Monday, December 2, 2013

So what should we do about Bo Pelini?

John Janovy, Jr.
The short answer to this question is: nothing; let him be himself and do the best he can in this high pressure job. The long answer is: let him work through his current contract then replace him with someone who is not such an embarrassment to the UNL athletic program and to the university itself, especially to those faculty members who, for a variety of legitimate reasons, need to act like dignified professionals in front of an audience. Getting rid of an embarrassment is not worth whatever it costs to buy out Pelini, perhaps along with his staff (estimates range up to $20 million). If you’ve ever tried your hand at creative writing—or, for that matter, anything else involving artistic efforts be it music, painting, or dance—then you know that embarrassment is simply part of the game. After all, even world class figure skaters fall on their butts periodically and college football is probably the one activity where it’s really easy to embarrass not only yourself, but rabid fans under the illusion that a coach’s record on the field is a direct reflection of those fans’ self-worth.
We all want Huskers to win regardless of the contest and the venue. That desire applies to programs other than football, of course. So what do we fans do when those desires are frustrated, as they must always be, eventually, regardless of the competition? Again, there are two answers, a short and a long one. The short is: nothing, shrug it off; the sun will come up tomorrow, even if hidden by clouds. The long is: get really mad, rant and rave over every social medium available, pretend you know more about some sport than a coach making obscene amounts of money, surround yourself with a bunch of like-minded buddies, and thank God for something fun to talk about so that you don’t have to lose friends by discussing those subjects forbidden in polite company, namely evolution, politics, and religion.
Now, however, let’s admit that the guy really doesn’t have much of what we’d normally call “class.” He doesn’t handle press conferences very well, does not come across on television as being particularly smart and articulate, he does not appear comfortable in front of a camera, and he tends to drop four-letter words in places where they get picked up by listeners with electronic ears. If all those expletives were aimed at the opposing team, officials, NCAA rules, and the weather then we’d be right there with him; but not a few of those bombs were aimed at Nebraska fans. In other words, he’s telling us that he doesn’t care about us, lumping the pathologically faithful with fair-weather folks who actually have to search for their red underwear on Saturdays. So let’s live with Bo Pelini for the next few years. If, after that, university officials have not learned enough about human nature to hire the right person for this highest of high-profile positions then we probably don’t have much choice but to be proud of a 9-3, or 8-4, season and a trip to the Rural Kansas Bowl.
The one thing Bo does have going for him is player admiration. As far as we can tell from quotes in the media, the boys who participate in this exceedingly violent game love their head coach and even tolerate the proselytizer Ron Brown. This observation is important, a lesson for anyone in a leadership position: stand up for, and stand behind, those who are working as hard as they can, using all their time and talents, to make you rich and famous. You’ll never hear Pelini use an expletive to describe one of his players, one of his assistant coaches, or even a fake punt call on fourth and three when you’ve had second and three two downs before and Imani Cross on your team.
But it’s also important to remember just how cloistered is a major football program. We fans are separated from the gladiators in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that we’re in the stands instead of on the field. We are not a party to Bo’s teaching techniques, his insider analysis of games past, his decision-making processes, his worries, and his personal life. Instead, we summarize that entire program by the use of his name, routinely tie our sense of what it means to be a Nebraska resident to the Husker football win-loss record and national rankings, and assume that our impression of a team’s performance is indeed a true reflection of coaching skills. None of those three behaviors can be justified by the facts: a major college program is exceedingly large and complex, your personal mental well-being has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with football unless you’re part of the team and staff, and nobody can completely control a game played by a bunch of college kids.
I’m not excusing Bo Pelini for an 8-4 record in 2013; he’s evidently doing what he’s been hired to do about as well as he can, although maybe not up to everyone’s expectations and hopes. I am saying that no matter how public his job is on a few fall Saturdays, most, indeed perhaps 98%, of what he does or does not do is hidden from the public simply because that’s not only the way these programs operate, it’s probably also the way these programs must operate in order to be even 67% successful (8/12 = 0.6666). And let’s be honest: he has had a slew of injuries to deal with. When a senior lineman who’s been on the practice squad sees duty in the last game of the season, and not because he’s a senior being done a favor for his parents but because he’s needed, then you know the coach has human resource management problems, not all of them a result of his decisions behind closed doors.
But the cloister has its dark side, as we’ve learned from the Joe Paterno et al. story. The rarest of all revelations in college football may indeed be discovery that some Division 1 coach actually reads serious non-fiction, can talk intelligently about art, is more scientifically literate than his state’s elected officials, listens to opera in his new Nissan Armada (supplied via tax deductible donations from a booster), and is just as sensitive to non-football compliance issues as some assistant professor in biology who’s filled out a 17-page form in order to dissect a frog and knows enough to keep his office door open when a student is in there crying about a grade. So given that Mr. Pelini is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln employee, if not the UNL employee, if not the public face of the institution, I have a couple of answers to the question: what should we do about Bo Pelini?
First, send him to sit in some adjunct English prof’s freshman class for three hours every time he loses a game in which he calls a fake punt. Actually, send him to such a class for three hours every time he loses a game, period. Three hours is about the length of time fans are patient with what they interpret as poor coaching, whether it is poor coaching or not. After the second hour over in Andrews Hall basement, students will get over the fact that it’s Pelini in the room and he’ll start getting some perspective on the difference between his salary and that of the other person who’s also expected to be a superior teacher and is worrying about his/her students just as much as Bo worries about his players.
Second, either send him to charm school or make him take a speech class where he’s up in front of a couple of dozen students who evaluate his performance—posture, clothing, choice of words, rationale, etc. When Bo apologizes for some on-field outburst he actually sounds reasonably civilized, at least as quoted in the newspaper; we give him the benefit of the doubt by concluding that he delivered those words without a script prepared by a staff member. So maybe he can do it after all. And tell him to ditch the hat after the game; I know, we see hats even in nice restaurants in Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean your mother, or your date, approves of them. In other words, if Bo is the face of UNL for half the year, then we want him to at least look and talk in a way that would make him seem like part of the crowd in a room full of well-educated professionals.
Third, pay some faculty members a bonus to go over to the cloister and spend an hour a week educating Bo and his staff on current events, economics, media, advertising, military mis-adventure, pop music, information technology, organization of the university, what the ACE program (Achievement Centered Education, the UNL liberal arts curriculum) is supposed to accomplish, and UNL assets such a Morrill Hall, the Sheldon Gallery and sculpture garden, and Ross Film Theater. In other words, get him out of the cloister and bring him into the fold. If he’s being paid an ungodly sum to be the symbol of our institution, then expect him to actually be a part of it. If he’s being paid an ungodly sum to be the face of American higher education, then let’s help him act the part. Who knows, by the time his current contract is up, a miracle may have occurred.
Speaking of miracles, it’s entirely possible that by the time Pelini’s contract is up, Nebraska will have won a Big Ten championship, if not a national one. For newly hired regular faculty members, six years is tenure time; that’s the year your department colleagues decide whether to award you a lifetime’s job, along with annual evaluations, minimal pay increases, access to group health insurance, and contributions to your TIAA/CREF retirement fund. At UNL, you also get the opportunity to buy football tickets. Has Bo done well enough to warrant the D 1 version of tenure, namely a contract extension? The question is not relevant; he’s already been given one. He has a winning record; if bowl games can somehow be equated to publications, he has enough; his players love and respect him; a few of his students are now professionals. By loose analogy, that’s more than I can say for some current tenured faculty members.
Finally, so get off his case. Nobody except the players and coaches truly know whether he’s doing the best job possible at the University of Nebraska. The vast majority of us has never played college football and never will, and even those who have played are usually years past the experience. College athletics are neither immune to nor isolated from the cultural and technological changes that are sweeping through our nation and the world, but college coaches often act like that is the case. It’s not. Grow up, coach; pick a couple of role models and start trying to behave the way they do. If she’s still alive, your mother will be happy that finally, by middle age, you’ve developed into the kind of child she dreamed about having when you were born. And in the best of all worlds, you end up being one of those deities in the same Heavenly realm as Devaney and Osborne.
Now, for those of you who want a peek into the future of Nebraska football, order TUSKERS as an e-book from kindle, nook,, or as a nice paperback from The movie script for TUSKERS is also available as an e-book from

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