When news trickled out on Sunday morning that Bo Pelini had been fired at Nebraska, it immediately piqued my interest for two reasons:
1. It once again sent the college football coaching carousel spinning… and let’s get real here, is there anything better than the college football coaching carousel? Short of the words, “A new season of Keeping up with the Kardashians starts right now,” I can’t think of many.
2. Given that the college football coaching carousel is pretty much the most entertaining thing on the planet, the Nebraska job might be the most interesting job that could become available.
Why is that?
Well it’s because a school like Nebraska — not necessarily Nebraska, but a school like it — drums up pretty much every argument that makes college football the greatest and most entertaining sport on the planet (coincidentally, they’re also the same arguments that almost always end with one fan threatening to kill another on Twitter).
Those arguments basically boil down to this: In 2014, what ultimately matters in college football? Old-school success or modern amenities? Geography or history? Heck, with the way the sport has changed, do we even know what constitutes an “elite” job anymore?
They’re all important questions, and to fully understand Nebraska’s place in it all, it’s important to start with a history lesson. That’s because — while anyone under 21 might not believe it — to a different generation of college football fans, Nebraska really was, at one time, the pre-eminent program in college football. Right as I was coming of age as a college football fan, they hit their absolute peak, winning three National Championships in a four year stretch from 1994-1997, beating three Sun Belt schools in bowl games (Miami, Florida and Tennessee) to get them. And that was after dominating the sport for decades before that.
Nebraska was good. Damn good. Like, if you took the current domination of Alabama, the offensive precision of Oregon, and the juggernaut, national recruiting prowess of Urban Meyer, that was basically Nebraska through the late 1990’s.
That’s also why seeing the job open up on Sunday became so damn fascinating.
That’s because, to a certain faction of college football fans (not just Nebraska fans, but college football fans overall), they still view Nebraska through that championship-winning prism. They also think that with the right hire, the Cornhuskers can get themselves back amongst the elite programs nationally, and compete for titles annually as well.
To the rest of us, well, it’s not nearly as simple. To our faction, even if Nebraska hires the perfect coach, and everything breaks their way, I’m still not sure they’ll ever win a National Championship again. The sport of college football has changed too much, and unfortunately, in its evolution, I can’t think of one school that’s come up a bigger loser than Nebraska.
Simply put, Nebraska is no longer an elite job. A good one sure (hey, we’re not talking Kansas here); but no different than like two dozen others across the country.
To fully understand why, we’ve got to dive deep into the ever-evolving dynamics of college football.
Let’s start with the obvious and say that for Nebraska, their biggest hurdle is access to recruits (I know, really groundbreaking stuff, huh?). Recruits are the lifeblood of the sport, and the more access you have to more good players, the easier your life is overall. It’s why Texas, LSU, Georgia, USC, Florida and Ohio State are largely considered to be the best jobs in the sport. Because of the high school players in the area, pretty much any coach can win nine games just by falling out of bed at those places (except Will Muschamp). A really good coach can have them competing for titles.
As for Nebraska, well, not so much.
I don’t think I’m breaking any news by saying that the high school football in the state isn’t, umm, elite. Some quick research tells me that a grand total of five Nebraska high school players signed with FBS schools in 2013. This year, Rivals has three players, listed as three, four or five stars. Yikes.
Of course saying that “Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of high school football talent” is like saying “Man, I bet Justin Verlander enjoys dating Kate Upton.” Of course he does. Tell me something I don’t know. It also will lead to a pretty obvious response from most Nebraska fans: ‘We never had a ton of high school football talent in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s and we still won a ton of games.’
Yes, you did. You absolutely did win a bunch of games in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. Unfortunately, it’s not the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s anymore, and the game is quite different. The things that mattered then don’t matter nearly as much in 2014. And the things that made Nebraska uniquely Nebraska… well, they’re really not all that unique anymore.
What were those things? For starters, Nebraska was basically the first school to pour money into their facilities, specifically strength and conditioning (this fancy little website has a lot of good details). They played in an elite conference against other elite teams. And they were one of the only teams to play on national TV every week.
Basically, if you wanted elite training (what high school kid hoping to play in the NFL doesn’t?) and national TV exposure, Nebraska was one of your only options.
Only now, you know who pours money into facilities and plays on national TV every week… pretty much EVERYBODY! It also makes you wonder why kids from Texas, California, New Jersey or Florida would come to Nebraska. What exactly is Nebraska offering, that schools closer to home can’t?
Let me give you an example. Although he played well before most of us (myself included) were even born, Mike Rozier was a high school recruit out of New Jersey who went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Nebraska. If he was coming out of high school now, what would be his reason for picking Nebraska over say, his home-state school, Rutgers? Rutgers also plays in the Big Ten. They spend a boat load of money on facilities. They’re on national TV every week. What is Nebraska offering, that a school an hour from his house can’t?
It’s the same in Texas. A couple decades ago, guys like Turner Gill (who won 28 games in three years as a starter at Nebraska) weren’t competing for National Championships in-state if they didn’t get an offer from Texas or Texas A&M. Now TCU and Baylor — to anyone over 25, let that sink in for a second, TCU and freakin’ Baylor — are competing for National Championships. California kids can go pretty much anywhere in the Pac-12 and play really good football on national TV every week. Why go halfway across the country?
Point is, a lot has changed in college football. And unfortunately, Nebraska is on the wrong end of those changes.
Does that mean it’s impossible for them to compete for National Championships? Well, technically, nothing is impossible; Notre Dame played for a title a few years ago. But at the same time, in an era of TV money and $4 million a year head coaches, the stuff that used to matter isn’t as important anymore. And schools like Nebraska — and their proponents — are caught in a time that no longer exists.
This article isn’t intended to pick on Nebraska. They have a good fan-base who clearly loves their team. After all, it takes a special sort of “support” to continue to show up and root for Bo Pelini. But I’m just not all that optimistic about their future. That’s not the new coach’s fault and it’s not the program’s fault.
It’s just the reality of college football right now.