to go the NFL route.
The consensus is he didn't win many friends by firing Solich after a 10-win season (if you count the Huskers' bowl victory). And the lofty expectations may have turned potential candidates off.
"I don't know what the negative is, other than I keep hearing that if you don't win the national championship or do what other folks have done, Tom [Osborne] and Bob Devaney, then they're not going to want you," said Houston athletic director Dave Maggard. "I know you can win a lot of games there. The big question is whether or not it is a job where you can go and people can be satisfied."
Even before the public rejections, former player-turned-ESPN analyst Trev Alberts defended his alma mater and pronounced it one of the top five jobs in the college game. A good job, yeah. But you could argue that in today's fluid landscape it fails to even crack the top 10, based on criteria such as salary, recent success, location, recruiting base, fan support and potential to contend for national titles.
For argument's sake, we'll provide what we see as today's top 10 in alphabetical order:
"To me, Nebraska still fits in the top 10," contends Terry Bowden, the former coach-turned-analyst. "Regardless of what people say, you don't win three championships in the last decade and somehow go bad. The right coach goes in there and does the exact same thing that [Bob] Stoops does, if he knows what he is doing, 'cause that program has never been as down as Oklahoma was before he went in.
"That means you go to Los Angeles, Dallas, New Jersey and bring recruits back, show them all those national championship rings. And they're not all 20, 30, and 40 years old, either, like Notre Dame. Those suckers are within the last 10 years."
The problem is Callahan doesn't walk into a ready-made recruiting base. This isn't set up perfectly as it is for Ohio State and the three Florida schools, where you walk out the door and accidentally stumble into top recruits. Face it, Lincoln in January isn't South Beach, Athens or even Norman.
Nor is this the old Big Eight Conference, where it came down to beating Oklahoma for the conference title. The Big 12 has ushered Texas and Texas A&M into the mix. And some old rivals, particularly Kansas State, play a dramatically better game.
What makes one job more attractive than another, along with the fat contracts now paid at places like Oklahoma and Texas, is the latest won-loss record. The knock on Southern Cal until Pete Carroll turned it around was you couldn't recruit there any more because it was an urban campus. Even Oklahoma's coaching searches floundered before hitting on Stoops.
Miami, after a couple lean NCAA probation years, is back as the flavor-of-the-month program. Larry Coker isn't a $2 million-a-year coach and the private college doesn't have the fan base or facilities of a Nebraska. But its last three coaches -- Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis -- parlayed their Miami success into lucrative NFL deals.
"It's funny, coaches couldn't care less how big the stadium is or how many fans there are," Bowden said. "Can I win games and do they pay a good salary? That is what they care about first. And nobody can recruit like Miami. It is hands down the best job. All you have to do is look at the number of first-round draft choices and the five national championships in the last 20 years."
Others can debate the best coaching job or program, but now it's up to Callahan to get Nebraska back in that conversation.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.