There was a time when the Nebraska Cornhuskers were the gold standard of success in college football. From 1969-2001, Nebraska never finished lower than 19th in the Associated Press Poll as they claimed five national championships over that stretch to go along with numerous conference championships. But following Nebraska’s loss in the 2002 Rose Bowl to the Miami Hurricanes for the national championship, the fortunes of this once proud program changed. In 2002, the Cornhuskers would record their first non-winning season since 1961 as their vintage “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense appeared to be a dinosaur in college football.
Nebraska attempted to keep up with the Joneses in college football as they hired Bill Callahan in 2004 to be their new head football coach. Callahan was fresh off of helping the Oakland Raiders win the AFC Championship in 2002. Callahan attempted to change Nebraska’s offense by implementing the West Coast offense in Lincoln. Callahan was able to have some success which included him getting the ‘Huskers to the Big 12 Championship Game in 2007. But when Nebraska went 5-7 in 2008 which included their defense surrendering at least 40 points to six opponents, the folks in Lincoln had seen enough and thus he was fired.
Callahan was replaced by Bo Pelini who had previously served as a defensive coordinator at Nebraska and he understood the importance of defense at the school which includes the tradition of “The Blackshirts”.
In seven seasons at Nebraska, Pelini compiled an overall record of 67-27 and his teams never won less than nine games in each year. But the fact that Nebraska was never able to win a conference championship led to his termination in 2014 in spite of the fact that only Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney had higher winning percentages than him at the school.
Pelini would be replaced by former Oregon State Beavers head football coach Mike Riley who like Callahan has built his reputation on offense. However Riley’s time at Oregon State would consistently see him put together one quality season every few years while the Beavers never won the Pac-12 Conference under him.
But after the Cornhuskers went 9-4 last season, they have not gotten off on the right foot this season as they are currently 1-2 which includes losing to the Oregon Ducks, as well as a surprising home loss last Saturday to the Northern Illinois Huskies of the Mid-American Conference. And thus the honeymoon for Riley in Lincoln appears to be over.
This week saw Shawn Eichorst fired as Nebraska’s athletic director following the school’s upset loss to Northern Illinois. And in the process Riley lost his security blanket being that Eichorst was the man who fired Pelini in favor of him. School officials at Nebraska will conduct a nationwide search to find the school’s next athletic director, and you can anticipate the person who is hired will want to bring his/her own head football coach in which makes the 64-year old Riley expendable; especially after a slow start this year.
Under Riley, Nebraska is only 9-8 within the Big Ten Conference, and with games this season versus the Ohio State Buckeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Iowa Hawkeyes, the idea of seeing the Cornhuskers being one of the top teams in the Big Ten West is slim to none. And unless a miracle happens for Riley during the next two months with the ‘Huskers, the folks in Lincoln will help him pack his bags.
Once Nebraska is able to find themselves a new athletic director, one name that you can expect to hear thrown around in regards to being the school’s new head football coach will be Chip Kelly. In four years as the head football coach at Oregon, Kelly compiled a record of 46-7 which included a pair of Pac-12 Conference Titles. And after Kelly’s unsuccessful run as a head coach in the National Football League, school administrators will probably present him with a blank check in order to work for them. But Nebraska could have their work cut out for them in order to sign Kelly as there could be some marquee programs within the Southeastern and Pac-12 Conferences that’ll be looking for a new head coach which means that they might have to look elsewhere to find someone to reignite their program.
Since Osborne retired following the end of the 1997 college football season, Nebraska has been unsure of what they want they want to do as a program with everyone not being on the same page. And with the landscape of college football having changed so drastically with more teams having television time while rocking outrageous uniforms, the allure of playing for Nebraska isn’t what it was in the days of Devaney and Osborne. Nebraska has some of the best athletic facilities in college football, but they have always struggled to recruit places such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California which are states that have been known to produce quality college football players.
When Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, they brought with them a ton of tradition to a conference that was already steeped in it. However the success that the Cornhuskers enjoyed in the Big 8 and Big 12 Conferences has not traveled with them. And whomever will be hired to lead Nebraska going forward will have to find a way to put a spark behind the offense regardless of what system that they choose to operate.
Currently Nebraska is 71st in the nation in total offense as the consistency is not there. Junior quarterback Tanner Lee who began his collegiate career with the Tulane Green Wave is struggling in Lincoln in the same way that he did in Louisiana. And as working with quarterbacks is Riley’s specialty, the struggles of Lee and the offense at Nebraska fall into his lap.
For years Nebraska was at the forefront of what success was in college football. But as the Cornhuskers are struggling and have failed to keep up with the times, it is a shame to see this program struggle which has meant so much to college football for so long.