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May 28, 2008

Back when Tom Osborne was cranking out nine-win seasons every year during the 1970s and 80s, you'd have thought that most Nebraska football fans would have been satisfied. Then again, you'd have been wrong.

Osborne was cussed out more often than anyone else in the state during those years. You'd hear him vilified in taverns, at high school basketball games, after church. I can still hear echoes of "He can't win the big one!" And although they seemed to overlook many a quality win, those dissatisfied Husker fans did have a valid argument. Osborne's teams didn't seem to finish strong. At one point on Osborne's watch, Nebraska had lost to its biggest rival, Oklahoma, five years in a row at season's end. A decade later, the Huskers were on a streak that saw them lose seven consecutive bowl games.

Osborne finally dissolved all that criticism by finishing his career as strong as any college football coach ever did, winning three national titles in his last four seasons.

After being hired by Steve Pederson in 2004, Bill Callahan felt the heat after producing only one nine-win season in four tries. Two of his teams had losing records. That's the main reason that Pederson and Callahan both reside in the eastern United States today. That sort of thing doesn't fly when it comes to Husker football.

The Nebraska baseball program had a better winning percentage than the football team did over the past four seasons. It's still not in the same category when it comes to fan expectations, but it may not be long, which is a tribute to head coaches Dave Van Horn and Mike Anderson. If you're one of the hardy souls who sat through countless chilly, bleak Husker baseball games at Buck Beltzer Field in the 1980s and 1990s, you know that the scope of their achievement was almost Devaneyesque - but take note that even Bob Devaney himself was widely reviled after back-to-back 6-4 seasons in 1967 and 1968. Bo Pelini had better prepare himself for a little heat.

So it's little wonder we're hearing complaints from the Husker Nation as the NU baseball team prepares to play in its ninth NCAA Regional in the past 10 seasons. Sure, the criticism is not on the same level as was leveled at Osborne in any January from 1987 to 1993, but it's there nonetheless - even after a 40-win season, which is roughly equivalent to a nine-win season in football.

Under Anderson, the Huskers have claimed two Big 12 titles this decade, and have won a College World Series game in one appearance after going winless in two previous CWS appearances under Van Horn. That's not overwhelming success, but it's more than respectable for a northern school in major college baseball.

This year's overachieving Huskers were in contention for another conference title until two weeks ago, when they crashed and burned in a puzzling three-game sweep at Missouri. Then came a lackluster Big 12 tournament performance in Oklahoma City. It's obvious that Anderson doesn't own the Bricktown Ballpark anymore, and it's equally obvious that Husker fans still don't have much patience for a team that stumbles down the stretch.

Two weeks ago, the Nebraska baseball team seemed a good bet to host a Super Regional. Now, after losing five of their last six games, it's debatable whether the Cornhuskers have enough momentum to make it that far. Johnny Dorn is the only pitcher who has been consistent over the past two weeks. The defense - a major strength all season long - has started to unravel.

The Huskers appear to have hit a wall at the end of the 2008 season. Now we'll see how high the expectations have been raised for Nebraska baseball in the last decade. Are conference championships and College World Series appearances the only worthy achievement?

Husker fans are afraid their team has peaked too early, that Anderson hasn't been able to get them motivated for the stretch run, that the late-season collapse of 2006 (home-field losses to Manhattan and San Francisco University in the Regionals) is about to manifest itself again.

Optimists among us will take note that the mere fact there is significant grumbling is evidence that the bar has been raised much higher for Husker baseball than anyone thought possible a decade ago. The coach of every successful program occasionally gets his feet held to the fire (just ask Bob Stoops). That's not a bad thing, and it may serve Anderson and his team well this weekend.

Resilience has been a hallmark of the 2008 Nebraska baseball team, which is fitting, because Anderson showed the same character quality after being criticized the past two seasons. The Huskers have showed a lot of unity this year, and if their skipper is to be spared an Osborne-like tongue-lashing this summer, they'll need all the resilience and unity they can muster.

Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He was sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin from 2003 to 2007, during which time he wrote "Around the Husker Nation," a commentary on NU football. He was a writer and columnist for the North Platte Telegraph from 1984 to 2002. Stryker remembers sitting through some bone-chilling Nebraska baseball games on the metal bleachers at Buck Beltzer Field during the 1980s.