Good isn’t good enough at Nebraska, and that is why Bo Pelini finds himself unemployed at this moment. Over seven full seasons, the Cornhuskers won nine or more games every year under Pelini’s watch. That includes the campaign that just concluded with a 9-3 record. Many programs might celebrate that sustained success, but the shop in Lincoln isn’t among them. Good isn’t good enough. And so Nebraska finds itself in a very tenuous spot, familiar to many other schools that have aspired to something more: It will bet it can be better than good, with no assurances that it won’t instead plunge into a deeper abyss of irrelevance for trying.
It’s entirely fair for a program with the resources, tradition and pride of Nebraska to set a championship bar, but it’s also fair to be realistic about how difficult it is to achieve that. Maybe a new coach can carve out inroads to fertile recruiting grounds in the Southeast and Texas and lure five-star skill talent into the cornfields. That’s a gigantic maybe. The best offensive player on the current roster is tailback Ameer Abdullah, one of the nation’s top-10 rushers. He was a three-star recruit that SEC schools like Alabama and Auburn envisioned as a defensive back. The best defensive player is pass-rushing beast Randy Gregory, a junior college transfer. It’s very likely that Pelini’s successor will have to project on talent and develop it over time, or unearth it in the far corners of college football recruiting, just as Pelini had to do. And that is tricky business for anyone.
With a few less detonations of his fiery personality, maybe Pelini gets more cushion, more benefit of the doubt. Confidence can erode to whisker-thin levels when audio surfaces of a coach cursing out his fan base, as it did with Pelini and the infamous rant leaked to Deadspin in Sept. 2013 after a blowout loss to UCLA. Realistically, though, that’s history buried about five miles underground if Nebraska is playing for a Big Ten championship and/or a college football playoff berth next Saturday.
Expunge the murmurs about Pelini’s coarseness or friction with administration from the record, and it’s still difficult to believe Nebraska fans would temper their anger with embarrassing losses like the 70-31 destruction at the hands of Wisconsin in the league title game two years ago. Or that 41-21 pummeling by UCLA at home last September, or the 59-24 nosedive against the Badgers this year, or the 28-24 loss to Minnesota in Lincoln one week later. That game was decided on one improbable play -- a strip by a Gophers defensive back on a potential touchdown catch for a Cornhuskers receiver -- over which none of the coaches on either sideline could exercise any control. But the optics were what they were: Surging Minnesota goes on the road and finds a way while Nebraska’s wheels spin. The nicest guy in the world wasn’t going to survive a proud fan base demanding more than that.
Whether they get it is another story.
Nebraska isn’t in position to walk into the living room of a coveted quarterback or running back or receiver recruit and command his attention merely thanks to the red block ‘N’ on the coach’s polo shirt. It just isn’t. The brand isn’t diluted, but at the moment this is just a solid program in the middle of the non-descript Big Ten heartland. That is a challenge for any new coach to overcome; pick the right guy, and he can manage it initially. Then, perhaps, over time, he can spark a more dramatic shift in the dynamic. Perhaps. Pick the wrong guy? Nebraska isn’t immune to wandering into the fog of .500 seasons or worse on a regular basis. It’s a tenuous spot. Administrators can’t be blamed for coveting more. They also have to be very conscious and careful of what they’ve wished for.
The good news is that the Big Ten West is eminently navigable, which creates some optimism about continuing to contend for a spot in the league title game on a regular basis. That may or may not translate to contending for a college football playoff berth (look no further than Wisconsin this fall) but it’s a fine place to start. Who can build it from there is anyone’s guess.
Consider some names floated by Sports Illustrated colleague Pete Thamel and others for the gig: Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Memphis head coach Justin Fuente, Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. With the exception of Schiano, who had an extended run of success in Piscataway before a brief NFL stop in Tampa Bay, the qualifications of those candidates aren’t dramatically different than those Pelini brought along after years as a celebrated defensive coordinator. Hire a hot assistant again, hire a sitting head coach at a mid-level operation … replacing Pelini essentially carries the same questions and risks as hiring him did.
Deciding it was time for a coaching change is a defensible position in Lincoln. Pelini had his chances, and the larger-picture results never changed. Nebraska wants more, but the college football landscape is much more claustrophobic and program-building is much more onerous than it was in the program’s heyday. There’s a momentous decision coming. Things could be better. They can get a lot worse, too.