We were having lunch at Highland Park Golf Course in Birmingham, Ala., eating hot dogs, sipping sweet tea and remembering. Three years ago, Bobby Bowden and I were discussing his legendary coaching career when the subject suddenly turned to Nebraska football fans.
I mentioned to Bowden that I grew up in Lincoln. Immediately, Bowden's mind flashed back to the fall of 1980. He had taken his Seminoles into Memorial Stadium and, with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Florida State clung to an 18-14 lead. I was nine-years-old and sitting in the West stadium stands that afternoon, and three decades later Bowden and I replayed how Nebraska quarterback Jeff Quinn proceeded to fumble the ball at the Seminoles' three-yard line. Game over.
Then something stunning happened -- something Bowden remembered all those years later with the vivid detail of a firstborn's wedding. The crowd in Lincoln rose to its feet in appreciation of the underdog 'Noles. At first it was a polite clap, but then the noise swelled into one of the loudest roars of the day. As Bowden recalled the moment at lunch that afternoon in Birmingham, he got goosebumps.
"What a moment," Bowden said, a smile lighting his face. "Wow. The classiest thing I ever experienced."
Nebraskans, as Bowden learned that day in 1980, take extreme pride in being devoted, conscientious and respectful fans. Like any fan base, Huskers supporters can be intolerant at times -- take Frank Solich's firing in 2003, for example -- but for the most part, they display as much patience and fidelity as any group in the nation. How else to explain the support for former coach Tom Osborne through the '80s and early '90s when he lost seven straight bowl games? Or why Memorial Stadium has been sold out every home game since the Kennedy administration (a record 328 games and counting)?
That includes every game under current coach Bo Pelini, who college football followers learned on Monday did the one thing that will get a coach run out of Nebraska faster than lampooning Willa Cather or blasting Johnny Carson: He ripped Huskers fans. According to a profanity-laced audiotape obtained by Deadspin (warning: language is NSFW), Pelini was irate with Nebraska fans following the team's 34-27 win over Ohio State on Oct. 8, 2011. Pelini believed that a large portion of fans left at halftime when Nebraska trailed 20-6, though a female voice on the tape pointed out that many eventually returned to their seats.
"It took everything in my power to not say, '[Expletive] you, fans. [Expletive] all of you.' [Expletive] 'em," Pelini said on the tape. "... Our crowd. What of bunch of [expletive] fair-weather [expletive] -- they can all kiss my ass out the [expletive] door."
Forget about last Saturday's meltdown against UCLA, in which Huskers blew a 21-3 lead and went on to lose 41-21. Forget that on Monday, when responding to criticism from Nebraska legend Tommie Frazier, Pelini said, "We don't need him." And forget about Pelini chastising two well-respected Omaha World-Herald reporters on the tape as well.
Pelini is in big-time trouble because of his brutal, expletive-laced assessment of the fans. Yes, the comments were made in the emotional heat of what was perhaps the biggest win of Pelini's tenure in Lincoln, a victory that happened to come against his alma mater. And yes, several national columnists have weighed in on Pelini in the last 24 hours, many arguing that Pelini shouldn't be in danger of losing his job because of some remarks that were recorded without his knowledge two years ago.
Still, given the unique culture of Nebraska fandom, Pelini faces an uphill battle to win back support. Just ask someone like Todd Peterson, a 42-year-old lifelong Lincoln resident, longtime season ticket holder, father of two and close friend of mine.
"After growing up with such a father-figure type of coach in Tom Osborne, it's going to be hard for me to encourage my kids to respect Pelini after this," Peterson said on Monday night. "I was in the these-things-take-time camp after Saturday's loss to UCLA, but it's going to be hard for me to support Pelini after the tape. I don't think I'm in the minority on this around here."
To be fair, Pelini has done some damage control. He issued a written apology through the school on Monday night.
"I want to sincerely apologize for my comments from two years ago which became public today," Pelini said. "I take full responsibility for these comments. They were spoken in a private room following the Ohio State game. I was venting following a series of emotional events which led to this moment. That being said, these comments are in no way indicative of my true feelings. I love it here in Nebraska and feel fortunate to be associated with such a great university and fan base. I again apologize to anyone whom I have offended."
Yet if I was in his ear, I'd advise him to sit down in the front of the cameras and microphones and -- without notes -- bare his soul and explain why he loves Nebraska, how he needs to continue to harness his emotions and how profoundly out of line his comments were. It wouldn't hurt if he could convince Osborne (who hired him but is now retired) to sit by his side at the presser.
Should Pelini ultimately be fired? I think the answer depends on his actions in the upcoming days and weeks -- and so do the majority of my old friends who sat close to me in 1980 at Memorial Stadium on that day that Bowden will never forget.