You Can Be Mad at Bo. But Don’t Stop There.
Maybe you do fire Bo Pelini. Really. I’m not being sarcastic here. This under-performing program is at an incredibly frustrating, stagnant place. Maybe it’s worth trying to fight Texas, USC and lord-knows-who-else for Chris Petersen and Gary Patterson and Craig Putterson. OK that last one was fake. Maybe the leftover bones from that dogfight (because face it, we’re not in Peterson or Patterson’s top 3) really are better than Bo.
I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do. Neither do you. Bo probably doesn’t know if he’s the right guy to move this program forward right now and I have my doubts that Shawn Eichorst, Harvey Perlman or your drunk uncle do, either. So let’s leave those prognostications aside for a moment. This article is about what we’re not talking about, which is everything BUT Bo Pelini.
Every time this team loses, the conversation becomes about firing the coach. Partially because the last several losses have been humiliating and we are inclined to reciprocate the severity. But that’s not the only reason. Husker fans sense a Great Big Scary Program Cancer in the bloodstream. And if we can convince ourselves that Bo Pelini is the Great Big Scary Program Cancer, then we can easily remove Great Big Scary Program Cancer. And if we do that, it’s a waltz back up the road to greatness, arm-in-arm with Scott Frost.
NOTE: I don’t intend to diminish the importance/horror of cancer by comparing it to football. It’s just an analogy. Save your angry tweets.
This is why Husker fans hate Bill Callahan. Not just because of the games he lost, or choosing Sam Keller, or keeping Kevin Cosgrove. Not for his surly attitude, his gutting of the walk-on program or his star-gazing recruiting philosophy. We hate Bill Callahan because we need to believe that removing him freed us of Great Big Scary Program Cancer. We see what’s happening now and worry that we didn’t. Fans desperately yearn to believe that the cancer is gone.
This convenient delusion ignores the fact firing Frank Solich didn’t fix us, and firing Bill Callahan hasn’t either. Because firing a coach doesn’t usually remove all the bad cancer cells. There are other cells that lie dormant for months, years and decades until the circumstances are right for them to attack the program.
And it’s time we had a talk about the dormant cells before they eat away at this program from the inside. It’s time to apply this “Are we there yet?” introspection to other areas of the program - in addition to coaching - and decide what really needs fixing.
#1: The Brand
To anyone who’s not a Greatest Fan in College Football, Nebraska’s story is this: a Midwestern oasis of football fervency with a violently strong obsession with history and an inflatable toddler for a mascot.
That’s the identity, the core of our “brand,” our story. It’s an identity rooted in an era that is nearly irrelevant to one of its primary target audiences: 17-year-old football players. Yes, they all appreciate “history” to a degree. But they’re not picking a school where they can gaze at trophies - they’re picking a school where they can win them.
And the way we express that identity is equally dusty, to put it lightly. Tunnel Walk intros, HuskerVision videos, our graphic design, websites, the writing, the messaging, social media and everything else the Athletic Department uses to tell our story sound like they were produced by a committee of boring middle-aged play-it-safe types - because they were. They don’t cut it. And if you don’t believe me, go look at Oregon’s football website and then Nebraska’s and tell me, oh 17-year-old super athlete, which high-speed offense you’d want to go play for: the one in Nike shoes or the one in hypoallergenic Fruit of the Loom crew socks?
Hell yes we need a defense. Maybe we need a new defensive coordinator. But what we definitely need is a continuous stream of good defensive (and offensive) talent. We have to catch their attention with an image/story that the fan base can also get behind. And you do that with a brand. Advertising and branding works, otherwise every company in the world wouldn’t spend millions on it.
Just ask Oregon. With no story to tell, they invented one with flashing colors and cool sayings and high-impact videos that actually look like a professional put thought into them, because a professional did. With Nike’s vault of money and talent, they created a brand that attracts a national audience of fans and – more importantly – recruits.
Ask Ohio State. Their historically classic image was trashed by scandal, so they were forced to rebrand. They started with the all-important centerpiece in Urban Meyer, a coach who honed his media relations skills during a stint as a broadcaster between coaching jobs. And now they’re marching band doesn’t just “dot the I,” they moonwalk, and form a motherfucking T-REX that moves down the field and eats a band member. They make PR-savvy moves like capturing and sharing all of their players hugging a reporter who just lost his daughter. They are cool. They are human. They are relevant. They are powerful. And they are winning a lot of games.
Nebraska has to rethink the story it’s telling to the world – and how it tells it. That story can and should still be about tradition, but it has to become more active, more alive and more relevant. It’s a football program, not a museum.
The people who can fix this are here. There are award-winning design/creative firms doing Oregon-quality work in Lincoln and Omaha. But the Athletic Department won’t hire them because it presumably prefers to keep everything in-house, where it’s more easily controlled. They settle for what they have, and what they’ve done for years. Would you accept that mentality from a coach?
Hard-working, well-compensated professionals create our brand. Hard-working, well-compensated professionals coach our team. Both should be scrutinized.
#2: The Experience
Nebraska’s in-game experience is the equivalent of a wedding DJ checking the obligatory boxes. The DJ feigns excitement while introducing the wedding party and then pushes PLAY on a pre-determined list of shitty songs that they’ve already heard twice this week. Fake a smile, run out the clock, get paid, go home.
At Husker games, we checking similar boxes. Allen Parsons “Sirius” on the Tunnel Walk? Check. Hokey-looking graphics that belong on an infomercial? Check. Pre-determined sound drops for certain points of the game (“STAND UP AND SHOUUTTTTT!”)? Check. It’s stale, boring and sad creativity, pumped through speakers that wouldn’t scare a terrier on the Fourth of July.
Why settle for this? Why not take Lincoln radio personality Jack Mitchell’s suggestion of pumping Johnny Cash’s God Is Gonna Cut You Down into the stadium before the 4th quarter? Or better yet, hire an events expert who knows how to coordinate immersive audience experiences complete with pyrotechnics, flyovers and whatever else. The money is there. The ideas are there. We can do it without compromising tradition, but we first have to stop leaning on “tradition” as an excuse.
Because don’t look now but we’re getting passed up by schools like Wisconsin. Their stadium literally shakes to the tune of Jump Around, a song that’s ironic 90’s hip-hop coolness authentically resonates with its students and players. Or Virginia Tech, which employs Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” to juice up the crowd. Or, again, Ohio State, whose marching band creates viral sensations every week to help build their brand. Our band’s “salute to Bel Biv Devoe” isn’t going to move the needle. They’re capable of more. They’re great. Someone needs to enable them to prove it.
Also, Nebraska’s PA announcer might as well be the Moviefone guy. Put Jason Peter in there. Or anything with a personality. Please.
Hard-working, well-compensated professionals create our game atmosphere. Hard-working, well-compensated professionals coach our team. Both should be scrutinized.
#3: The Fans
Stop disparaging players on Twitter right now. It’s disrespectful and you’re scaring off future players, you dumb-ass fuckwad.
Stop approaching the Bo Pelini situation with the mindset that he wants us to lose. You know he wants to win, right? Probably more than you do. He’s just not doing it. Criticize him if you’d like, but do it like a grown-ass adult and not a drunk member of the Tea Party.
And finally, ditch the sense of entitlement about being the greatest fans in college football just because a sign on the outside of the stadium says we are. It does not give us license to act like dicks.
We expect so much of our coaches, our administration and our players. And we accept SO LITTLE from ourselves as fans. Buying a beer for an Illinois fan or politely applauding an opposing player does not buy you Fan Karma Points that you can use to justify a shitty, snarky attitude about the program. Being nice to people when they visit our stadium is just a baseline expectation of human decency. Don’t applaud yourself for it. Just do it. “Execute,” as a fan. Be supportive, loud, consistent. If you feel the need to criticize, do it the right way, and at the right time. You know, like an adult would.
But when you call our head coach or our star receiver a “COMMUNIST BITCHWEED FUCK ASS” on Twitter you’re contributing to an environment that might deter the next head coach or star player from coming here. Yes, really. They read it. Nobody wants to be a part of it.
Hard-working, paying fans are the heart of this program. Hard-working, well-compensated professionals coach our team. Both should be scrutinized.
There is No Silver Bullet
This program needs better coaching, better schemes and better players. We always will. But to get them, we have to pay attention to some of these other things.
Look, Kenny Bell and Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah didn’t have to leave their home state to come out here and play for ours. But they did. They saw the history of greatness and the potential for something special here, just like we do. They fucking want to be Huskers, above all else, and we’re really lucky they do. They are Husker Nation’s best ambassadors and evangelists.
Want more Kenny’s, Rex’s and Ameer’s? Then start acting lucky to have them instead of entitled to them. Start demanding a better brand, a better image, a better game atmosphere and a better program in general.
Because then we would be healing and fixing holistically - not just deluding ourselves into thinking that removing a coach solves all our problems. We’d be creating an environment. A place where winners are born and raised and grown and developed. A more permanent 90’s.
It’d be the kind of place where any coach would have to be damn good to get and keep a job. Whether or not his name is Bo Pelini.
Editor’s note: The link to Nebraska’s football site has changed, as I was informed that they do have their own dedicated football site to compete with Oregon’s.