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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
January 9, 2009

With one year of Bo Pelini in the books, it appears that flouting conventional wisdom turned out to be a good thing for the Nebraska football program – at least as far as hiring the coaching staff was concerned.

Tom Osborne, after firing Bill Callahan, decided against hiring a proven head coach, confounding national observers and many Cornhusker fans. So instead of a Paul Johnson, Brian Kelly, Jim Grobe or Turner Gill, Nebraska got Pelini, a defensive coordinator with virtually no head coaching experience.

That was a tough call for Osborne, who no doubt faced the pressure that most high-level corporate execs feel. But if Osborne was tempted to cover his backside by making a "safe" hire, he resisted it. Instead, he chose someone he thought would solve the grievous problems that had developed on the defensive side of the ball under Callahan and Kevin Cosgrove.

Bypassing Gill had to be a gut-wrenching decision for Osborne. After all, Dr. Tom stood up as best man at Gill's wedding. Gill likely would have done a good job as head coach for the Huskers, but Pelini was a better fit for the situation he inherited. He did what Husker fans hoped he could do: take most of the same players Callahan and Cosgrove had mismanaged, and win with them.

Pelini pulled Nebraska football out of its worst tailspin in half a century. My expectations aren't quite as high with Barack Obama and the economy.

The Cornhuskers got healthy in a hurry under Pelini, just as they did under Bob Devaney in 1962, and Nebraska improved from 5-7 to 9-4 while lacking speed on defense and while finishing 107th out of 119 teams in Division I-A in turnover margin (minus-0.84 per game). Those deficiencies will be addressed in the off-season.

Mainly because of his hot-blooded temperament, Pelini was a bit of a risk for Osborne. Early in the season, it appeared that Pelini's raw emotion might be a liability, especially when he was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty Sept. 27 that helped Virginia Tech score the game-clinching touchdown in a 35-30 win. But Pelini has curbed his Devaneyesque temper enough to keep an even keel on the sideline. (I read earlier this fall that Osborne had admonished Pelini about his language, but a source who says he knows the Pelinis told me Jan. 10 that the head coach's family, not Osborne, provided the impetus for the change.)

Pelini outshone all other major-college first-year head coaches, although Steve Fairchild at Colorado State deserves a lot of credit for what he did with the Rams (7-6) this fall. If you expand the search to coaches in their first year at their current school, you'd have to give the nod to Johnson, who moved from Navy to Georgia Tech, and went 9-4, beating a pair of rated teams along the way, including cross-state rival Georgia. Close behind is Houston Nutt, who took Ed Orgeron's recruits and had a good year at Mississippi (also 9-4). But I like the fact that Pelini is 41 years old, and likely has more seasons left on the sideline than do Johnson and Nutt (both 51). Pelini will make a few more mistakes next fall than those two, but that, too, will change with the passing years.

Nebraska looks set for coaching stability. The Huskers probably will not have to endure what Boston College is going through right now with Jeff Jagodzinski, who was fired after interviewing with the New York Jets against the wishes of his AD after just two years on the job at BC. When he selected Pelini, Osborne got a coach who by all indications, truly wants to be head coach at Nebraska for the long haul.

Check me in five years to see if I'm wrong, but I get the feeling Pelini will not be interviewing with NFL teams anytime soon. In December 2007, he told his defensive players at LSU that Nebraska was his "dream job." He negotiated his contract without an agent. That could mean he's nave and inexperienced, or possibly that he trusts Osborne and is one of those grown-up sports figures who could (gasp!) learn to be content with a salary that already exceeds a million dollars a year.

Most new coaches want to clean house and only work with "their guys," but Pelini showed wisdom in retaining two of Callahan's coaches on his own staff – offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Ted Gilmore. Watson showed flexibility to modify his play-calling and formation preferences to fit the talents of his players and kept the NU offense in the top 20 nationwide. Husker recruiting seems to be gaining momentum under Gilmore's watch. The class of 2009 looks like it will be a solid one, hopefully with a dominant defensive tackle still to emerge.

Among his other assistants, Pelini has a good nucleus of hard-core motivational types (old-school Ron Brown and new-school Mike Ekeler). His brother, Carl Pelini, put together one of the better defensive lines in NU history, turning Ndamukong Suh from the Big 12's "biggest underachiever" (according to The Sporting News preseason magazine) into an all-conference lineman.

The efforts of Ty Steinkuhler, Zach Potter, Pierre Allen, Terrance Moore, Clayton Sievers, Shukree Barfield and Jared Crick were the main reason the Huskers finished as well as they did. The Huskers gained more confidence with their bowl performance than did any other conference team.

If any Big 12 program is on the upswing, it's Nebraska. Let the Pelini year 2 discussions rage.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
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