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Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Updated: September 18, 11:22 AM ET
What is Pelini's place among fans?

By Elizabeth Merrill
ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- There is a nun in Omaha who is so passionate about Nebraska football that she has written more than 100 letters to the local newspaper about the Cornhuskers. On the wall of her apartment is an autographed photo from Tom Osborne, who thanked her for her support. When she dies, Sister Mary Hlas wants the Nebraska fight song played at the end of her funeral, even though her colleagues are pushing for something more traditional, like "Ave Maria."

Times are tough these days in Nebraska, and Hlas is troubled over the release of a tape by Deadspin on Monday that featured coach Bo Pelini hurling 18 expletives over the course of 1 minute and 42 seconds. Pelini cussed out the media in the tape, which is two years old, but more important, he cursed the fans, using possibly the harshest F-word, "fair-weathered."

I don't like his fiery temper, but it does pay off, and there is something warm and kind inside of him.

-- Sister Mary Hlas, on Bo Pelini

The story was so huge that it led the local 10 o'clock news on Monday night, hours after a shooter killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. There's massive hand-wringing today in Nebraska, a place that has sold out every football game since 1962, a place where people fancy themselves as the greatest fans in college football.

Hlas, who tried to keep up on the developments Monday night as she worked the overnight shift at Methodist Hospital, by no means condones the cursing. She hopes that the next time Pelini gets angry, he counts to 100 instead of saying a swear word. She's worried that the controversy -- and the blowout losses the Huskers have absorbed the past couple of years, most notably the 41-21 defeat to UCLA on Saturday -- will get him fired.

"And I don't want him to be," Hlas says. "I don't like his fiery temper, but it does pay off, and there is something warm and kind inside of him.

"They would've never published that expletive thing had they not lost. What were they saving it for? I don't like it."

A matter of context

Rumors of the tape's existence, apparently, had been circulating for two years. It was recorded in the late-night hours of Oct. 8, 2011, after the Huskers stormed back from a 21-point deficit against Ohio State to claim a 34-27 victory.

The days leading up to that game were heated and emotional. The past decade has been a struggle as Nebraska has tried to claw its way back among the nation's elite, and the opportunity was prime a week earlier, on Oct. 1. Pelini's team was ranked eighth in the nation and undefeated, and hopes were high when Nebraska faced No. 7 Wisconsin in the ABC showcase game. The Huskers were hammered 48-17 that night, in large part because of Russell Wilson, but also because of the erratic play of Nebraska sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez.

Martinez spent the next week under fire, and Pelini, known as a player's coach, took exception to the criticism. So along came Ohio State, on Nebraska's turf, and when the Buckeyes jumped out to the three-touchdown lead, fans left, and Pelini was furious.

He stewed over it as he waited for a postgame interview with Nebraska play-by-play announcer Greg Sharpe. Pelini didn't know his rant was being recorded.

Tom Osborne
Bo Pelini may have been hired by Tom Osborne, but he will never escape Osborne's shadow in Lincoln.

"Our crowd," Pelini said in the recording. "What a bunch of f---ing fair-weathered f---ing — they can all kiss my ass on the way out the f---ing door."

But then the tape sat, for nearly two years, until Monday. It was released just hours after Pelini's weekly press conference, in which he responded to criticism from Tommie Frazier.

Frazier, a legendary NU quarterback, suggested in a tweet over the weekend that Pelini should fire his defensive staff. Pelini answered Monday by saying, "If he feels like that, then so be it. We don't need him."

And so started the controversy in a state that has seen its share of well-publicized dustups in the years since Frank Solich was fired in 2003 after a 9-3 record. No coach, be it Solich, Bill Callahan or Pelini, has been able to fill the giant shadow cast by Tom Osborne, who won three national championships and said zero swear words.

"Emotions are high in this game," said former NU and Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud. "Sometimes you say things when you're still fired up that obviously the next day you're probably not going to say.

"He is fiercely loyal to his players. I know he really respects the program, respects the tradition. But he's going to fight for his players. Obviously, none of that was ever meant to be heard by anybody, but that was just a reaction from him after a very emotional game."

Pelini was the first coach to capture the state's heart since Osborne. In 2003, he was hired by Solich to turn around a moribund defense, and within months, the Blackshirts were among the nation's best. Players were captivated by Pelini's fire; fans loved the fact that he lacked a filter. He was interim head coach when Solich was fired and led Nebraska to a victory in the Alamo Bowl.

As the clock wound down, the Alamodome rocked to chants of "We want Bo!" Legend has it that one night, Pelini, his days numbered until Nebraska made a coaching hire, sang "I Will Survive" at a piano bar in San Antonio, though that was never confirmed. Bill Callahan was eventually hired as Nebraska's head coach, even though Pelini was the fan favorite.

When Osborne became AD and hired Pelini in late 2007, the state was awash with T-shirts that said, "Bo Knows Defense" and "My Bo-Friend's Back." Pelini has gone 51-21, but the Huskers have yet to win a conference title or find themselves in the hunt for the national championship by November.

At Husker Hounds, a fan gear shop in Omaha, the Pelini T-shirts are gone, but the store's best seller is the Nebraska coach's polo shirt. In one display case is a football signed by Osborne and Pelini. (Osborne did not return a call to ESPN.com on Tuesday.) The football is next to Osborne's book, "More Than Winning."

Thomas Bradney, an employee at Husker Hounds, said he hadn't heard of any fans wanting to return Pelini items as of late Monday night. Bradney shrugged at the significance of the tape.

"It's Bo's personality," he said. "It's not a bad thing. I thought it was disrespectful that the fans left back then. We're supposed to be the greatest fans. We are great fans. But when we leave early, that is disrespectful to the coach."

Is Pelini's popularity waning?

The phone lines lit up the first two hours of Monday's "Unsportsmanlike Conduct" show on Omaha radio station 1620 with talk about the UCLA game and Frazier. Then the tape was released on Deadspin, and Huskers fans had plenty of other things to talk about.

Mike'l Severe, a co-host of the show, said if he had to guess, Pelini's approval rating among Nebraskans is still at about 75 percent. "But the [other] 20 to 25 percent are very loud. They're extremely loud and vocal.

"But with the average Joe fan, I think they're still supportive of Bo because he's winning nine games, he's running a clean program, and people aren't getting arrested every day."

Nebraska fans
The majority of Cornhuskers fans are still supportive of Pelini, but a vocal minority is growing.

The other 25 percent is angry that Nebraska's defense has floundered in the past few years under Pelini. They're angry that he's called them "fair-weather" after they've gobbled up Huskers gear for years and have helped support his $3 million salary.

They wonder if he even wants to be in Nebraska.

"Every time he's asked the question," Severe said, "he always said he loves it here. But do I believe that? I don't believe he likes the fishbowl mentality here. I don't think he likes how difficult it is to recruit here. I don't think he likes just how tough the job is.

"I don't think it's the job he signed up for. I think he had these grandiose ideas of going back to Nebraska and being this hero. And I don't think he really knew how difficult it would be."

At Lisa's Radial Cafe in Omaha, Husker fans buried their faces in newspapers on Tuesday morning while the kitchen cooked up prime rib breakfasts. A man named Bill called Huskers fans "spoiled" and said he wasn't upset with Pelini at all. Across the diner, Mike McQuade said he couldn't see Nebraska severely punishing Pelini for a sin from two years ago. McQuade says Pelini seems different over the past year or so. He's calmer.

Nebraska regent Hal Daub agrees.

"Back in that day, he was pretty animated," said Daub, who added that it's up to Nebraska's athletic director to make any decisions on Pelini. "He's gotten a little less animated over the past two years. I would call it maturing. We all do, especially with age. And sometimes we do with difficult experiences."