COLUMBUS, Neb. -- Cattle trucks rumble down Highway 30 on another dreary day in mediocrity. The sun has been trying its darnedest to poke its head out, a DJ crackles between hog reports and outdated songs. But the rain keeps coming, and the banks of the Loup Power Canal are about to give.
They do not ask for much in these parts. Water for the crops, good health for the family, a 10-win season for the football team. And like most towns in Nebraska, the football team is everywhere in Columbus. The grocery store on the corner sells Husker Chops. The garbage-truck driver who runs Big Red Sanitation has a bumper sticker that says he's a Cornhusker. He's the proud pops of Cory Schlesinger, one of the last great Nebraska fullbacks, and these days the most depressing thing in a state whose motto was once "The Good Life" is that nearly every sentence ends with "one of the last great "
"Nebraska has earned a lot of notoriety because of our football team," Dave Ernst says as he sips coffee in front of a newspaper that chronicles the latest football debacle in 120-point type. "When it's not doing well, the psyche of the state is affected."
For almost half a century, football was Nebraska's identity. They dressed in red, wore corncobs on their head and gathered on Saturdays to watch their beloved team beat the tar out of an overmatched opponent. They won with dignity, stood up and clapped for the poor souls who took the beatings, then spent six days pondering how the Cornhuskers would annihilate the next team.
Nobody quite knows how to handle their latest role as the whupped. In the closing minutes of Saturday's 45-14 loss to Oklahoma State, on homecoming, the stadium fell eerily silent and the classiest fans in college football temporarily lost their manners. A huge banner asked the embattled athletic director to surrender. A middle-aged woman yelled, "You're a loser, Callahan!"
And then there were those who couldn't move, even when the score was 38-0 at halftime, even when the red balloons prematurely filled the sky when the Cornhuskers finally registered a first down. Ernst, who owns a car lot in Columbus, was among the minority who stood and clapped for the losers.
"That's what I do, win or lose," he says, "because that's what I think I should do as a fan."
In every good fairy tale, there is a hero and a villain. Nebraskans don't generally hate. That would be considered rude. But for the better part of four years, they've harbored a deep resentment for Steve Pederson.
His hire as Nebraska's athletic director was hailed as a savvy move in 2002, the native son from North Platte coming home after a successful run at Pittsburgh. Athletic directors, generally, aren't known by even the most hard-core fans. But Pederson made national headlines in 2003 when he fired Frank Solich after a 9-3 season. Using catchphrases like "gravitate to mediocrity" and "we won't surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas," Pederson rattled a state and immediately irked its biggest legend, Tom Osborne. The AD hadn't consulted Osborne, who won three national championships in four years and had handpicked Solich as his successor.
Pederson embarked upon a coaching search, alone, and was turned down by at least four candidates before hiring Bill Callahan, who'd just been fired by the Oakland Raiders.
The moves immediately created a divide between the past and the present, both in the state and in the athletic department. Former players felt shut out by the new regime. Osborne distanced himself from the program.
Ground-based football with massive, homegrown offensive linemen was replaced by the West Coast Offense and a playbook bigger than the Omaha phone directory. Though Nebraskans are often adverse to change, they gave it a taste. Seventy-thousand fans showed up for Callahan's first spring game. They oooed and aaahed at the passes and the massive numbers. They had no idea what was coming.
There was the 70-10 loss at Texas Tech, when fans became convinced that Callahan didn't understand the culture of Nebraska football and the embarrassment a state feels over such a slaughtering. There was the 5-6 season, the "[expletive] hillbillies" comment, the four seasons of hope and ultimately surrendering the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas.
"It's almost like a glass house got built around the program," says NU booster Jay Noddle. "I think an awful lot of people felt like they weren't a part of it. They couldn't touch and feel it.
"It's kind of like the program lost its heart and soul."
A former player set up a Web site called savetheprogram.com. This site is dedicated to one thing -- The removal of Steve Pederson as athletic director of the Univeristy of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Web site says. A letterman's meeting was planned this week to discuss the direction of the program. By late Monday, it was scrapped. Pederson was fired.
Live TV was interrupted on Monday to air the news conference announcing Pederson's firing. On Tuesday, the local stations broke programming again to show Osborne stepping to a podium as Nebraska's interim athletic director.
For most of Monday afternoon, a local radio station in Omaha played "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead," between commercial breaks. At DJ's Dugout, a local watering hole, roughly 50 people cheered and high-fived as news of Pederson's demise hit the airwaves.
Kevin Kugler, an Omaha radio host who was broadcasting Monday's show from the bar, said fans rushed home to put on their Huskers gear.
At a history lecture on the Nebraska campus this week, a professor broke up the monotony of class by asking the 100-plus students, "Who here is happy Pederson got fired?"
All the students in the room raised their hands.
Bill Callahan walks off the practice field near a building that bears Osborne's name. Every day is a new confrontation complete with bright lights, hastily called news conferences and probing questions. On Wednesday, a media type sees former NU defensive coordinator Charlie McBride wandering around campus and leaks that Callahan has been fired and McBride, who's eight years retired, will take over.
On Thursday, the clatter is about a new book that says Callahan dissed Osborne and called him a "crusty old [expletive]."
In the NFL, Callahan learned that life isn't defined by one game, or even four. In Nebraska, he's found out how quickly one month can change a man's life. On Sept. 15, the Cornhuskers were back on the national stage. They were undefeated and ranked 14th in the country and had "College GameDay" and No. 1 USC in town. Three humiliating losses later, Callahan's fate is seemingly sealed.
He walks off the practice field, and the wife of one of the assistants is holding a basket of cookies and asks Callahan if he wants one. He hesitates, then says why not. With 1.7 million people breathing down his neck, why worry about calories?
Callahan supporters -- and they are scarce now -- say he was an outsider who was never really given a chance, an NFL guy who grew up in a big city and was never embraced by a corn-growing, football-loving state.
"You do the best you can," Callahan says. "You treat people right, with respect and dignity. There's nothing you can do.
"I don't think Bob Devaney was born here, either. In coaching, wherever you're at, you make it your home and do the best you can."
It is just before 7 o'clock, gray skies are giving way to darkness, and Tom Osborne walks to the parking lot and fumbles for the keys to his SUV. He is unassuming -- his briefcase looks more like a black beach bag stuffed with papers; his keys are operated the old-fashioned way, with no remote.
A man who's been waiting in the parking lot asks for his autograph, and Osborne gives him a grandfatherly smile. "Got it!" the guy says to a buddy as they rush off.
Osborne seems so out of place in this new job -- he spent part of the day trying to find his new office -- and yet so suited. One of his first orders of business was to send an e-mail to all of the ex-players, welcoming them to stop by, visit his third-floor office, or stand on the sidelines during games.
"I can only speak for me personally, as well as the guys I talk to on a daily basis," says former defensive star Chad Kelsay, "but we feel like things are in good hands now."
Osborne says the feeling of disconnect was natural. For 40 years, young and old men could walk into South Stadium and find a familiar face. Continuity and repetition were just the Nebraska way. But even Osborne knows that times change.
He walks past a statue of himself, bronzed in far different times. He clutches onto his umbrella. It's about to rain again.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.