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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
December 29, 2009

 
You could call it the Decade of the Downturn. The Time of Turbulence. The Age of the Average.

For 40 years, Nebraska was the standard of excellence in major college football. Then, it happened. The bubble burst. If you study probabilities, I suppose it was inevitable, and this is the decade it happened.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it could have been much worse, and will likely get better very soon.

The dropoff in Nebraska football was profound, but not cataclysmic. The Cornhuskers did not become terrible; they became ordinary. They lost their distinctiveness. The one person most responsible, ironically, was someone who had gone on record saying that Husker football was not going to “gravitate toward mediocrity” on his watch.

During the 2007 Homecoming game against Oklahoma State, the day we saw Nebraska football hit its rock-bottom point of the past half-century, some hardcore Husker unfurled a “Surrender Steve Pederson” banner in the South Stadium. That prophetic voice spoke for more than a million Big Red fans nationwide.

It’s because of fans like him that I will remember the 2000s as the decade of high expectations. Through it all, there was at least one constant. Nebraska football fans — the large majority of them — never gave in to the idea that they needed to lower the bar. They refused to buy the line that says the Huskers will never be able to consistently compete at the highest levels. Some people have said that the Huskers can’t be a frontrunner anymore in the Big 12, but they seem strangely silent after watching Nebraska take Texas to the mat in the 2009 conference title game while playing with one hand — its offense — tied behind its back.

They just won’t accept mediocre football at Nebraska. They’ll never get used to it. It will be a source of tremendous conflict until the situation is resolved, and that’s what happened in Lincoln. The threat of a fan mutiny and financial havoc, the probability that the consecutive-game sellout streak at Memorial Stadium would end — that’s what brought down Pederson and brought back Tom Osborne to run the athletic department. That passion ultimately will fuel Nebraska’s return to the Top 10.

Nebraska football fans have chosen to set the bar high and keep it there. So even though he replaced Bill Callahan, a coach who struggled to break .500, Bo Pelini has a lot to live up to. He’ll feel the heat if he ever fails to win nine games in a season. After all, Bob Devaney felt it when he went 6-4 in 1967 and 1968, and Osborne himself felt it several times during the 1970s, while the Huskers were compiling a 98-20-4 decade.

Things got even better in the 1980s and 1990s. With Osborne running the program, Nebraska was at the pinnacle of the game, producing a 102-20 record in the ’80s (which was best among all NCAA teams), and a 108-16-1 mark in the ’90s (just one victory short of Florida State’s total during that decade). When you watched Nebraska, you knew you were going to get power-I option football and tough defense. That not only made the Huskers highly successful, it made Nebraska a sought-after brand.

 
When Eric Crouch circled left end and scored to beat Notre Dame in overtime in front of Touchdown Jesus and about 30,000 red-clad Nebraska fans, few suspected that the option play would quickly become an endangered species in Lincoln. So what is Nebraska football now? In the 2000s, NU went from the option to the West Coast to a mutating offense that is yet to be determined.

One of Pelini’s biggest responsibilities is to redefine what Cornhusker football looks like. To a large extent, he’s already done that with his defense, which has become a pressuring, attacking unit anchored by a strong line. The college football world will watch during the spring and fall of 2010 as he works with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to unveil what they say will be a power-running platoon that can throw the ball effectively when it wants to.

The past 10 years were unstable, by Nebraska standards. It’s not surprising that the 2000s were the first decade since the 1950s that it had more than two different head football coaches. The downturn started with Frank Solich’s inability to recruit top athletes, but things really started to go south when Callahan started acting like defense was not a head coach’s responsibility. Pelini says he wants to keep his current coaching staff intact, which indicates that he wants stability and likes the direction his team is moving.

Analyzing a decade of college football is somewhat like climatology — you’re looking for long-term trends, not dramatic moments. But when it comes to action on the field, the most encouraging short-term movement was this: in 2007, Ndamukong Suh was an underachiever on possibly the worst Husker defense ever, but in 2009, under the leadership of Pelini and his staff, Suh was a Lombardi and Outland trophy winner on one of the best defenses in Husker history. Together, they pulled Nebraska out of what had threatened to become a crushing tailspin.

With one game left to play, Nebraska has gone 83-44 during the 2000s for a winning percentage of .654. It’s not as bad as it could have been. Other NCAA marquee teams have had much worse stretches. Consider Florida in the 1970s, a decade where the Gators straggled home just above .500 (58-53-3). Or take Oklahoma in the 1990s (68-55-3), Southern Cal in the 1990s (68-49-4), Notre Dame in the 2000s (70-52) and Alabama in the 2000s (78-48 with one game to play, assuming that all 15 of the Crimson Tide wins during the middle of the decade that the NCAA vacated will be restored).

Florida State, the team that battled Nebraska head-to-head for supremacy in the 1990s, has fallen off to the same degree. With one game left, Florida State’s soon-to-be-retired Bobby Bowden has an 84-44 record through the 2000s, which also assumes that all 14 of the Seminoles’ vacated wins from the 2006 and 2007 seasons will be reinstated.

The decade that started with a memorable trip to South Bend and finished with the rebirth of the Blackshirts is at its end. Pelini’s task is a daunting one — to lead Nebraska back to the top 10 on a regular basis. But having seen the expectations of Nebraska fans when he was defensive coordinator in 2003, he knew all that when he signed up for the job.

 

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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