Monday, September 16, 2013
Icy roads ahead: Tough times for Pelini
By Mitch Sherman
LINCOLN, Neb. -- This was the other shoe.
It dropped with a thud that resounded beyond the borders of this state at the end of an already difficult day for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
Make that embattled Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
Bo Pelini has always been emotional and has not been afraid to lash out at just about anyone. It caught up with the Nebraska coach on Monday.
He was caught on audio in a profanity-laced tirade that surfaced, not coincidentally, after 23 months on the shelf. The recording, obtained by Deadspin, captured Pelini making critical comments about two Omaha sports writers and, much more notably, the Nebraska fan base. He was apparently upset at the fans for booing at halftime, then bailing early on Nebraska as it completed a 21-point comeback against Pelini’s alma mater, Ohio State, to win 34-27 on Oct. 8, 2011.
His comments, made to Nebraska play-by-play announcer Greg Sharpe and longtime athletic department official Chris Anderson, were recorded without his knowledge after Pelini’s postgame news conference as he prepared to tape an interview with the Husker Sports Network.
And here is what you should know, Nebraska fans: This is your coach. This is Pelini. A tirade like this is not out of character for the 45-year-old Ohio native.
Pelini has regularly accosted local media members in such fashion over coverage with which he disagreed. I got the phone call once when I worked for Omaha World-Herald, covering his first three seasons in Lincoln -- and many others heard the same tone and language evident in that ugly audio.
Someday, such boorish actions were going to bite him. It was a matter of when. Until Monday, it didn’t matter what Bo said to the media behind closed doors. It didn’t impact the team or the Nebraska program. Typically, he did it to blow off steam and rarely mentioned the incidents after his initial tirade.
But this latest revelation changed the game. Pelini made it public. He went after the fans.
The same Nebraska fans lauded by the school as the best in college football. The same fans who have sold out an NCAA-record 328 consecutive games. The same fans who make possible his salary of nearly $3 million a year as the highest-paid public employee in state history.
The uncovering of this audio came hours after Pelini responded sharply to the suggestion by former Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier that the Huskers dump their entire defensive staff.
Pelini defended his staff and players on Monday and talked of embracing former players. But then, he said of Frazier, a popular figure: “If he feels like that, then so be it. We don’t need him.”
Bad idea. Better to take the high road. No need to dignify Frazier’s emotional outburst on Twitter from Saturday in the wake of the Huskers’ 41-21 loss at to UCLA.
Just say it doesn’t matter.
But that’s not Bo. It does matter to him. He saw Frazier’s words as an attack on his coaches, and Pelini spoke his mind. He is fiercely loyal toward his assistants.
Again, that’s him -- for better or worse. He’s not changing.
And all of this comes on the heels of Pelini’s comments earlier Monday, in which he said he created a culture at Nebraska that placed too much pressure on the Huskers to perform. He talked of how he pushed the team too hard, often taking the fun out of football.
“At the end of the day,” Pelini said, “that comes back on me. Have I been doing the right things? Am I doing the right things? Are [the players] enjoying their experience?”
He said he determined that no, they were not enjoying it enough. He saw it Saturday. When things went awry against UCLA, the Huskers didn’t come together; they fell apart.
“I wholeheartedly failed in that regard on Saturday for whatever reason,” Pelini said.
But given the chance to display a more diplomatic persona just moments after his admissions of soul-searching, Pelini took the bait and criticized a Husker great.
The coach released a statement through Nebraska on Monday night, apologizing for his 2011 words. He took responsibility and said he was “venting following a series of emotional events.”
“These comments are in no way indicative of my true feelings,” Pelini said in the statement. “I love it here in Nebraska and feel fortunate to be associated with such a great university and fan base.”
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First-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst, also in a statement, said he was “disheartened and disappointed” by Pelini’s comments. Eichorst said he had spoken with Pelini and chancellor Harvey Perlman and “expressed our deep concern.”
Perlman was more blunt: “I am disappointed and in discussions with Shawn Eichorst about addressing the issue.”
How this plays in the coming days may loom large in Pelini’s future at Nebraska.
When the bottom fell out on former coach Bill Callahan in 2007, he had little equity upon which to stand with the fans. Their relationship disintegrated quickly. It helped seal his fate.
For most of his five-plus seasons, Pelini has remained in good standing with the fans.
But the temperature was already changing after the loss on Saturday. It marked Nebraska’s most lopsided loss to a nonconference opponent at home since 1961, one year before the sellout streak began.
A poll on the Lincoln Journal-Star's website Monday night asked fans if Pelini should be fired. The results? Right down the middle.
In this last official week of summer in Lincoln, the events of Monday just turned the situation icy -- and intensified the heat on Pelini.