Nebraska Football: The Double-Edged Sword of Expectations

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It has not been easy to be a Nebraska fan in the last couple of decades. After three national titles in four years at the end of the 1990s, Nebraska’s football fortunes have fallen to the point where NU had three losing season in the last four years.

That’s been really hard on a fanbase, particularly when you add that failure on the field to the arrogance of Steve Pedersen, the immaturity of Bo Pelini, and the incompetence of Mike Riley. The football played, as well as the recruiting levels and (particularly) the development of talent has steered the program into a steady decline.

The arrival of native son Scott Frost as head coach pumped life and hope into the fanbase, but it didn’t result in immediate change on the field. Nebraska started last season at 0-6, and ended the season at 4-8.

These ongoing struggles would cast down into the hearts of any fanbase. Is the new landscape of college football really such that Nebraska’s time in the sunlight of national relevance is over? Is it time for Nebraska fans to finally give up the ghost of glories past and accept its new, lesser standing in the pantheon of college football?

Frost doesn’t think so, as he said in an interview with BTN (and quoted by Saturday Tradition):

“You know, I hear people worried about expectations for us,” said Frost. “I’m not too worried about it. I actually think it’s good for our football team. I think expectations have been way too low in Lincoln for way too long. Having expectations was just kind of life around here. I think it helps our guys. We need to be confident. We need to expect a lot out of ourselves.”

Why are expectations for a team like Nebraska so important? How can expectations of a fanbase – which, let’s be clear, has been the source of suffering throughout this new millennium – help a football program be successful?

Take a look to Nebraska’s neighbors to the east to find the answer.

https://twitter.com/TalkHuskers/status/1163821777954443264

Now, let’s be clear. Since the turn of the century, Iowa has been a better football program than Nebraska. Iowa has won more games, won more conference championships, and both gone to and won more bowl games than Nebraska. The Hawkeyes hold a four-game winning streak over their scarlet-and-cream neighbors to the west.

But there’s little question that Iowa and Nebraska simply have different perspectives of their place in the college football world. Iowa fans are comfortable with their place winning eight to nine games in a season, and enjoying the occasional run for glory when the stars align properly.

And sure, after what Nebraska fans have been through, most would move heaven and earth to get back to that level of success. But let’s be honest, that’s not the expectation level Nebraska fans have for their program in the long run. It’s not the expectation level that Frost has.

If you step back, Nebraska really has no business being amongst the giants of college football in the 21st century. Nebraska is a small, rural area with no natural recruiting bed upon which to rest. Without that, how could Nebraska hope to compete on that national stage?

The two things that at least give Nebraska a plausible chance at a higher ceiling are its history and its fanbase. Nebraska’s place as a historical blue-blood of college football acts as a magnifier for its success on the field – if a blue-blood like Nebraska (or Alabama or Notre Dame) begins winning, that program’s history will increase its visibility.

The other element that provides a higher ceiling for Nebraska is its fans. The expectation of a championship-level program is what drove a powerful local son like Pedersen out of the athletic director’s position. The expectation of success is what made the dismissal of a man like Pelini – who, let’s not forget, never won less than nine games – possible.

Nebraska fans have not waivered in that expectation, to have a championship-level football program. Those expectations are energy, the same energy that drove swarms of red-clad fans to take trains west in 1940 to see their mighty men play in the Rose Bowl, and have led Nebraska fans to sell out the last 368 consecutive home games.

That energy has been the source of great pain recently, of course, as the football team has fallen woefully short of expectations. But the energy of those expectations are what drove painful change within the athletic department – change that could have been avoided had those expectations not been present.

Of course, the challenge is to balance long-term expectations of a program with short-term expectations of a season’s outcome. It is possible to hold those lofty expectations for the program as a whole and still hold measured expectations for the coming season.

(This may or may not be foreshadowing next week’s season prediction column.)

But in the main, Frost is right. Expectations for any program – but particularly for a program like Nebraska – are a critical difference between a program that has a championship-level ceiling, and one that does not.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: A Thank-You Letter to Mike Riley

Mike Riley

Holding you I held everything

For a moment wasn’t I a king

But if I’d only known how the king would fall

Hey who’s to say you know

I might have changed it all

And know I’m glad I didn’t know

The way it all would end

The way it all would go

Our lives are better left to chance

I could have missed the pain

But I’d have to miss the dance

– “The Dance,” Garth Brooks

Dear Coach Riley:

I know this wasn’t the letter that you wanted to read, and it sure wasn’t the letter I wanted to write. But before you leave Lincoln, I want to tell you just how much I appreciate the three years you’ve been here.

Yeah, what happened on the field wasn’t what anyone wanted to see, and not at all what you thought your team would be producing. And as honorable and decent of a man and a leader you’ve been, you’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s a ruthless business. That in big-time college athletics, all the grace and honor in the world, all the graduation rates and great citizens you have on your team doesn’t outweigh the wins and losses on the field.

We both know that the cold lights of the scoreboard have no sympathy and provide no place to hide.

But that’s not why I’m writing you. What you’ve done here in three short years is something truly honorable and truly remarkable, and I want to make sure you know just how much it was appreciated.

As a fan base, we’ve kind of been a mess for a while now. You know all about the run we had in the late nineties, winning three national championships in four years under head coach Tom Osborne. You know that when Osborne retired, he handed the reins over to long-time assistant Frank Solich. And that’s where the trauma of our fanbase began.

Solich was a good man, and held with him a straight line to the history that we as fans hold so dear. He took us to a national championship game (although that one didn’t work out so well).

But after that, his team went 7-7 in 2002. Sadly, we’ve gotten a little used to records like that since 2002, but at that point we hadn’t seen anything like that in a generation – and we kinda lost our minds. Solich’s recruiting fell apart, and in November of 2003 then-athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich. In explaining Solich’s dismissal, Pederson said that he would not let the Nebraska program “gravitate into mediocrity.”

That was really the ultimate fracture of our fanbase. None of us had ever seen a coach fired growing up. We thought that was for “other programs” who didn’t have the advantages of Nebraska.

(As I know you’ve seen, we tend to think awfully highly of ourselves as a fanbase. There’s probably some good in that, but it also causes a lot of problems – and you in many ways fell victim to us and our perceptions of where the program “deserves” to be.)

About half of us thought the firing was necessary, and that Solich – good man and connection to the past – was not up for the job. The other half, though, viewed Solich’s dismissal – especially coming off a nine-win season, a topic we will see come up again – as a betrayal of Nebraska’s history.

That schism just simmered throughout the tenure of Bill Callahan, Solich’s replacement, a technocrat from the NFL who struggled to connect with the fans. Callahan’s lack of winning, combined with him changing Nebraska’s offense from the iconic option to a West Coast attack, furthered the schism caused by Solich’s firing. Fans in the “keep Solich” camp even took to wearing Ohio Bobcat gear – the school that hired Solich – to Memorial Stadium for home games as a means of protest.

Pederson became, put mildly, unpopular both inside and outside of the athletic department. In the middle of the 2007 season, Pederson was fired and Osborne took over as interim athletic director. As a result, the rest of the 2007 was a drama-filled endeavor wondering if Callahan would be fired.

I know, I know, sounds a lot like what you went through this year.

Callahan’s departure was filled with pique and disdain, and he became the target of the fanbase’s venom for a decade of frustration. Osborne replaced him with Bo Pelini, the guy who was Solich’s defensive coordinator in 2003.

I know you heard a lot about Pelini while you were in Lincoln. In some ways, his ghost haunted the offices at 10th and Vine. I know you heard all about how he never won fewer than nine games. I know you heard how his teams were routinely embarrassed when in the spotlight (ooh, look, Melvin Gordon just scored again).

And I know you heard about, well, what were generously described as his “antics” on the sideline. Combine that with him getting caught with a profane rant about Nebraska fans – and seven years of not winning the conference – and it added up to Pelini’s dismissal by then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

But it was what happened after Pelini’s dismissal that was the worst (at least, while he was at Nebraska). He said a whole bunch of stuff, but this is the quote that pretty much sums up what he left you to work with — with apologies for the language, that I suspect you would not approve of (as reprinted from the Omaha World-Herald).

It wasn’t a surprise to me. It really wasn’t. I didn’t really have any relationship with the AD. The guy — you guys saw him (Sunday) — the guy’s a total pussy. I mean, he is. He’s a total cunt.

And since I’ve been here — he’s been here for about two years — I’ve probably had a conversation with the guy a couple times. You saw him. He’s never been in the locker room.

At the end of the day, he was never going to support us. And he didn’t support us. You saw it. He was never going to come out in the paper and support (us).

So that was the cauldron you were walking into, with the kids in your locker room hearing that before you took over. You were an outsider, and you know how we feel about outsiders. You didn’t have a bunch of championship trophies on your mantle, although your record at a place as difficult as Oregon State has always been impressive.

You bore all of that with grace and dignity, never complaining once about the challenges you were handed when you arrived. You kept a level head and a calm demeanor even as you had so many close, gut-wrenching losses in your final season. You showed your team – and your fanbase – how to face adversity and struggle with class, dignity, and professionalism.

And then, Sam died.

I don’t know how you take a group of young men and help them through such a traumatic experience. But you did. You found a way to give those young men space to grieve, and find focus and purpose in the game they love as a way to honor the memory of their fallen friend. That quiet, loving, compassionate leadership you showed in the 2016 season is a model that all of us can aspire to if we are ever faced with such a horrendous challenge.

We call came out of that season, and into this one, with such optimism. You had your quarterback. You had fired your long-time friend Mark Banker as a defensive coordinator to show how serious you were to win and win big at Nebraska. You took risks, putting your career in Lincoln on the line to deliver wins on the field.

It didn’t work. And now you’re left to ponder what’s next for you after what you called your last great adventure. You have to, I imagine, be left regretting what could have been, as well as a feeling of disappointment that you couldn’t give us as a fanbase the success we wanted.

We’re disappointed too, of course. And speaking just for me, I feel a profound sense of sadness that your time with us has ended as it did.

But even as you left, you taught us. As opposed to Pelini, we saw a man stand up (in Nebraska colors, no less) and acknowledge his failing. We saw a man be thankful for the opportunity he was given, rather than feel the need to burn the house down to satisfy a petty need for revenge and self-aggrandizement.

This isn’t a eulogy for you, of course. You’re a young man, with a tremendous amount left to contribute to the game of football and to the broader world. Whether it’s being a grandfather or being a football coach, I have no doubt you will not only be successful at it, but that you will make all the people around you better for having the privilege of being with you.

Thank you, coach. As a fan who has just watched you from afar, I’ve never met you. But I have no doubt I’m a better person for having watched you closely these last three years. And I hope that the next time I am faced with disappointment in my life, I can respond to it they way you taught me as you left your final press conference here (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

It’s like that old song, I could’ve missed the pain but I would’ve missed the dance.

GBR, baby.

Photo courtesy of the Concord Monitor.