photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans know that seasons—and careers—turn on fine margins. Even coming off a number of bad losses, Nebraska was still just a few plays away from making that next step. One play going the wrong way in a championship game, keeping Nebraska from finally winning that elusive conference title. A fumble by a wide receiver at the end of a critical game costing Nebraska a much-needed win. If both of those plays go the other way, the status of the Nebraska program looks very different.
Boy, that Bill Callahan guy was close, wasn’t he?
I know, the opening of this column sounds like Bo Pelini’s near-misses, against Texas (and Oklahoma, really) in the Big 12 title game, and last week’s loss to Minnesota. But Callahan, the man who has become a cartoon villain amongst many Nebraska fans, has a resume that looks eerily similar.
Conference title near-miss? In 2006, Nebraska faced Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Midway through the third quarter, the score was tied 14-14 and Nebraska had Oklahoma in a third-and-long inside its own five yard line. With the statistical advantage on both offense and defense, a stop for the Blackshirts on that play gives NU the ball with great field position, momentum, and a clear chance to get the conference title monkey off its back. A win in that game puts Nebraska back on the map in Callahan’s third season, potentially changing the trajectory of the program. A stop on that third down goes a long way towards that win.
Instead, Paul Thompson hits Jermel Greshman for a 35-yard completion and converts the first down. The Sooners end up with a 99-yard touchdown drive and squeeze the life out of Nebraska, 21-7.
A late-game wide receiver turnover costing Nebraska a much-needed win? Look back to 2006 again, when Nebraska faced no. 5 Texas. With 2:23 left in the game, Nebraska held a 20-19 lead and had the ball, looking to get its first win over the Longhorns since 1999. But Terrence Nunn, after hauling in a Zac Taylor pass, lost a fumble to Texas’ Aaron Ross.
Texas drove the short field for a field goal, and Nebraska’s last-second comeback fell short, leaving NU once again coming oh-so-close to a huge win.
Of course, the analogies aren’t perfect. Pelini’s loss to Texas in 2009 was probably closer to glory than Callahan’s loss to Oklahoma in 2006. Pelini’s loss to Minnesota this year is almost certainly worse than Callahan’s loss to the no. 5 rated Longhorns in 2006.
Most importantly, Pelini is not Callahan—although his “I haven’t forgotten how to defend the run” quote after the 2011 win over Wisconsin (from Huskers.com) might hang around his neck in the same way Callahan’s “I’m doing an excellent job in every area” quote did in 2007 (from the Lincoln Journal-Star). Pelini has never missed a bowl game—indeed, he’s never won fewer than nine games in a season. Up until last week, he had not lost consecutive conference games since 2009.
The point is that football seasons turn on fine margins. We remember Callahan’s four years at the helm in Lincoln as an unmitigated disaster. And, given how the 2007 season ended, there’s good reason to look back in horror at what unfurled under his leadership.
But the smoke from the blazing hulk of the 2007 can obscure how close Callahan came to turning the metaphorical corner at Nebraska. Much like Pelini, Callahan was fingertips (literally, with Nunn’s fumble) away from a career-defining moment.
The fact remains, though, that those moments never happened, that corner never got turned. Being close to greatness isn’t greatness, just as being part of an entourage doesn’t make you a star.
Callahan had four years of getting close before a seven-loss season (along with near-universal loathing for his boss, former athletic director Steve Pederson) cost him his job. Pelini has had seven years. He’s had the same agonizingly-close brushes with glory as Callahan—along with the hide-the-children debacles on national television.
What Pelini hasn’t had is a seven-loss disaster like Callahan did in 2007. Whether that’s enough to keep him for year eight is up to current athletic director Shawn Eichorst.