ON NOV. 30, 2003, the day after he fired football coach Frank Solich, who had gone 58--19 in his six years at Nebraska, then athletic director Steve Pederson said, "I refuse to let this program gravitate to mediocrity." Mission accomplished, Steve. The Huskers' descent into the land of the also-rans has been anything but a gravitation. More like a plunge or a free fall.
Pederson wanted his own man running the show, and the one he picked, Bill Callahan, went a very mediocre 5--6 in his first season and hasn't lost fewer than four games in a year since. The Cornhuskers, long one of college football's stingiest defensive units, have yielded at least 40 points in four of their last six games—which is one more time than they gave up 40 in the 1990s. Nebraska is 4--4 and will be lucky to win more than one of its remaining four games.
To be fair, in this topsy-turvy season plenty of traditional powers are struggling. But none has struggled with as much Sturm und Drang as the Cornhuskers. Pederson was suddenly fired on Oct. 15 and replaced the next day on an interim basis by legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who won three national titles at the school in 25 years before leaving to serve three terms in Congress, and whose relationship with Callahan has always been frosty. Two days later senior Jonathan Crowl, who is writing a book about the football team, said that former longtime trainer Doak Ostergard told him he overheard Callahan refer to the beloved 70-year-old Osborne as a "crusty old f---." True, Ostergard has reason to dish—an Osborne loyalist, he was fired in February—but Callahan hasn't denied making the comment. Enjoy those staff meetings, Bill.
Many in Lincoln already speak of Callahan in the past tense. The Callahan-Pederson regime had only two problems—"the style of management and the system"—says Dr. Jack Stark, the team psychologist for 16 years, until 2003, adding, "You've got to understand your state and the culture—the weather, recruiting, everything." While Pederson has Nebraska roots (Osborne backed him for the job in '02), Callahan is an outsider, a Chicagoan who came to Lincoln after getting fired by the Raiders. (Another Callahan rant in Crowl's book has him saying, "I'm going to get me a real newspaper. I'm going to read The New York Times.") Nebraskans feel they have ownership in the team, yet Callahan drove a wedge between the program and its supporters. He ended the 42-year-old tradition of sending a coach to talk to the Lincoln Extra Point Club on Monday afternoons. He scaled back on the number of walk-ons. (Under Osborne 200 kids would dress for home games, many of them locals paying their own way.) Former players were no longer welcome in the offices. "It was always like a family, and we lost track of that," says Ben Kingston, a fullback from 1995 to '99. "We want to be there for the current players, to let them know we've got their backs. It's run more like a company now."
All of that might have been tolerated had Callahan not also abandoned the triple-option—that smashmouth, Heartland scheme that Osborne used to pummel opponents for years—and replaced it with a West Coast offense that has not put up more than two TDs in a game in nearly a month. The fact that the Huskers can still sneak into a bowl game with two more wins is probably the only reason that firing Callahan in midseason was not an option.
Osborne has taken the high road, saying, in response to Callahan's alleged dissing of him, "I don't pay any attention to what may or may not have been said years ago." But Osborne has already reversed several of the coach's decisions, starting with putting the pictures of Nebraska's All-Americas—the ones Callahan had ordered taken down—back up on the walls of the football offices. He immediately sent a letter to every former player inviting them to drop by his office any time. Fans are ecstatic. "The psychological healing he's provided is huge," says Stark. "Nobody has more credibility in the state."
But can the Huskers become a national power again? Recruiting guru Tom Lemming says that with the uncertainty over Callahan's fate, four of the top six players who have verbally committed to Nebraska have now scheduled visits to other schools. If the return of Osborne doesn't mean much to the world beyond Lincoln, it might not mean much at all.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND