Bo Pelini has been under heavy alumni fire since his first loss of the season, which came in the third week, against a ranked opponent, UCLA. The fire seemed to be subsiding in recent weeks. But then came a multi-part meltdown Friday as his Nebraska Cornhuskers lost to Iowa 38-17 to finish the regular season 8-4.
The Huskers trailed 14-3 at halftime, and when an ESPN sideline reporter approached Pelini and asked about a couple of interceptions, the coach erupted: “What kind of question is that?” He fled the reporter, who pursued him but was unable to elicit further comment.
In the second half, Pelini blew up at an official, swinging his hat close to the ref’s face.
Pelini managed to make things even worse in his postgame press conference, lashing out at the media for continual devotion to the story line that his job is in jeopardy. “You guys have chosen to make a story of it all year,” he said. “It’s hurt our football team.”
As for the prospect of his termination, Pelini said, “If they want to fire me, go ahead.”
Shawn Eichorst, the first-year athletic director, felt compelled to issue a statement of support for the besieged coach: “We very much look forward to our upcoming bowl game and coach Pilini continuing to lead our program in the future.”
At first glance, that may seem like an assurance that Pelini’s job is safe. But reading between the lines, it looks like he needs to win a bowl game to secure his job. Otherwise, why would Eichorst mention the bowl game in the same sentence as the coach’s job status? Seems like an obvious connection.
It’s understandable that Pelini feels he’s being treated unfairly. His overall record at Nebraska is 57-24, for a win percentage of 70.4. Most colleges would be happy with that.
But not Nebraska. Husker Nation still views itself as a football titan capable of winning national championships, as it did three times in the 1990s under Tom Osborne.
Pelini’s commitment to defense and the running game is very similar to Osborne’s, and it seems to make sense for a Big Ten team that plays much of the time in windy and cold weather. But many question if that approach suits these times, when explosive passing games seem essential to compete at the highest level.
Further, Pelini severely damages his cause with his imprudent behavior. His problems began early in the season when he was caught on tape making disparaging comments about Nebraska fans. Eichorst was not happy about that.
Friday’s outburst at a reporter and a game official adds to the perception that Pelini lacks the composure you like to see in a head football coach.
No doubt winning is the main determinant of a coach’s popularity, but it is not the only thing. The head coach is also the main ambassador of the university; no one else has as much contact with the media and the public.
Boorish behavior may be tolerated if a coach is extremely successful (Woody Hayes comes to mind). But a 70 percent winner needs to act better if he expects to hang on at a place with the football tradition of Nebraska.