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Posted: Monday August 17, 2009 2:41PM; Updated: Monday August 17, 2009 3:35PM
George Schroeder George Schroeder >

Pelini has Huskers back on right track (cont.)

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Nebraska has only played two losing seasons in the last 45 years, both under Pelini's predecessor, Bill Callahan.
Nebraska has only had two losing seasons in the last 45 years, both under Pelini's predecessor, Bill Callahan.

Not surprisingly, others say similar things. But they can't ignore that when former athletic director Steve Pederson fired Frank Solich after the 2003 season, he famously said he wouldn't surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas. That, of course, was before he bungled the search process, hired Callahan and surrendered not only the conference, but also the division.

Callahan's demise, like most, was about too few wins and too many losses. But it was also about something more, about what many Nebraskans perceived as a wholesale dismantling of Husker football. "There's no place like Nebraska," goes the school song, and it's correct. There's no place more Joe College than Nebraska, at least. And perhaps no place where a football program is more important.

"As straight football, Nebraska is about as pure as you can get," said former Huskers quarterback Scott Frost.

Callahan was a nice guy and a decent enough coach, but when he came in from the NFL, it was like force-feeding soy milk to a dairy farmer. He installed a complicated West Coast offense, ill-suited for the talent on hand when he arrived. But that wasn't his undoing. In fact, Callahan's later teams proved passing was possible on the plains, and he won the North in 2006 behind junior-college transfer Zac Taylor.

Callahan's biggest mistake was ripping up the roots of the program. Even former players felt unwelcome. Longtime employees were let go. Pictures came down off the walls, traditions were discarded -- including a cherished, long-established walk-on program that had produced starters and occasional stars -- and a shared ownership of the program was lost.

"You don't take something that is the best in the country and do everything you can to change it," said Frost, who watched with dismay from afar.

Many shared Frost's sentiments. "Nebraskans place a lot of emphasis not only just on what happens, but they're also quite concerned with how it's done," said Osborne, now the athletic director.

The former coach returned to the program after a stint in politics, then retirement, because of what he called "a confluence of issues" and "some disturbance within the athletic department." This meant a lot of things, but mostly the focus was football.

"We lost some games where we really weren't competitive at all," Osborne said of 2007, Callahan's final season, when the Huskers lost to Missouri by five touchdowns, to Oklahoma State by 31 points, and gave up 76 points to Kansas. "That was kind of hard to watch, and that was something that people reacted against really strongly."

They reacted just as strongly in favor of Pelini, who had been Solich's defensive coordinator in 2003, and the Huskers' interim coach when they won the Alamo Bowl after Solich was let go. Fans clamored then that he should get the permanent job, but he didn't receive Pederson's genuine consideration.

Four years later, there wasn't much debate. Pelini spent a year at Oklahoma, then moved on to guide Les Miles' defenses at LSU, where he helped the Tigers smother Ohio State to win the BCS championship. Then he turned his full attention to rebuilding the Nebraska program -- and was embraced by fans and players who desperately needed a dose of confidence.

Pelini hails from Youngstown, Ohio, but might as well be from Grand Island. He comes across like a regular guy. Honest and direct, he looks you in the eye and keeps looking. He's blunt and focused and, well, if he's not a Nebraskan, he seems like one.

"Bo is very straightforward," Osborne said. "I don't think he's got any phoniness to him, and ... Nebraskans particularly appreciate that. They appreciate someone who is straight-talking and down to earth."

So if it feels like Husker football is back, Pelini's a big reason why. He's embraced the tradition, and there's a sense the natural order has been restored. His teams pass, by the way, and like everybody else, they'll spread you out. But the team philosophy preaches defense-first, and a ball-control offense, discipline and toughness. Especially toughness.

The old-fashioned approach might just work, especially in a conference currently caught up in fancy passing games and pinball wizardry.

Is Nebraska back? No, not yet. Yeah, Pelini and the Huskers managed nine wins last season, which was a nice debut. Maybe they're good enough to win the Big 12 North this season. But you might recall Solich got the boot after a nine-win season. At Nebraska, the standard is higher.

"People are excited, but we've got a long way to go," Pelini says. "How close we are, I don't know."

Nobody knows, really. Elite status is a few years off, if it comes. But Alberts, for one, has been watching closely -- and he likes what he sees.

"They go 9-4 (in '08), and it's a remarkable year," he said. "But all the talk is they're not back yet and they have a long way to go. That says they get it. There's a culture of excellence around the state, second to none.

"Bo has embraced that."

And that's why, though it may be early, Nebraska has embraced him.

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George Schroeder covers college football for the Eugene Register Guard and is the president of the FWAA.

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