Nebraska Football: Why Frank Solich was Better at Nebraska than Bo Pelini

It’s May, and we’re in the midst of a global pandemic that have pretty much shut down all live sports and made us all consider how many times we can re-wear a pair of sweatpants before they absolutely, positively have to be washed (spoiler alert: it’s nine, absent an unfortunate incident with the nacho cheese dip).

So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise when Nebraska fans lost their collective minds for a bit when Sports Illustrated posted an article called “Bo Pelini Unfiltered” in which he … said some things about his time in Lincoln.

I’m kinda done litigating Pelini the coach at Nebraska. He had some amazing successes and strong support from many of his players, but also had his glaring failings and unforgivable immaturity.

But in all the hullabaloo, I was scrolling through Twitter (which, I know, is bad for your health) and saw a Nebraska skeptic admonishing the fanbase to appreciate Pelini as the best Nebraska coach not named Osborne or Devaney. My immediate reaction (because it’s Twitter, duh) was “Frank Solich on line 2 for you.”

That got me to thinking, though. Is that a defensible position? Was Solich’s time at Nebraska’s better than Pelini’s? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

SolichPelini
Years in charge67 (plus one game in 2003)
Record58-1958-23
Win percentage.753.716
Bowl appearances57
Bowl record2-34-3
Conference titles10
Nat’l Championship appearances10

I thought it was amazing that when you added in the one extra game Pelini coached as an interim, both Pelini and Solich won the same number of games – Solich in six years, Pelini in seven plus a game.

In the one stat that really matters, then, wins-and-losses, Solich was fairly significantly better than Pelini. But, Pelini defenders will argue (after they finish swearing at you) the program was in a much different place when Pelini took over than when Solich did.

And at some level, that’s fair. Solich was handed the keys to a national championship program and finished his last two seasons with a 16-10 record. Pelini took over a program scarred by the tenure of Steve Pederson and Bill Callahan, and inherited a fanbase still bitterly divided over Solich’s firing.

Having said that, though, it’s not like Solich didn’t have his own problems. Imagine trying to take over from a legend like Tom Osborne. That’s an impossible task for almost anyone to achieve – which makes Osborne’s success that much more remarkable after succeeding Bob Devaney.

And it’s not like the cupboards were bare when Pelini took over. Callahan had his flaws as a head coach, but he was the best pure recruiter Nebraska’s ever had (although Scott Frost might give him a run for his money if things turn around for him on the field). While Pelini’s tenure was marked by a maddening stability in the win and the loss column (which might be the only time you’ll see the phrase “Pelini’s tenure” and “stability” in the same sentence), Nebraska’s talent level dropped as Callahan’s recruits graduated and Pelini’s recruits took over.

So both Solich and Pelini had their challenges and had their advantages when taking over in Lincoln. And the hard, cold numbers show that Solich did better with his time in charge than Pelini did. Solich had a better win percentage than Pelini. Solich, not Pelini, is responsible for Nebraska’s last conference title. Solich, not Pelini, got Nebraska to a national title game. Sure, the Miami national title game was ugly for Nebraska, but Pelini’s appearance in a conference title game was oh god Melvin Gordon just scored again.

Then, we come to the final act for both Solich and Pelini at Nebraska. When Solich was fired, much of the Nebraska fanbase was irate and outraged. Solich had a perfect opportunity to play the martyr and get back at an athletic department that I am sure he felt did him wrong. Instead, he chose to respond with grace and dignity, not rubbing salt in the wounds of his alma mater.

Pelini? Not so much. Really, not so much.

 (I really hate linking to what is now Zombie Deadspin, but this article was from 2013 when the site still was something to admire. At least that’s how I’m rationalizing it.)

And I think that counts in judging between the two men. One acted for the good of others and minimized the damage done to the players formerly in his charge. One acted selfishly and childishly, poisoning the well for the coach that would next lead the players formerly in his charge.

That is, at least in part, why Solich has become a stable and respected head coach at Ohio, while Pelini has spent the last thirteen years of his career to end up … right where he was before he took the Nebraska job in 2007.

I’ll lay my cards on the table, I thought it was the right decision to fire both Solich and Pelini at the time. Solich’s team was clearly falling behind in recruiting, and neither the team nor the fanbase could survive Pelini’s toxicity without trophies to show for it.

But in looking back at their tenures in Lincoln, I think it’s pretty clear that Solich’s tenure in Lincoln was better than Pelini’s. Take that, Twitter.

GBR, baby.

One thought on “Nebraska Football: Why Frank Solich was Better at Nebraska than Bo Pelini

  1. Well said. One thing I personally feel isn’t discussed enough in Pelini’s failure as a coach at Nebraska is the absolute lack of any sense of culture or identity he instilled in his teams. I mean, this was apparent off the field, but even more so on. When the offense took the field, what was the strategy? What plan did they have beyond “Snap the ball and just hope that someone (Taylor, Tommie, Abdullah, Burkehead, Bell, Westerkamp, anybody?) does something amazing”? How would you even describe their goals to someone? Same on defense. Early on, the plan was clear: get pressure up front (not hard to do when you have Suh and Crick coming up the middle) to stop the run and dare the other team to throw against a strong secondary. But again, towards the end (probably in large part due to diminishing talent), that, too, seemed to devolve into “Hope for the best.” If Gregory doesn’t get a sack or a pressure, or Gerry or Jean-Baptiste doesn’t make a great play, what’s the backup plan? It was a strategy built around stars for a team that had almost none.

    That’s why I’ve always been far less critical of Riley’s era than most I know. Not only did he inherit a team with, at best, marginal talent (in one of his Carriker Chronicles, I think after the Ohio State game in 2016, he mentioned that something like 23 of the Huskers’ 24 starters hadn’t received an offer from a single other Power Five school), but a team that, seems to me as a layman, largely unsound, undisciplined, and unfocused. Obviously, he shares a lot of responsibility for his teams’ failures, but he was dealt a heck of a bad hand coming in.

    In any long-term endeavor, having a plan is essential. Otherwise, you’re just doing… things. And that always seemed to me to be the case with Pelini. If we just… do things HARDER next time, we’ll have more success! Is it any wonder that the program was no better off (in terms of record, statistics, ranking, recruiting, or national perception) in year seven than in year one?

    Thankfully, Frost carries himself like a man with a plan. We’ll see if he can execute it, but, at the very least, when his team takes the field, I know what they want to do.

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