It seems at times this season, what Bo Pelini has said has generated far more headlines than what he’s done. And after Nebraska’s loss to Iowa in the season finale Saturday, that’s not about to change.
“If they want to fire me, go ahead.”
That’s the line from Pelini’s postgame press conference that was splashed across websites and newspapers and the scrolling tickers of sports TV channels across the country this weekend. But the debate over that very issue has been going on much longer. Since September, in fact.
It was in the season’s first month that Nebraska lost a home game against UCLA in which the Huskers held a 21-3 lead before surrendering 35 unanswered points and lost, in Lincoln, 41-21. Shortly thereafter, a years-old recording surfaced of Pelini slamming Nebraska fans who left a game early. Add all that to the fact that Pelini’s never led the Huskers to a BCS bowl game in six seasons in Lincoln, and you get his name popping up on “hot-seat” lists all autumn long.
So when a reporter asked Pelini following Saturday’s 38-17 defeat to the Hawkeyes if he’s “made his case” to keep his job, the head coach wasn’t terribly happy.
"I don't coach to make a case,” Pelini said in not the gentlest of tones. “You guys have chose to make a story of it all year. It's impacted our football team, and it's hurt our football team. Let's call a spade a spade. If they want to fire me, go ahead. I believe in what I've done. I don't apologize for what I've done. I don't apologize to you. I don't apologize to anybody, myself or the staff. My record, our record since I've been here speaks for itself, and this program's headed in a good direction. If you choose not to think so, that's your perogative. All I know is myself, the staff, the people who've been associated with this program since I've been here can look themselves in the mirror and feel good about what they've done."
Pelini certainly has a point. This 8-4 finish to the regular season will be accompanied by a bowl game, and if the Huskers win that game, it’ll mark the sixth time in six seasons Pelini has led them to the nine-win mark. But Nebraska fans and media observers treat things a little differently. This is a program that was at one point a national powerhouse. In the 1980s and 1990s, a BCS-level bowl was the norm. And while those days have seemed over for some time — not since the 2001 Rose Bowl have the Huskers reached a BCS-level bowl — the thirst for national prominence still exists in Lincoln, no matter how realistic it might be.
Pelini is the latest to suffer from those kinds of expectations despite maintaining a fine level of success on his own. Perhaps that’s why he was so quick to take exception to that postgame question.
There is no doubt, however, that this season has been a challenge. Three of the Huskers’ four losses came at home, and the defense, Pelini’s specialty, was repeatedly gashed week after week. Throw in some key injuries, including one to senior starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, and it made for hard times in Lincoln.
"It hasn't been an easy year from any stretch of the imagination, in any way,” Pelini said Saturday. “It's been difficult. This team had a lot to persevere through, a lot to stick together through, and they did that. I'm proud of them regardless of how it ended today."
Pelini might not be trying to make a case to stick around, but that will likely be evaluated anyway. Now it’s up to not the media or the fans but the real decision-makers in Lincoln. If they opt to look for a new head coach, more than just the 2013 campaign will have ended Saturday.