Saturday, December 27, 2014

Huskers Come Up Just Short Against Southern Cal

One of my takeaways from the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska is how they battled back when the chips were down. It wasn't always pretty, and it didn't always work out, but the Huskers battled.

People will point out the yards and points that the Blackshirts gave up. That's fair. But the counter is how future NFL quarterback Cody Kessler had his worst game of the season. Might be his last game for Southern Cal, as he's expected to declare for the draft.

Javorius Allen gouged Nebraska at times, and could have done worse if the SC game plan would have allowed it. That's surprising, considering Nebraska's injury situation at linebacker. Safety play didn't help there either.

Offensively, many onlookers online hated the lack of carries for Ameer Abdullah, but they really weren't noticing how the Trojans were keying on Abdullah all game. What I didn't like were the lack of quarterback runs in the first half, especially considering what Boston College's Tyler Murphy did against SC in September.

It didn't help that the Huskers were getting dominated up front. Dylan Utter was the surprise starter at center, but looked more like a speed bump against the Trojans defensive line.

No doubt in my mind that Husker fans may never truly appreciate Ameer Abdullah for what he meant to this team both on and off the field. Both he and Kenny Bell deserved better endings to their NU careers.

I also don't know if Husker fans will appreciate the outgoing coaching staff. Two guys that deserve better exits are recievers coach Rich Fisher and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. Fisher turned around a sorry group of receivers that couldn't catch a cold, while Kaz turned defensive line into a strength. I don't know who will replace them, but I suspect we'll miss these guys.

By the end of next week, I suspect we'll know who Mike Riley's assistants will be. And for as much negativity that resulted from Bo Pelini's private comments to his team, I hope now the focus turns to his comments about his successor, where he advises his team to give these new coaches a chance. 

We all would be well advised to do that, even if we aren't impressed or overwhelmed with them initially.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bo Pelini Rips Shawn Eichorst and Harvey Perlman - And Everybody Loses

Twice on the day he was named head coach of Youngstown State, the words of Bo Pelini came back to criticize Nebraska officials: one publicly and veiled, the other was intended to be private and were vulgar and offensive. First the public comments:
Pelini's last comment likely was targeted at Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, which drew a lot of comments that Pelini didn't even know Perlman's title. Problem with those statements that the "president" label was clearly tied to Tressel.  Was he pointing at former NU president J. B. Millikin? Probably not.  But differentiating between the different job titles of Jim Tressel and Perlman was something that's way too nuanced to elaborate on at a press conference.

Should Pelini have even brought up the past at Nebraska? Probably not, but it's clear to me that the friction between Pelini and Perlman date back to 2003 when Frank Solich was fired. If it wasn't for the fact that Perlman was essentially neutered with respect to athletic department concerns in the wake of the Steve Pederson debacle in 2007, I doubt Perlman would have ever approved Bo Pelini.

Of course, when Dirk Chatelain published a transcript of Pelini's meeting with the team two days after his dismissal, all that became moot.  Most of the initial reaction online focused on Pelini's deplorable language and the decision to air his grievances with his players.  I have a mixed reaction; it's clear the Pelini didn't pull any punches behind the scenes, and he put his players squarely in the middle of this now-messy divorce.  That's not good.  It makes Mike Riley's job that much tougher, and in the aftermath, I'm starting to feel that from a non-football perspective, Riley might be the best man for the job after all to soothe the transition for players that were clearly hurt.

One reaction that I simply don't understand and therefore cannot accept is that Pelini, by his actions, doesn't care about the Nebraska program. I believe people are mistakenly using Perlman and athletic director Shawn Eichorst as the program.  One thing I learned during the Steve Pederson/Bill Callahan program is that you can love the program and despise the people who are currently in charge.  (A "Vichy Nebraska", as I once referenced it at that time.) Pelini's reactions clearly were pointed at those two gentlemen - and not the program.

Step back from the awful language and take another look at Pelini's comments about Eichorst:
You don't spend any time with us, our players don't even know who you are. And I said, 'that isn't leadership.'
Unfair?  The words of a bitter man?  Perhaps.  But here's the thing.  Bo Pelini isn't the first to feel that way about Eichorst.  Eichorst has left this impression everywhere he has been.  From the Miami Herald in September 2012:
 At UM -- bracing for NCAA sanctions in the case involving former UM booster and convicted felon Nevin Shapiro -- Eichorst has been one of the most low-profile athletic directors in school history. He was not at UM during Shapiro's wrongdoings, but except for once or twice, has declined to speak to the media since coming to Miami -- and has mostly kept his distance from UM fans and donors.    Among the media, Eichorst was known as the invisible athletic director.
Last month, noted Pelini critic Lee Barfknecht checked in on Eichorst's history and found the same thing:.
Regarding Eichorst, we’re forced to say “I hear” a lot because of his ultra-guarded management style, and the layer of old chums he has hired — also not available for interviews — to insulate him.
When he was the A.D. at Miami, his nickname was “The Invisible Man.” The past three weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time around Wisconsin, which is where Eichorst grew up and used to work under Barry Alvarez. Folks there wryly ask how we get along with “Silent Shawn.”
But wait, there's more:
That said, I’ve never seen effective leadership from someone who burrows into his office and sets up policies that almost banish communication — especially in running a high-profile athletic department, and even more so at straight-shooting Nebraska.
You can’t lead from behind or the dark.
Eichorst told us in August that he has strong relationships with his head coaches. That is counter to what coaches have told me and many others. Some say they can’t directly get a meeting with him. One said the number of books Eichorst has assigned coaches to read has outnumbered his in-person visits to that sport.
Basically, the exact same thing Pelini is being lambasted for saying. Did he err by ranting to the team?  I'd tend to agree.  But it doesn't change that Pelini is simply telling us the truth.

Isn't it ironic that on the day that Steve Pederson was yet again fired that a picture of an athletic department in Lincoln under siege from an athletic director who seems to be focusing more on empire building than team building is emerging.

You can't dismiss this talk as being Pelini's sour grapes when one of Pelini's biggest critics is corroborating him.  This isn't to say Pelini's critics are all wrong for calling for his ouster; there are plenty of reasons that a coaching change was warranted.  (/wisconsinScoredAgain) And the fact that he brought his players into this mess doesn't help either.

But it's starting to look like 2004 all over again around Nebraska athletics.  Firing Pelini may have simply been shooting the messenger.

And that's downright frightening.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

So Why Is Bo Pelini Taking the Youngstown State Job?

It turns out was on the right track when they reported last week that Bo Pelini was headed to division 1-AA Youngstown State.  Last week's "complete fabrication of the truth" is now reality. But why Youngstown State? What does that say about Bo Pelini?

The step-down to 1-AA has certainly empowered Pelini critics to use the coaching market as justification for Nebraska's coaching change.
Comments like that, though, only reinforce in my mind that Pelini's detractors aren't terribly confident in their position.  The "nine wins for seven straight years"  line is one of those facts that's constantly misunderstood by his critics.  Let's make things exactly clear: nobody has ever... EVER ... suggested that Bo Pelini's record at Nebraska is exactly like Alabama's or Oregon's over the last seven years.  Those two teams are the exception.  The comparison is to the OTHER 120+ division 1-A football programs:  the ones that haven't won 9 or more games every year starting in 2008.

We also have the snide statements that this was the highest profile job Bo Pelini could find.  That may ... or may not be true.  I suspect it's not.  I think Bo was considered for the Wisconsin job, but the last two NU/Wisconsin games would have made Pelini a hard sell in Madison.  I'm sure there are plenty of other jobs Pelini would have been a candidate for, and may have been, in fact.

So why Youngstown State?  Everybody knows that Youngstown, Ohio is Bo's home town.  And that's the clincher for Pelini in my opinion.  It is home.  Nebraska is going to pay him nearly $8 million over the next five years, so barring a Power Five conference job coming open, he's not going to make more money elsewhere.  Every dime Pelini makes at another school is a dime that Nebraska doesn't have to pay, so there simply aren't going to be many opportunities to make more money at another school.

I think the biggest deal for Bo Pelini is bringing his family back to Youngstown, Ohio.  His kids can attend Cardinal Mooney, and family is a big deal to Bo Pelini.  A really big deal.  Back in 2007, Yahoo! Sports interviewed then-LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini and highlighted the man inside the gray sweatshirt.  This quote stands out to me today:

Across town, many of the 92,000 fans who will attend LSU's showdown against defending national champion Florida are already stirring gumbo and guzzling Miller Lite in the parking lot at Tiger Stadium.

But to Bo Pelini, that game is no more important than the one he's at now – mainly because his son, Patrick, is among the players trying to kick the ball into the net.

"It's fun watching your kids grow up," Pelini, who also has two daughters, says later. "Baseball, t-ball, gymnastics, ballet. I try not to miss anything."
LSU's defensive coordinator pauses for a moment and grins.
"But," Pelini says, "I do think a few people get freaked out when they see me standing on the soccer field the morning of such a big game."
Pelini's kids are now eight years older now, and last summer, he talked about driving his kids to summer camps across the state of Nebraska.  That's something most people wouldn't expect most coaches to do.  But that's not Bo Pelini.  Remember a couple of years ago when Pelini raised a stir by taking his son to a North Carolina/Duke basketball game?
That's Bo Pelini to me.  I think this is a family move for Bo Pelini, pure and simple. It's not so much that he's returning home as much as his family is.  And frankly, I'd actually be surprised if Pelini didn't spend a few years at Youngstown State.  At this point, it's not about the money.  Nebraska will be paying Pelini for the next five years, and he'll earn the same thing whether he's coaching at Youngstown State, Colorado State, Houston, or Memphis.  Only place he earns more money is if a Power Five job opens up.

Five years from now, the situation may be different.  His youngest daughter will be finishing up at Cardinal Mooney in all likelihood, and Pelini should have a solid resume at Youngstown State that would be enticing to other big name programs. In the meantime, Pelini will have had a chance to refine his coaching prowess.  He might be ready to jump back into the rat race of big-time football then.

But for now, Youngstown isn't the biggest place Bo Pelini could find.  For Bo Pelini, it's just the best place.

Friday, December 12, 2014

UNO Hockey Returns Home For Eight Straight Games

After spending most of the last two months on the road (10 out of 12 games on the road), UNO hockey returns to Omaha for eight straight games over the holidays.  This weekend, it's sixth place St. Cloud State in for games at 7:37 pm tonight and 8:07 pm Saturday night.  UNO has been fairly successful on the road until the last couple of weekends.  Thanksgiving weekend, UNO won an overtime shootout on Friday, but lost 3-2 on Saturday night at #1 North Dakota.  Last weekend, UNO stunk it up on Friday night, losing 8-2 in a game televised on Fox College Sports, only to rebound strong with a 5-2 victory over #6 Miami.

Hockey pollsters have the Mavs ranked twelfth in the country.  The early simulations of the Pairwise rankings have UNO third in the nation, trailing only Mankato and Minnesota-Duluth.  Very impressive considering this is a team that arguably is in a rebuilding season with 11 freshman, 7 sophomores, 3 juniors, and 5 seniors.  And a completely different vibe after getting shut out in an exhibition game against a Canadian team.

With a run of home games, this should be an opportunity for UNO to make a move in the conference standings. A sweep this weekend against St. Cloud moves UNO within one point of conference leaders Miami and Minnesota-Duluth, who aren't playing conference games this weekend.  I suspect North Dakota will be in first place by Sunday, though.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

So About Mike Riley as the Huskers New Head Coach

Like nearly everybody else, I was expecting somebody else to be named the next head coach of the Huskers. Earlier this week, I suggested Baylor's Art Briles was my top choice in a discussion with Omaha weekly newspaper "The Reader". Why? After Sunday's news conference, I felt that Shawn Eichorst was going to "go big" and get a huge name.  I didn't think they would pursue the hot assistant (i.e. Scott Frost) or the up-and-coming mid-major coach (i.e. Jim McElwain).  I thought they'd probably hire an established coach from a Power-5 conference, and if nothing else, pick someone like Minnesota's Jerry Kill.  I think Mike Riley's name may have briefly passed through my head, but I never gave him much of a second thought.

Of course, I panicked like most Husker fans when the Bret Bielema rumor hit.  Not so much because Bielema is a bad coach, but rather because of the bad taste he left in both Nebraska AND Wisconsin in 2012. I thought it was an unlikely rumor because Bielema's negativity would seem to run counter to Eichorst's "Energy Bus" philosophy, and sure enough, it was quickly debunked.

I probably would not have believed the Mike Riley report either if I hadn't seen it on the @Huskers Twitter feed, and that sent me into a mad scramble to figure out the hire.  And that scramble resulted in a maddening manic-depressive swing of emotions. At first, I was feeling OK about the hire as I recalled that he was moderately successful at Oregon State and even spent time in the NFL.  Then I looked at the record and saw way-more losing than I had remembered; that made me question the hire and doubt.  Then I read his resume and saw that he turned down offers from Southern Cal (TWICE) and Alabama.

So what's up with the guy?

That's the question.  The best analogy I can come up with is that Oregon State is historically much like Iowa State, Kansas State, or Vanderbilt; historically awful programs that don't attract much talent.  So it takes incredible coaching to get an Oregon State to be a nine or ten win program, which he's done at times.

Fan reaction locally was swift - and negative. "We fired a nine win coach for a guy who's lost six or more games four out of the last five years?"  That's not a championship coach.  But contrast that with the reports from the national media that he does more with less, and you want to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Reporters that cover recruiting praise him for seeking out underrated talent out of Texas and turning them into good, solid players.  They see him as a guy who can now approach four and five star players when he's wearing the "N" on his shirt.

Well, we'll see about that.

Bottom line is that, like him or not, he's Nebraska's coach now.  While I'm not sure he's an upgrade over Bo Pelini, I don't think he's a downgrade. He'll clearly upgrade Nebraska's quarterback play, which has been an issue the last couple of years.  His background was as Southern Cal's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.  What about the defense?  That remains to be seen.

Where I think Riley will be different is in media relations.  Bo Pelini was a no-nonsense guy who didn't appreciate some of the nonsense that the Omaha World-Herald published in recent years. Riley's reputation is that he's much more affable and media-friendly, which means that it's less likely that the World-Herald will quote him out of context in an attempt to misrepresent his thoughts.

That, and the honeymoon period that each new coach gets, should make for a more pleasant environment around Nebraska football. The players seem on board initially with their new coach; now the only question is whether the fans will come on board.

I'm willing to give the new guy a chance.  How about you?