Published Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:29 am
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Will Husker Nation be patient? Will Pelini?
Capital One Bowl: Nebraska vs. Georgia
When: Noon Jan. 1
Where: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
TV: ABC
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

Five and 11.

If a coach at a major college football program had that record in big games today, he'd be a former coach. If a coach had that record in championship games today, he'd be counting his settlement money.

Five and 11. That was Tom Osborne's record against Oklahoma, from 1973 to 1988, when the two danced each year in the unofficial Big Eight Conference championship game. And he was 5-12 if you add the loss to OU in the 1979 Orange Bowl.

Yes, Osborne the Nebraska icon.

Osborne was able to become that legend because Nebraska gave him a chance. And Osborne gave himself a chance.

Will Bo Pelini get that chance at NU? And will he give himself the opportunity?

This has been an exhausting week of Husker Hangover. But let's be honest about emotional letdowns in Lincoln. In some ways, they are Nebraska tradition, not the Camelot days of the '90s.

You think you had your heart shredded last week by Nebraska's 70-31 Big Ten flop? You think you got sucked in again by Pelini and now want to sue the team for fraud? So you'll never trust this coach or team again?

If you're in the younger generation of Husker fans, go ask your parents about the 1980 or 1986 OU games. If you're in the older generation, this must be like déjà vu all over again.

This is the part where hands go up in the audience and objections are raised. Yes, there are clear differences between the Osborne Era and Pelini's five years in Lincoln.

First of all, the game is different. Scholarship limits. Roster sizes. There were a handful of programs that ruled the earth back then, that were on TV more than anyone else. Etc., etc.

Second, Barry Switzer may have gotten the better of his friend Tom, but the average margin of defeat in those 12 losses was 13.1 points. Osborne's biggest loss in the big game was by 31 in 1977, and that was one of Switzer's best squads.

While Osborne was cleaning up the rest of the Big Eight, he rarely got blown out in the big game.

Also rare was the defeat when Osborne was outcoached or NU was out-executed. When it happened, he was almost always out-talented.

But did that make it better when Buster Rhymes was cruising down the sideline like a lightning bolt to the heart? Or when Jamelle Holieway and Keith Jackson were tag-teaming Sooner Magic in the final minute?

Question: If you're going to have your heart snapped in two, would you rather have it over by halftime like Nebraska-Wisconsin? Or have the team get your hopes up before the rug is yanked out in the fourth quarter?

Does either hurt less? I don't think so. I'll never forget reading The World-Herald the morning after one of those devastating OU losses, when sports editor-columnist Mike Kelly consoled the state by writing, “It's OK to cry.”

There weren't many tears. Osborne never won fewer than nine games in 25 seasons and went to 20 major bowls (including the Cotton, which at the time was one of the top four).

Pelini has won at least nine in five straight seasons. True, his teams have played 13- and 14-game schedules. But they've also been tougher schedules.

Tom's nonconference schedule (particularly 1981) was typically good. But the Big Eight, from 1973 to 1988, was soft. Occasionally Iowa State, Missouri or Oklahoma State might rise up, but usually it was a one-game schedule for Nebraska. Say what you will about the Big Ten, but it is better than what MU, KU, KSU, ISU and OSU were offering in the 1980s. Today, that would be like playing five games against Illinois.

The biggest advantage Osborne will have over Pelini is time. Osborne got time to develop a championship blueprint, and he used plenty of eraser. Osborne also gave himself time.

He could have gone to Colorado in 1978 but didn't. There were other overtures from colleges and the National Football League, but Tom remained loyal to Nebraska. Occasionally he would say that he was close to getting fired, but I never believed Bob Devaney would allow that to happen.

In that era, coaches didn't job-hop as much. The big money wasn't there. There were only so many good jobs. When you had one, you held onto it.

It was a more tolerant time, too. Sure, there were was pressure to win. But TV money wasn't in the same stratosphere as it is today, and so school presidents didn't have funny money available to blow up a mistake and hire a new one.

My impression, from afar, was that Nebraska was different when it came to patience. Nebraska took pride in being different. It was also easy to be patient when you were blowing through the league every year, and if you lost the last one, you could always say we'll be back again next year.

Pelini doesn't have that luxury. He coaches in a different league and time.

The era of coaches at one school for 25 years, or even 15 years, is over. The days when coaches stay and win enough to have a statue built are history.

There's too much money to chase, too many hours to work, too many demands on the time and psyche. The best ones burn out or burn bridges or just plain get bored and need a new “challenge.”

Bret Bielema left Wisconsin last week, right after clinching his third straight Rose Bowl. Three straight Rose Bowls and you used to be set for life, and they were measuring you for that statue outside the stadium. But Bielema wasn't popular, Badger fans nitpicked at his staff's play-calling and his personality, and now some of them say they're glad he's gone.

So he chased the money and the challenge at Arkansas before they could get tired of him. Step forward, step sideways, whatever. For many coaches it's not about school name, it's about building the bank and staying alive before they can run you out. Then on to the next one.

You hear Pelini's name come up for jobs every year. Not every job, but some. Is that his hard-working agent trying to keep his name fresh? Is Bo looking around? Neither? All of the above? Who knows?

But loyalty goes two ways in today's world. Coaches get lambasted annually for job-hopping. But in today's college football, you take care of yourself. Those excited men who just got jobs in the Southeastern Conference? Check back in four years and see if they're still there. If they are, that means they won a whole bunch of games.

Back to Bo: How many Husker fans would be willing to give Pelini five more years to grow as a head coach? It's an interesting question. In today's world, everyone wants a reset button. Patience isn't always a virtue, it's a flaw. A sign of weakness.

We've said this before: Pelini was hired on potential, not track record as a head coach. He's done this only five years. His staff is mostly guys like him, working feverishly to grow into their jobs, recruit big-time talent, outcoach the other guy and do it better nine and 10 times a year.

They're not trying to fail. To hear Pelini say last week that this season was “a failure,” after all the work he and his staff put in this year, was unreal. But it is what it is.

Osborne had a luxury of inheriting Devaney's smart and savvy staff. He eventually brought his guys in, but you wonder how much that helped Osborne early on to have that safety net of experience. Had to be huge.

That's where Pelini must do what Osborne did: give yourself a chance to make it. If necessary, alter the staff, rework the offense, change how and where you recruit. If he doesn't deem it necessary, stand pat and keep growing.

The presence of Shawn Eichorst will make 2013 a very interesting year. We don't know Eichorst yet, or what sort of timetable he believes in, but we do know he's a disciple of Barry Alvarez, who won and became a legend at Wisconsin and remained loyal.

For Osborne, the Nebraska son, that part was easy. You wonder if (when) Pelini does win that title, does break through, would he immediately bolt, escape his critics and find the next challenge? Or would he settle in for a nice, long ride?

I believe Pelini will be that championship coach. I think it will take some resilience, some patience and some smart tinkering by the coach. I don't know how long it will take. I don't know if Eichorst will give him time. Or if Pelini will give himself time to do it here.

What I do think is, when Osborne rides off into the sunset next month, it will truly be the end of an era.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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