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IF THIS IS going to work, if Tom Osborne and Bo Pelini are going to turn the new Nebraska back into the old Nebraska, the process had to start in a place like this, in the rural town of West Point (pop. 3,472). It had to begin with a Nebraska kid, a tough, hardworking high school player who has always been a Husker in his heart, a kid like linebacker Micah Kreikemeier. Now, Micah Kreikemeier might one day join the long line of legendary Nebraska stars, or he might be one of those Cornhuskers who never has a bigger college football highlight than the day the most famous man in the state called to offer him a scholarship. But one thing that Micah Kreikemeier almost surely will do is work his tail off the way Nebraska boys are expected to do, treasure the block N on the side of his helmet as if it were a big red ruby and make everyone in the state proud that he's one of their own. If you don't know how important all of that is, well, then you don't know Nebraska.
The last coach, the one Osborne dismissed in November, didn't know Nebraska—at least that's how most everyone in the state saw it. Bill Callahan might have known his football, but he didn't know his audience. He made some changes on the field, most notably scrapping the Cornhuskers' famed run-oriented, power-option offense for a pass-heavy West Coast attack, which would have been fine if he hadn't also jettisoned some longtime members of the football staff and made many of the former players feel like outsiders during his four years on the job.
Some say that Callahan and his boss, athletic director Steve Pederson—an alum and a Nebraska native who should have known better, for goodness' sake—built a fortress where a cozy family home used to be. Old players who had always been welcomed back like returning heroes whenever they wanted to look in on practice or visit the football offices suddenly had to go through layers of security just to gain entry to the athletic complex. "You couldn't get through the gate in the parking lot," says Eric Crouch, the former quarterback and 2001 Heisman Trophy winner. "You could never talk to Steve in person. People in Nebraska are good, old-fashioned people who want to see you face-to-face." It was so hard for ex-Huskers to get inside the program, literally and figuratively, that one even referred to the place as Fort Knox.
Whatever it was, it wasn't Nebraska. That, along with the Cornhuskers' 27--22 record over the last four years, including their first two losing seasons since 1961, is why Pederson and Callahan are gone.
In their place are Osborne, the 71-year-old athletic director, who went 255-49-3 and won three national titles during his 25 years as the Huskers' coach, and Pelini, 40, the new coach, fresh off a national championship season as LSU's defensive coordinator. They are men of different generations, with radically different personalities, who nonetheless have a shared understanding of their mission. It is not a stretch to say that Osborne and Pelini have been entrusted not just with Nebraska's football program but also with the state's self-esteem. "Nebraska football isn't just a program, it's a culture," says Pelini, who was the Huskers' defensive coordinator for a single season, in 2003, and lobbied for the head-coaching job when Frank Solich was fired after the final regular-season game that year. "I don't think you can overstate how much people in this state care about [the team's] success. A lot of their identity is tied up in how the football team does on Saturday, and they want to feel a sense of ownership in it. We take that very seriously."
There may be other parts of the country in which the passion for college football runs just as high as in Nebraska, but there is no other state in which the loyalty is so nearly unanimous. In Alabama, the Crimson Tide shares the state with Auburn; in Texas and Florida, pockets of different rooting interests are spread throughout each state. But the state of Nebraska has no other Division I football program and no major professional teams. The Huskers are not just the only game in town, they are also the only game in any town. When Nebraska plays a home game, Memorial Stadium (capacity 81,067) is effectively the third-largest city in the state, and the school's 289 consecutive sellouts (and counting) are an NCAA record. This Saturday the Huskers will play their spring game before what is expected to be a sold-out stadium. Ask the players and coaches how many Cornhuskers fans there are in Nebraska, and they will all tell you 1.8 million—the state population.
Now, old Nebraska wasn't a Shangri-la—anyone who remembers the legal troubles of players such as Lawrence Phillips and Christian Peter in the 1990s would have to admit that—but on the whole, Nebraskans were proud of their program under Bob Devaney, then Osborne and even his handpicked successor, Solich. And not just because those teams won. It was also because the program fit into the Nebraska ethos of hard work, straightforwardness and dignity. "The character of the football team grew out of the character of the state," says former fullback Mike O'Holleran.
That is why everyone who understands what Nebraska used to be, who Nebraska used to be, considered it a hopeful sign that less than an hour after he introduced Pelini as Nebraska's new coach on Dec. 2, Osborne dialed the Kreikemeier home. Like just about every boy in the state, Micah had grown up dreaming of playing for the Huskers, but he had just about given up hope. Iowa State and Kansas had shown some interest, but while Callahan was in charge, Nebraska had largely ignored him. Micah didn't have a lot of stars next to his name on the recruiting websites that rate players; he was just a tough, smart linebacker from West Point Central Catholic High whose father, Keith, had played for Osborne as a walk-on.
But one of the first things Osborne had done when he returned as interim AD two months earlier was to tell the previous staff to give him a list of about a dozen in-state kids who might be worthy of an offer, either as a scholarship player or a walk-on. Osborne liked the speed and instincts that the 6'3", 210-pound Kreikemeier showed on tape, and he liked the fact that Kreikemeier was from good Cornhuskers football stock—even Micah's high school coach, Dave Ridder, was a former Husker. Micah Kreikemeier was family, and that was important. Nebraska had always recruited nationally for the dynamic player (quarterbacks Jerry Tagge, Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier from Wisconsin, Texas and Florida, respectively; Heisman winner Mike Rozier from New Jersey), but the foundation was always built with in-state products, including Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers and Outland Trophy honorees Dave Rimington and Dean Steinkuhler.
When Micah picked up the phone on that December afternoon, Osborne didn't just offer him a scholarship. He asked how the family feedlot was doing, and he inquired about Ridder, and he told Micah that he was glad to keep him in the family. When Pelini called later that evening, he told Micah's parents that they were welcome in his office anytime. "Nothing against the old coaches, but I don't think I would have ever had a chance to play at Nebraska if Coach Osborne and Coach Pelini hadn't taken over," Kreikemeier says. "It just seems like I'm more their kind of player."