In November 2007, after Bill Callahan was fired, I surveyed national experts and asked what they thought of the Nebraska football job. I remember talking to Terry Bowden en route to Atlanta, where I covered the SEC championship game between LSU and Tennessee. Bo Pelini was hired the next day and the story was never published. I went back this week and found it. Obviously, it doesn’t mean much now, but it’s a fun piece of time travel. Enjoy.
By Dirk Chatelain
World-Herald Staff Writer
LINCOLN — Steve Pederson, four years ago Saturday, made quite a splash in this dry-as-a-bone land.
He walked into a room of tape recorders and TV cameras and talked about integrity and tradition and direction.
He said some things about gravitating to mediocrity and surrendering the Big 12 that leaped immediately into your long-term memory banks.
But Pederson said something else that history hasn’t yet condemned, something not so black and white, something still worthy of debate.
“This is the best job in the country…”
In the ensuing six weeks, Pederson discussed that coaching job with numerous candidates, including NFL coordinators you’ve never heard of and a hillbilly named Nutt.
Apparently, nobody wanted it.
This time around, Tom Osborne evidently didn’t bother asking college football’s biggest names if they were interested.
So is Nebraska a coveted job, as Pederson proclaimed, or did Tom Osborne simply perform it so well he made it look elite?
If you made every head coaching position in the country available, at what position in the pecking order would Nebraska fall?
Depends whom you ask.
Early this week, ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski called myth the notion that Nebraska’s an elite coaching job. He compared the Nebraska job to Michigan State, Arkansas and UCLA.
“Tradition is nice,” Wojciechowski wrote, “but elite high school recruits from outside of Nebraska’s state lines (and there aren’t many of them on an annual basis) don’t remember much, if anything, about Mike Rozier. They want to win. They want to be on TV. They want to play for someone who can get them a job in the NFL.”
That’s crazy talk, says former Colorado coach Bill McCartney.
“Trust me on this: Nebraska is a heavyweight,” said McCartney, who considers NU one of the top three jobs in the country. “But remember, everything rises and falls on leadership.”
Including perception. The appeal of each head coaching job, to some degree, depends on the current coach’s performance.
Miami isn’t nearly as attractive as it was five years ago, because Larry Coker stopped winning. The Oklahoma job looks golden now that Bob Stoops runs the show. Same for Southern Cal. Those jobs didn’t look so hot a decade ago.
Nebraska is no different, Terry Bowden said.
“The right guy went to Oklahoma and they went right to the top,” said the college football analyst and former Auburn head coach. “The right guy went to Southern Cal – you know, for 20 years we heard you couldn’t recruit to Southern Cal because it was an inner-city school? For 20 years, they were terrible.
“I’m just saying, you cannot take away the years of tradition Nebraska has. And it’s not old tradition. What’s so old about 1997?”
Bowden and McCartney say Nebraska’s success depends solely on finding the “right guy.” Find him and the job looks a lot more appealing to everyone else.
But geography sets apart Nebraska from other powers.
Sporting News columnist Tom Dienhart said Nebraska’s job is no better than positions at South Carolina and Wisconsin.
“The key is national recruiting,” Dienhart said. “Nebraska and Iowa fight a similar battle in that regard. The school must cast a wide net. The schools I rank ahead of Nebraska have similar traditions, facilities, budgets, but sit in better recruiting areas.”
Tim Griffin, San Antonio Express-News columnist, ranks Nebraska somewhere between 11-15 among coaching jobs. He, too, says recruiting to Lincoln is more difficult than luring 18 year olds to Ohio State or Florida State.
But what do recruits want, McCartney asked. They want a place where passion’s rooted deep, a place where the stadium’s full every Saturday, a place that offers opportunity to develop into a professional.
Only a few programs can absolutely promise those things.
“Tell me somebody that has the tradition you do with only one state university,” McCartney said. “There’s nobody. You’re the only one. There isn’t even the slightest chance you won’t be considered with the elite.”
NU has facilities comparable to the nation’s best. The fan base practices loyalty, but not the fanaticism of an Alabama. Since 1970, Nebraska can match just about anybody with trophies.
But it’s been six years since the Huskers played a role in the national championship race. The lull raises questions about Nebraska’s staying power, and its ability to attract top candidates.
There aren’t as many deep pockets in Nebraska – you wouldn’t see a head coach at NU earning $3 million a year.
“No question the Nebraska job has, and will always be considered one of the premier jobs in the country,” TV analyst Craig James said. “However, times have changed in college football, and not just at Nebraska.”
Renewing the winning culture and convincing recruits to leave their home states won’t be easy, James said. Not with Kansas and Missouri and Colorado investing in their own programs.
Griffin suggested that Nebraska, not Kansas or Missouri, needs to be the Big 12 North program raiding Texas for unheralded two-star and three-star recruits.
Look at the AP all-Big 12 team, released Thursday. Of the 23 first-team offensive and defensive selections, 11 hail from Texas. Of those 11, five played at Missouri or Kansas. Recruiting agencies considered none of them four-star or five-star prospects.
The way in which you go about building a champion at Nebraska may be different than Ohio State or Florida, but the blueprint is proven, Bowden said.
Build a stable of “corn-fed” linemen, pluck a few skill players out of California, Florida and Texas, design a prolific system and find speed on defense.
The recruiting base hasn’t changed since Osborne won three national titles in the 1990s, Bowden said. McCartney agrees.
“When they took Osborne out of the equation, they made a colossal mistake of the highest order,” McCartney said. “If Osborne had been involved in the decision making, you wouldn’t have gone through what you did.
“That’s flat-out obvious.”