Nebraska Lost, Nebraska Found
If this is going to work, if Tom Osborne and Bo Pelini are going to turn the new Nebraska back into the old Nebraska, the process had to start in a place like this, in the rural town of West Point (pop. 3,472). It had to begin with a Nebraska kid, a tough, hardworking high school player who has always been a Husker in his heart, a kid like linebacker Micah Kreikemeier. Now, Micah Kreikemeier might one day join the long line of legendary Nebraska stars, or he might be one of those Cornhuskers who never has a bigger college football highlight than the day the most famous man in the state called to offer him a scholarship. But one thing that Micah Kreikemeier almost surely will do is work his tail off the way Nebraska boys are expected to do, treasure the block N on the side of his helmet as if it were a big red ruby and make everyone in the state proud that he's one of their own. If you don't know how important all of that is, well, then you don't know Nebraska.
The last coach, the one Osborne dismissed in November, didn't know Nebraska -- at least that's how most everyone in the state saw it. Bill Callahan might have known his football, but he didn't know his audience. He made some changes on the field, most notably scrapping the Cornhuskers' famed run-oriented, power-option offense for a pass-heavy West Coast attack, which would have been fine if he hadn't also jettisoned some longtime members of the football staff and made many of the former players feel like outsiders during his four years on the job.
Some say that Callahan and his boss, athletic director Steve Pederson -- an alum and a Nebraska native who should have known better, for goodness' sake -- built a fortress where a cozy family home used to be. Old players who had always been welcomed back like returning heroes whenever they wanted to look in on practice or visit the football offices suddenly had to go through layers of security just to gain entry to the athletic complex. "You couldn't get through the gate in the parking lot," says Eric Crouch, the former quarterback and 2001 Heisman Trophy winner. "You could never talk to Steve in person. People in Nebraska are good, old-fashioned people who want to see you face-to-face." It was so hard for ex-Huskers to get inside the program, literally and figuratively, that one even referred to the place as Fort Knox.
Whatever it was, it wasn't Nebraska. That, along with the Cornhuskers' 27-22 record over the last four years, including their first two losing seasons since 1961, is why Pederson and Callahan are gone.
In their place are Osborne, the 71-year-old athletic director, who went 255-49-3 and won three national titles during his 25 years as the Huskers' coach, and Pelini, 40, the new coach, fresh off a national championship season as LSU's defensive coordinator. They are men of different generations, with radically different personalities, who nonetheless have a shared understanding of their mission. It is not a stretch to say that Osborne and Pelini have been entrusted not just with Nebraska's football program but also with the state's self-esteem. "Nebraska football isn't just a program, it's a culture," says Pelini, who was the Huskers' defensive coordinator for a single season, in 2003, and lobbied for the head-coaching job when Frank Solich was fired after the final regular-season game that year. "I don't think you can overstate how much people in this state care about [the team's] success. A lot of their identity is tied up in how the football team does on Saturday, and they want to feel a sense of ownership in it. We take that very seriously."
There may be other parts of the country in which the passion for college football runs just as high as in Nebraska, but there is no other state in which the loyalty is so nearly unanimous. In Alabama, the Crimson Tide shares the state with Auburn; in Texas and Florida, pockets of different rooting interests are spread throughout each state. But the state of Nebraska has no other Division I football program and no major professional teams. The Huskers are not just the only game in town, they are also the only game in any town. When Nebraska plays a home game, Memorial Stadium (capacity 81,067) is effectively the third-largest city in the state, and the school's 289 consecutive sellouts (and counting) are an NCAA record. This Saturday the Huskers will play their spring game before what is expected to be a sold-out stadium. Ask the players and coaches how many Cornhuskers fans there are in Nebraska, and they will all tell you 1.8 million -- the state population.
Now, old Nebraska wasn't a Shangri-la -- anyone who remembers the legal troubles of players such as Lawrence Phillips and Christian Peter in the 1990s would have to admit that -- but on the whole, Nebraskans were proud of their program under Bob Devaney, then Osborne and even his handpicked successor, Solich. And not just because those teams won. It was also because the program fit into the Nebraska ethos of hard work, straightforwardness and dignity. "The character of the football team grew out of the character of the state," says former fullback Mike O'Holleran.
That is why everyone who understands what Nebraska used to be, who Nebraska used to be, considered it a hopeful sign that less than an hour after he introduced Pelini as Nebraska's new coach on Dec. 2, Osborne dialed the Kreikemeier home. Like just about every boy in the state, Micah had grown up dreaming of playing for the Huskers, but he had just about given up hope. Iowa State and Kansas had shown some interest, but while Callahan was in charge, Nebraska had largely ignored him. Micah didn't have a lot of stars next to his name on the recruiting websites that rate players; he was just a tough, smart linebacker from West Point Central Catholic High whose father, Keith, had played for Osborne as a walk-on.
But one of the first things Osborne had done when he returned as interim AD two months earlier was to tell the previous staff to give him a list of about a dozen in-state kids who might be worthy of an offer, either as a scholarship player or a walk-on. Osborne liked the speed and instincts that the 6' 3", 210-pound Kreikemeier showed on tape, and he liked the fact that Kreikemeier was from good Cornhuskers football stock -- even Micah's high school coach, Dave Ridder, was a former Husker. Micah Kreikemeier was family, and that was important. Nebraska had always recruited nationally for the dynamic player (quarterbacks Jerry Tagge, Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier from Wisconsin, Texas and Florida, respectively; Heisman winner Mike Rozier from New Jersey), but the foundation was always built with in-state products, including Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers and Outland Trophy honorees Dave Rimington and Dean Steinkuhler.
When Micah picked up the phone on that December afternoon, Osborne didn't just offer him a scholarship. He asked how the family feedlot was doing, and he inquired about Ridder, and he told Micah that he was glad to keep him in the family. When Pelini called later that evening, he told Micah's parents that they were welcome in his office anytime. "Nothing against the old coaches, but I don't think I would have ever had a chance to play at Nebraska if Coach Osborne and Coach Pelini hadn't taken over," Kreikemeier says. "It just seems like I'm more their kind of player."
Osborne says there was no particular significance to the timing of the offer to Kreikemeier, that it was just about getting a recruit locked up before some other school stole him away, but just because the symbolism wasn't intended doesn't mean it isn't there. Kreikemeier is the kind of player Nebraska used to get, the kind of homegrown young man the staff would take and develop. The job of Osborne and Pelini isn't just to make sure that Nebraska doesn't go 5-7 again, as it did last year. It's to make sure that the Huskers will never be short of Micah Kreikemeiers.
It is a gray, wintry March afternoon in Lincoln, yet it's a beautiful day in the Huskers' neighborhood. Spring practice has begun, the players are back in pads, and confidence in the new regime is running high. Pelini's credentials as a top-notch defensive mind -- his Nebraska unit was second in scoring defense and 11th overall; in his one year as co-defensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 2004, the Sooners ranked sixth against the rush and 11th in scoring defense; and LSU ranked in the top five in total defense in each of his three seasons there -- have made Nebraska fans hopeful that their defense will be nothing like it was last season. The 2007 Cornhuskers allowed more points (37.9) and yards (476.8) per game than any other team in school history and surrendered 40 or more points six times, including a school-record 76 to Kansas and 65 to Colorado in a pair of humiliating losses. That was hardly what the newly hired Pederson envisioned in 2003 when he announced that he would not "let Nebraska gravitate into mediocrity" and fired Solich, a fullback and assistant under Osborne, after a 9-3 regular season and a 58-19 record in six years.
Pelini and his brother Carl, the new defensive coordinator, are still acquainting themselves with their personnel, but it seems clear that they will try to re-create the attacking, swarming brand of defense for which Bo's units have become known. The Huskers forced only 11 turnovers last year, and the Pelinis have already targeted that number for improvement. "The goal for the defense is not just to get off the field but to go get the football," says Carl. The brothers realize the transformation won't be immediate, and they hope the fans who are clamoring for a return to the days of the famed Blackshirts will be patient. "There are people who think that because I walked in the door, nobody's going to get a first down anymore," Bo says. "It doesn't quite work that way."
It doesn't help that in the midst of their turmoil last fall, the Huskers lost more than a dozen recruits who had committed to them, most notably quarterback Blaine Gabbert (Missouri), running back Jonas Gray (Notre Dame) and tackle Bryce Givens (Colorado). But the state will be patient with Pelini, largely because he bears the ultimate Nebraska stamp of approval. As he sits in his second-floor office, he points a finger skyward. "I could not have a better resource, a better source of support than the man up there," he says. Pelini's not talking about The Man Up There, but the gentleman in the athletic director's office on the floor above him. Although Osborne, a deeply devout and humble man, would surely disapprove of the comparison, there is a statewide reverence for him bordering on the religious. In Tom they trust. "He's about two steps below God in this state," says wide receiver Todd Peterson.
If only heaven could have helped Nebraska last season, when the program appeared to be falling apart. "You could see a division occurring," says Osborne. "A lot of people had fallen away from the program. The reason the chancellor felt the need for a change was not the won-lost record but the level of unrest in the program."
Callahan, meanwhile, had been hitting mostly wrong notes with Nebraska fans almost from the day he arrived in Lincoln. After a 30-3 loss at Oklahoma during his first season, he was so angered by the heckling and firing of pop guns by some of the Sooners fans that he yelled "f------ hillbillies" as he and his team headed to the locker room. Even though the comment was aimed at their rivals, some members of Husker Nation were offended by the backwoods slur.
In his second season, against Oklahoma, Callahan was caught on camera making a throat-slash gesture to an official who had failed to call holding on a Sooners touchdown, for which Callahan was publicly reprimanded by the Big 12. For a fan base used to Osborne's calmness and rectitude, it was embarrassing to see a Nebraska coach so prone to losing his cool.
But in the eyes of Nebraska fans, Callahan's unforgivable sin was his failure to show what they considered the proper respect to Osborne. In
The obvious choice to right the Huskers' ship was Osborne, a native son who was so well respected in the state that he had been elected to three terms in Congress after he retired as coach, in early 1998. Following a failed run for governor in 2006 he had returned to the university to teach in the business school, among other things. It was a comfortable routine, but when chancellor Harvey Perlman approached him last October about replacing Pederson as athletic director, Osborne couldn't say no. His presence at the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex, where he walks past a statue of himself at the entrance every day, brought an immediate sense of calm to the program. "There's something about him that's so serene, so tranquil," says tight ends coach Ron Brown. "He makes you believe that everything is going to be all right."
Though he's well-known for his stoicism, Osborne also has a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor. When he introduced Pelini to a gathering of fans in Omaha, he told them that all the familiar faces reminded him of his first date years ago with his wife, Nancy, during which, he said, she slapped him three times. "It's not what you think," he told the briefly stunned crowd. "She just wanted to make sure I wasn't dead."
In Pelini, who will never be mistaken for a cadaver, Osborne certainly didn't pick a coach in his own image. Where Osborne is as placid as a pond on a summer's day, Pelini is more like a wave crashing violently against the shore. "When he's on the field, his hair's on fire," says linebackers coach Mike Ekeler. "Intense. Relentless. It's why he's such a great motivator. When you're around him, you can just feel the competitiveness." Pelini can also be saltier than Osborne, who might go so far as to utter a "dadgummit" if he's really riled up. The most memorable moment of Pelini's season as the Huskers' defensive coordinator came after a game in which he felt Kansas State had run up the score in winning 38-9. After the game he went up to Wildcats coach Bill Snyder and gave him a blistering, profane piece of his mind. "He got a lot of criticism in the media for doing that," says O'Holleran. "But Nebraska fans loved it."
Despite Pelini's cautioning that there are no overnight solutions, he does have enough talent at his disposal for the Cornhuskers to make an immediate improvement on last year's 2-6 conference record, which tied them with Iowa State for last place in the Big 12 North. Most of the key elements in the productive offense are back, including four starters on the line and running back Marlon Lucky, a dual threat who rushed for 1,019 yards and gained 705 more on pass receptions, leading the team in both categories. Quarterback Joe Ganz, who took over late in the season when Sam Keller went down with a broken collarbone, and who threw for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns in his final three starts, is back as well. He will have the benefit of running the same offense because coordinator Shawn Watson is one of two assistants Pelini retained from Callahan's staff.
Ganz, a rising senior from Palos Heights, Ill., remembers how quickly he became aware of the state's passion for Nebraska football. "This nice, older couple came up to me in Wal-Mart when I was a freshman, before school had even started," he says. "They not only knew who I was, but they said they had seen me on tape and they liked what they saw. I was stunned. It's like everybody in the state is an assistant coach. To have that level of interest is amazing."
Gradually, as if Osborne and Pelini are blowing dust off a neglected antique, old Nebraska reemerges. Photos of Cornhuskers All-Americas and school Hall of Fame members, which under Pederson had been removed and replaced with pictures of the current team, have been returned to the walls of the football offices by Osborne's decree. (Pederson, now the athletic director at Pittsburgh, and Callahan, the New York Jets' assistant head coach-offense, declined to comment for this story.) Former players had not been invited to stand on the sideline at home games under the previous regime, but they have been informed that those passes will be available to them again. "The reason I'm sitting in this nice office today is not because of what I did," says Pelini. "It's because of what those guys did."
Pelini is making an extra effort to reach out to Nebraska high school coaches. When he was invited to address their association, he surprised everyone by bringing his entire staff along. In addition to the scholarship-worthy players, the Cornhuskers' new leadership is depending on in-state talent to infuse the walk-on program, a longtime Nebraska tradition that has renewed emphasis. Osborne hired Jeff Jamrog, a onetime walk-on who by his senior year was a scholarship player, a starting defensive end and an academic All-America, to oversee the recruitment of walk-ons. The Huskers expect to have 30 walk-ons in the fall, including several in-state products who transferred from other schools.
"There have always been a significant number of players in the state who were willing to pass up other offers, even scholarship offers from Division I schools, just for the chance to walk on at Nebraska," says Jamrog, officially the assistant athletic director in charge of football operations. Jamrog himself declined offers from South Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha when Osborne gave him the chance to walk on with the Cornhuskers in 1983.
At Nebraska his story isn't that unusual. During Osborne's tenure as coach, 30 players who began as walk-ons went on to play in the NFL. Although they hope to get back to finding gems among the nonscholarship players, the Huskers count on the walk-ons for more than just what they can contribute on the field. "The walk-ons have always helped set the tone," says Pelini. "A lot of times these are guys from small Nebraska towns who are grateful just for the chance to become part of the program. They're the ones who understand what it means in this state, and the example they set in their enthusiasm and effort tends to become contagious. The players who aren't from here start to understand pretty quickly what it means to be a Husker in this state."
What follows, Huskers fans hope, is that the attitude and the enthusiasm and the renewed embrace of tradition will quickly be reflected in the won-lost record. But there will be plenty of time to worry about that later. For now, in the spring, it is enough that there is a new feeling in Nebraska -- a new feeling that is reassuringly old.