Sympathy for Pelini? Get serious

What a difference a week makes in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It seems like just yesterday when the Huskers were still a ranked and robust team preparing to host UCLA, with a fan base entertaining notions that the Big Red under Bo Pelini could maintain its traditional place among the nation’s elite, with the vaunted Blackshirt defense leading the way.

The illusion came crashing down in a hurry.

After taking an early 21-3 lead against the Bruins last Saturday, Nebraska melted down on both sides of the ball, allowing 38 unanswered points for a demoralizing 41-21 defeat that seemed to set the stage for what followed.

A now-infamous audio recording of Pelini profanely ripping media members and fans in 2011 was released to Deadspin, putting heat on a coach who is 51-21 at Nebraska but has seen his program slip at key stages as it tries the climb the ladder of lofty expectations.

We’ve all heard the recording and the reactions by now, putting Pelini right up with Nixon when it comes to being at turns apologetic and defiant about compromising statements recorded without one’s knowledge.

Predictably, people have responded by viewing the furor through a prism of preconceived notions regarding the Huskers and their irascible leader.

Fans who remain loyal through all levels of adversity, along with Lincoln media types who do the same, are saying that the outrage is an overreaction because the tape is two years old and came from a “private moment.”

Those who have been critical of Pelini’s program and sideline antics in the past — as well as his failure to build a strong defensive system at Nebraska — point to this latest episode as embarrassing to the university and indicative of the coach’s disregard for a fan base that remains one of the nation’s most passionate.

When Pelini talked about “fair-weather fans,” he was referring to those who booed his team and left their seats after the Huskers fell behind Ohio State by 21 points that night in 2011, thus missing a stirring second-half comeback and a 34-27 triumph.

Still, some of his remarks (illustrated throughout with F-bombs) had a more generalized tone, as if he was taking on Cornhusker Nation and not just a few malcontents. And the rancor behind the words was unsettling.

So was the carelessness with which they poured forth.

When you’re the head football coach at a major Division I program, there are very few truly private moments. Those that exist come away from your workplace, certainly not within Memorial Stadium after a high-profile matchup.

Anyone who has ever done live radio or TV knows there are microphones that can pick up what you’re saying whether you’re on the air or not, and these are not really private settings. 

Sure, you say things that you wouldn’t say over the airwaves, but to let loose like Pelini did shows a certain recklessness that may contribute to the misgivings that many fans and former players have made known.

As the CEO and public face of the football program, he had already drawn criticism for his sideline tirades from Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, so this is far from an isolated incident.

Of course, it is the nature of big-time college sports that winning cures all ills, and losing magnifies the dysfunction.

Pelini’s biggest problem seems to be that his reputation as a defensive-minded coach has failed him in spectacular fashion recently, lowering the Blackshirts’ reputation to almost Callahan-era levels.

After allowing 70 points and 539 rushing yards to Wisconsin in a humiliating Big Ten Championship setback last season, the Huskers gave up 602 yards in a narrow win over Wyoming in this year’s opener and then looked dazed and confused in the second half against UCLA.

Indifferent defense is a greater sin in Lincoln than badmouthing the fans, but when you put them together you’ve got a volatile mix.

If Pelini can’t find a way to right the ship Saturday against South Dakota State and patch some holes for the Big Ten season, Husker Nation might take him at his word about “walking out the door,” allowing him all the private moments he can endure.