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Feit Can Write
One of the most heated and lengthy competitions in Nebraska Football history – between Bo-leaver and Bo-liever – finally came to an end with the immediate dismissal of coach Bo Pelini by athletics director Shawn Eichorst. Between the firing and Eichorst’s press conference, there is a lot to cover, so keep things focused, I’m going use my standard post-game template.
My purpose is not discuss if Eichorst made the right decision, nor is it to lament/celebrate the firing of a polarizing coach. The decision has been made and it is time to move forward.
So what did we learn?
Nine wins is not the standard. Championships are. During his press conference, Eichorst was asked about expectations. His response included: “At the end of the day, our coaches understand that pursuing championships is what we do, and being competitive in those games that matter is important.” He made it very clear that one of the key reasons for Pelini’s dismissal was his failure to win (or in recent seasons, compete for) a conference championship.
At the end of the day,* it was made very clear that championship contention matters more so than arbitrary win totals. More appropriately, at Nebraska the losses became bigger than the wins.
*Yeah, I noticed how often he said “at the end of the day”, which in my experience is a fingers-on-a-blackboard phrase that must be taught on the first day of upper management training – with the expectation that it should be said at least two dozen times before the end of the day. So don’t be surprised if I work that phrase in every so often. At the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to sprinkle in an extra helping of ATEOTD than a bunch of random uhs, ums, and ers.
This is one of the key areas where Pelini fell short. Yes, his win totals are strong and measure up with some big name schools and coaches, but he only made the Big Ten Championship once (and we know how that ended). Frankly, it rarely felt like he was close to getting back there.
Try as they might, the Nebraska media was not going to get the lawyer to divulge any dirt. I liked watching Eichorst respond to questions. He was thoughtful, respectful, and I felt like he answered things honestly…but only so far. Eichorst was very clear that he wasn’t going to discuss his search process, comment on candidates, or probably even acknowledge that the job is open. As a result, any questions trying to get him to tip his hand were politely shot down. Ditto for questions seeking dirt on the specifics of his meeting with Pelini or the vague “off the field” shortcomings.
Eichorst was in complete control of the press conference, the message being delivered, and the amount of information to be divulged. I know that Eichorst is not a very popular guy with some fans, but those same fans probably have an equal distaste for the some of the journalists being rebuked by the athletic director. At the end of the day, that was probably nice for them to see.
Eichorst’s biggest misstep was in reassuring the fan base. Overall, I was very impressed with how Eichorst handled the brightest spotlight of his Nebraska tenure. But there were a couple of responses that may not give everybody the warm fuzzies:
He was asked what message he would give to fans who feel uncertain of him. His response was basically ‘the uncertainty of not having a coach – and having me pick his replacement – is pretty much the same as the uncertainty you felt this week on if I’d keep him or can him’. That wasn’t exactly the reassuring pep talk I was looking for.
But at the end of the day, Eichorst’s biggest blunder was his response to a question about how he unites the fan base: “Communicate”.
Um, Shawn? You do know that the single biggest perception of you is the tight-lipped, media adverse AD who prefers to operate as far from the limelight as possible, right? The World-Herald‘s in-house humorist, Brad Dickson, has probably written 12,000 jokes over your two years all related to your reluctance to speak publicly. If your communication is what is going to reunite a fractured fan base, then we have big problems. (Next time, just say: “you know how I unite the fan base? By hiring somebody who will win championship. Because at the end of the day, you fools love you some championships.”)
So what don’t we know?
How much were boosters involved in the decision? During his press conference, Eichorst spoke often of Nebraska and Pelini having sufficient “resources” to be successful. I think it is accurate to say that Eichorst is attuned to making sure the program has what it needs to be successful. But that money has to come from somewhere, which leads us to the boosters, big donors, and other folks that Eichorst probably knows on a first name basis.
Here is a hypothetical that I could very easily see happening: Dave Donor is writing a big check to the university every year to help pay for things to make the program better. Donor Dave feels good about helping Dear Old Nebraska U, but after another season with ugly, non-competitive losses and no shot at a championship, he calls his dear friend Shawn and implies that if they want to keep receiving his “resources”, then somebody other than Pelini needs to be the one using them.
I’m not saying that Donor Dave and his booster buddies orchestrated this move, but the amount of times Eichorst spoke about resources (the official transcript has that word eight times) makes me think that it was important to Eichorst to acknowledge the folks writing the checks. One of his boldest statements (“resources are not the question here at Nebraska”) does not happen if he takes the boosters lightly.
Do we trust Eichorst to get the “home run” hire? The decision by Eichorst to not use a search firm raised some eyebrows, I’m okay with it, especially if you buy into the theory that Eichorst has one or two guys queued up and ready to go. The perception is that if you fire somebody like Pelini (consistently wins 9-10 games, recruits kids who graduate and mostly stay out of trouble, etc.) you had better replace him with a “home run” big name hire.
I don’t necessarily buy that. With all due respect to Pelini and his staff, would it really take a home run to improve upon what they’ve done? A good triple would probably do the trick, maybe even an opposite field double.
For me, the question is not if Eichorst should or should not use a search firm, if he should seek the home run guy, or find the football equivalent of Tim Miles (the guy who initially underwhelmed fans and alumni, but has proven himself to be a brilliant hire). No, the question is this:
After less than two years on the job, how well does Eichorst know what it takes to win championships at Nebraska?
This is where I’m unsure. I trust his experience working with Barry Alvarez. But I am concerned by the several times he implied that he was not sure why Pelini’s teams couldn’t win the games that mattered. I trust that Eichorst played NCAA football, and has an understanding as a player and administrator.
But mostly, I question his decision to have Barney Cotton – widely perceived by the fans as a weak link on the staff – lead the team in the bowl game. Had he gone with somebody such as beloved assistant Ron Brown, I’d feel much better about Eichorst making this big, big hire.
What were the “off the field” items Eichorst alluded to? Eichorst mentioned that his decision was based upon “a number of factors both on and off the field beyond the outcomes of games.” While Eichorst mentioned a concern over off the field items a couple more times, further attempts to get Eichorst to shed more light on those items were dismissed. For example: “I would say is we didn’t meet expectations both on and off the field. Getting into any specifics wouldn’t be something that I’m about.”
So what are these “off the field” factors? Is he referring to the arrests that happened this summer? Is there a scandal bubbling below the surface? Other conduct not in line with university policies?
My guess – and it should be taken as just that – is Eichorst was not pleased with how Pelini dressed down players on the sideline (in moments that were almost always caught by TV cameras). One quote that I found particularly telling (emphasis mine): “Outside of wins and losses, academics, leadership, the way in which we are teaching and our student-athletes are improving.”
5 Coaches I Love (and would hope are retained by the new coach)
- Rick Kaczenski. The defensive line has been a strength of the team, and the development of youngsters like Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine is huge. Kaz has a very loyal following, and a proven track record of getting talent to the NFL.
- Ron Brown. Yeah, I have a soft spot for a coach who dates back to the Osborne glory days, and can advocate and educate on what Nebraska football is all about. But I also think he is a good position coach, a man of high character and integrity, and a valuable recruiter and mentor for student athletes.
- Charlton Warren. Admittedly, this one is more about the volume and level of recruits he has brought in than the on-field work of his position group. That said, his corners and safeties have played well, and I’d be curious to see how he coaches in a different defensive scheme (say, one that encourages the secondary for look for the ball while it is in flight).
- John Garrison. Yes, the line has struggled this year, and yes, that falls squarely on Garrison. But I’m also reminded that the line play last year was very solid – despite multiple injuries. Also, I think there is benefit to having a former NU lineman on staff to explain what the Pipeline is all about.
- Rich Fisher. I’ve been impressed with the work of the “golf coach” with NU’s receivers over the years. They play hard, are physical blockers, and catch the majority of balls they should bring in.
Honorable Mention: Let’s take a moment to thank all of the members of this staff for their service, and to think about their families who getting uprooted. They will get nice severance packages, but losing your job sucks. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be fired in the middle of a statewide fishbowl while people you’ve never met cheer your unemployment and tell your family that you suck.
5 More Questions to Ponder
- If championships are the standard, how long does the new guy get to build a winning team?
- Will the new coach be named before or after the conference championship games this weekend?
- Urban Meyer is currently the highest paid coach in the Big Ten ($4.5 million a year). Will Nebraska’s new coach make more?
- Who ends up with the better coach: Nebraska or Michigan?
- At the end of the day when the new staff is finalized, how many of them will have Nebraska ties?