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Leftover Nebraska assistants seek closure

12/23/2014

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis was 29-years-old when he received his first full-time coaching job in 2007, following Bo Pelini here from LSU.

Three years ago, Papuchis earned a promotion to defensive coordinator.

 The coach and his wife, Billie, are parents to four children, all born during their time in Lincoln, the youngest three days before the Huskers’ season-opener in August.

"My family, all they know is Nebraska,” said Papuchis, who will coach his last game at Nebraska on Saturday against USC in the National University Holiday Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). “One way or another, that’s coming to an end Saturday night. So if it’s going to come down to an ending, it might as well end on a good note.”

New Nebraska coach Mike Riley, introduced Dec. 5, has announced plans to retain secondary coach Charlton Warren. The remaining holdovers from the staff assembled by Pelini, who was fired on Nov. 30, are likely left to coach this week and leave.

Pelini is now the head coach at FCS-level Youngstown State.

The NCAA granted Nebraska a waiver that allows the old staff – under contract through January 2016 -- to run practices this month. Meanwhile, Riley’s hires, headquartered one floor above the football offices at Memorial Stadium, went to work on recruiting.

Difficult circumstances, for sure, said interim coach Barney Cotton, who worked with Pelini at Nebraska for the past seven seasons and in 2003 as the duo served under former coach Frank Solich as coordinators.

“I wish I could make it all go away,” Cotton said of the often-painful transition.

Cotton has accepted a position as offensive coordinator for new UNLV coach Tony Sanchez. Nebraska offensive line coach John Garrison is also headed to Las Vegas.

Papuchis is still looking, along with offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The remainder of the staff includes Rick Kaczenski (defensive line), Ross Els (linebackers), Ron Brown (running backs) and Rich Fisher (receivers).

“It’s been unique to say the least,” Beck said last week. “But I’m alive, and I get a chance to get out here and coach. I just coach. I enjoy it. I enjoy the kids. It’s what I do, and it’s all I know.”

In addition to Warren, Riley hired four assistants from his former school, Oregon State – defensive coordinator Mark Banker, linebackers coach Trent Bray, special teams coach Bruce Read and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

The new head coach watched the Huskers practice in Lincoln, and he said he’ll be an interested observer during the Holiday Bowl.

Meanwhile, the old staff is tasked to keep the Huskers focused for this game.

“The thing that I’ve tried to emphasize with the players,” Papuchis said, “in their career, they’ll only get four opportunities at the most to play in a bowl game. And every one of those opportunities, you’ve got to maximize and cherish.

“Despite all the things that are surrounding the program and however they felt about the transition, this is about them. The kids sometimes get lost in all the discussion.”

Papuchis, now 36, has tried to focus entirely this month on preparing Nebraska to face the 24th-ranked Trojans.

“I don’t ever want to cheat our players and cheat this program,” he said.

“At the same time, obviously, I’ve got four little ones and a family to take care of, so I’m trying to do the best I can as far as balancing what’s going to come after [Saturday] and what is taking place.”

Beck said he’s leaving Nebraska with no regrets.

“I think we did it with class,” the offensive coordinator said, “and I think we did it with humility, integrity. We are who we were from the beginning to the end. We’ve never changed. We’ve believed in each other and worked hard doing it.”

At Nebraska, Beck, the school’s highest-paid assistant at $700,000, and Papuchis worked in a spotlight that shone more brightly than on the position coaches. More of the same is likely on tap for Saturday, the first game for both without Pelini since 2007.

Papuchis said he’s “confident” about his future. And in this final game at Nebraska, he said, “there’s no real reason to be conservative.”

“I don’t mind saying this at all,” Papuchis said. “I look at this as an opportunity -- another chance to build on a résumé, to play a great team. And hopefully we have a good defensive showing, and that will help going forward.”