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July 12, 2009


For the first time since 2002, the Nebraska football program returns its entire coaching staff intact.

It may be awhile before NU becomes a paragon of coaching stability, as it was under Tom Osborne, but this is a start, and it should pay off this fall. No new culture for everyone to get used to. No new systems to learn for the players. No new philosophies about run-blocking to confuse folks.

Everyone should be on the same page, and that’s an exciting concept for Nebraska fans to anticipate. Remember? We used to take it for granted, like we did nine-win seasons.

While this Husker staff is not as experienced or cohesive as those at Texas or Oklahoma, it seems to work well together, and has a good combination of experience and youth. It should not be confused with the battle-scarred 2002 NU staff, whose accumulated lack of recruiting effectiveness probably cost Frank Solich his job a year later.

Bo Pelini appeared to mature as his first season as head coach neared its end. By Jan. 1, Pelini seemed to have a handle on when he should yell at the officials, and just how far he could push. There were remarkably few signs of disorganization — at least on the field — during his maiden voyage. Now 41, Pelini may still be emotionally volatile, but he’s not the loose cannon that some feared he would be. In fact, he worked wonders in elevating his players to new levels of mental toughness and maturity. The hallmark of the 2008 team was its resilience.

Bill Callahan built an offense that seems to be made for coming from behind, but his Nebraska teams never won a game when they trailed at halftime. Pelini proved right away that such a thing can still be done in Lincoln.

Pelini commands the loyalty of his staff and players. We were told going into the 2008 season that players would “run through a wall” for Pelini, and we saw nothing to bring that into question.

The wisdom of retaining Shawn Watson as offensive coordinator was apparent last season, and the continuity he provides will be more important with an inexperienced quarterback calling the signals.

In Roy Helu and Quentin Castille, Tim Beck appears to be developing a pair of quality backs who complement each other well both on and off the field. He’ll have more talent to work with this fall. The recruiting coordinator, Ted Gilmore, was a finalist for the head coaching job at Wyoming, his alma mater. He developed a pair of solid receivers (Nate Swift and Todd Peterson) despite their lack of speed. He’ll have a less experienced, but faster, unit to work with this fall.

Barney Cotton is the oldest NU coach (he’ll be 52 at the start of the season). The former Husker offensive lineman preaches physicality and toughness on the o-line. The coach talks the talk, but can his charges walk the walk? There’s enough experience returning to make it happen. One of the most important story lines of 2009 will be whether Cotton’s preaching translates into old-time smashmouth zeal on the field.

Ron Brown, just two months younger than Cotton, is the senior member as he begins his 19th season with the Huskers. Brown is the only remaining link to Solich’s 2002 staff, let alone the glory days of the 1990s. A spiritual leader for the coaching staff and team, Brown is a rare combination of experience and boundless energy, and his aggressive, in-your-face style is infectious. His development of what seemed to be an ordinary bunch of tight ends was a major plus last season, and gives the Husker passing game something to build on this year.

The defensive coaches — Carl Pelini, John Papuchis, Mike Ekeler and Marvin Sanders — are excellent recruiters. Ekeler (age 37) and Papuchis (31) provide a lot of energy. Carl Pelini is the defensive coordinator, although with younger brother Bo’s long history as an effective DC, nobody knows who should get the credit when the Blackshirts excel. Still, there’s little doubt that Carl took the defensive line farther than anyone expected last season. Sanders managed to hold together a secondary that had marginal talent and speed, and the Huskers finished atop the conference in pass defense in Big 12 games despite the coverage busts that kept occurring all season. More talent is on the way, and there are reasons to expect an ongoing resurgence on the defensive side of the ball.

This group has a lot to prove before it can be compared with the staffs at OU or Texas, but it’s in the top half of the Big 12. The Husker staff is in a nearly identical situation with those of Texas A&M and Baylor. Those groups were largely assembled after the hiring of Mike Sherman and Art Briles, and most of those coaches are in their second year at their respective schools, but Pelini’s coaches easily outpace those at College Station and Waco.

The seven other Big 12 football programs all have added new blood to their staffs this year. This will help the Huskers in the race for the North title. It’s not clear yet whether Nebraska has an overall coaching edge over Missouri and Kansas, but by the end of the season, it may be. The Huskers’ advantage over Colorado, Kansas State and Iowa State in that department appears solid.

One major test for the Nebraska staff will come Oct. 31 when NU plays at Baylor. The improving Bears will be gunning for their first bowl appearance in ages, and will be eager to claim their first-ever conference win over the Big Red. The Huskers could be looking ahead to the Oklahoma game in Lincoln the following week and could have a rough time in Floyd Casey Stadium. They have more talent, but will they be focused?


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 [email protected]. | Archive