More to the Fight

You need an extraordinarily high level of success to get away with sticking to your guns. If you have it, society generally rewards that conviction. Time will wear down anything, but if you’ve set the bar pretty high, you’ll get longer than most to prove that your way will work again.

Bo Pelini hasn’t had an extraordinarily high level of success. He’s had pretty good success. Others would call it average success at a place like Nebraska. Still others would say he hasn’t met expectations. Point is, it’s ambiguous territory right now for Nebraska football and, when there’s no clear proof that “your way” works it’s not long before a majority reaches the conclusion that “your way” is wrong.

I don’t know if the majority of Nebraska fans have reached that point. I didn’t think the Iowa game could, or more importantly should, be a deciding factor on who will coach the Huskers next season. Now I’m not so sure.

And it wasn’t that Nebraska lost to Iowa. These teams looked about dead even coming in. This wasn’t a shocking loss. In fact, it was straight off the assembly line: Nebraska turned it over a bunch in really inopportune places, made some special teams errors, Iowa had seven drives start in Nebraska territory as a result, then the Huskers fought like hell to overcome all of that and had some good opportunities to do so.

This time Nebraska couldn’t quite overcome itself, but it has done so a number of times since joining the Big Ten. The team is full of fight and that shouldn’t be surprising. They resemble their head coach. Bo Pelini is a fighter.

But after Friday, I’m not so sure he’s a tactical fighter. Punch Bo Pelini and he’ll punch back. It’s an easy reaction to rally behind but I’m not sure it’s anything more than that – a reaction.

When sideline reporter Quint Kessenich asked Bo Pelini at halftime what his reaction was to Ron Kellogg III’s two early interceptions, Pelini responded, “Well, what do you think? What kind of questions is that?”

It’s the kind of question a coach is asked a thousand times during a season. It’s a dumb question, but it’s a dumb answer too. One that was making headlines while the game was still going on.

At about the time Pelini’s surly halftime interview was bouncing around the internet, he provided more fodder, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after he whipped his hat in the direction of an official when Nebraska was flagged for pass interference. That one made news too because this was the game that most everyone in the country was watching.

The hits continued in the postgame.

“[The ref] said I got too close to him,” Pelini said of the explanation he received for the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. “I thought that was a chicken shit call. Excuse my language on that, but I had never seen anything like that before. I’ve done a lot worse than that. I saw Kirk Ferentz on the other side acting a lot worse than I act. I didn’t see a flag come out on him. The bottom line is they knew they blew the call. They blew it. They blew that call over there on that third down. Everybody in the stadium knew it. They just didn’t man up enough to pick that flag up.”

So the defense of that penalty is a) it was the result of a terrible pass interference call, and b) the other coach did it too. Worse even.

Hit Bo and he hits back.

“I don’t coach to make a case,” Pelini said about whether he had something to prove Friday with speculation swirling. “You guys have chosen to make a story of it all year. It’s impacted our football team. It’s hurt our football team.”

So the idea is that job talk made things more difficult for the Huskers. That may be true. Actually, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t true to a degree, but how it affects the football team isn’t the speculators fault.

Hit Bo and he hits back.

“If they want to fire me, go ahead. I believe in what I’ve done,” Pelini said, still responding to the question of if he had to make a case for himself against Iowa. “I don’t apologize for what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for anybody, myself or this staff.”

Since we’re speaking candidly, I’ll take Pelini at his word there, too. Both ways. He clearly does believe in his process and he also didn’t look like a coach who cared about his current job that much on Friday.

And that’s too bad because I think Bo Pelini is a very good man. Just ask the players.

“I’ve spent five years with this guy, and he’s made me the best man that I could possibly be,” offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles.

“I would play for Bo Pelini against Satan himself and a team of demons at the gates of the underworld.,” wide receiver Kenny Bell said.

“He’s a guy that will go in the ring and fight 12 rounds for you and give it his all,” linebacker Michael Rose said.

Hit Bo and his players will hit back for him.

That’s admirable at an elemental level, but is it enough? Winning football games is about more than just defending yourself. That’s a basic instinct.

Winning anywhere, but particularly at Nebraska, is less about fight and more about craft and technique. You have to be better than the next team for the sake of being better. Not to beat back the doubters or overcome your own mistakes. Pelini knows this. He talks about execution all the time.

Nebraska hasn’t done that with enough consistency so far under Pelini. Could they next year? Would another year and more self-reflection be the difference?

I don’t know, but I do know instincts are very hard to overcome.