Published Friday, November 29, 2013 at 10:32 pm / Updated at 12:55 am
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Pelini's words, deeds may have put it on a tee for athletic director

LINCOLN — I just saw a man set himself on fire.

Bo Pelini did so without warning, without prodding, without hesitation. And, seemingly, without regret.

We've seen just about everything on the Pelini roller coaster ride. But on a day he received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for nearly hitting an official with his hat, called a head-shaking fake punt that was snuffed out and saw his team lose to Iowa 38-17, we hadn't hit the big finish.

The postgame press conference was already a little tense, because of the speculation about Pelini's future and the silence from Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. And now a game that looked like a meltdown. But we hadn't seen anything yet.

When responding to a question about the unsportsmanlike call on him, Pelini cursed, labeling it a “chickenshit” call.

That was broadcast live on local TV. The coach did say “excuse my language,” but there were no excuses for this.

Then, Pelini dragged Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz into his diatribe, accusing Ferentz of acting worse than him and not getting a flag.

He also blamed the fake punt failure on a missed block and blamed the media for causing a distraction that he said hurt the team this season.

He added, “If they want to fire me, go ahead. I believe in what I've done.”

Eichorst was not there to hear it. But Associate Athletic Director Jamie Williams, the department supervisor for football, was in the room and said he heard the entire thing.

Williams wouldn't comment further. When asked if there was a timeline on deciding Pelini's future, he said, “I don't know anything.”

Here's what I know: The only thing worse than this classless episode was the timing.

Understand, I wrote in my Friday column that Pelini should get a seventh year, in 2014, at Nebraska. I wrote that based on injuries and youth this year, on how Nebraska should treat its football coaches, on the leap of faith that another year with the same staff and system might produce dividends.

That was a week after writing that something big might be around the corner for a team that hadn't stopped playing hard.

But Pelini will likely be watching Nebraska football next season on TV.

By torching himself and his program, he just changed the game.

I can't defend a coach who swipes at an official with his hat, knowing full well what the reaction will be. Defending his players? Please. He just tacked 15 extra yards onto his defense's back.

I can't defend the language that went live on local TV and radio.

I can't defend dragging the opposing coach — in this case one of the nicest, good-character guys in the Big Ten — through the excuse-filled mud.

No, the story now isn't about defense or youth or second chances. The story now is whether this is how you want a Nebraska coach to look, to sound, to act.

The answer would be no.

It's not about the Bolievers or the haters anymore, and even though Pelini's fans can try to defend what they see on the field, they can't defend this kind of rude behavior.

On the heels of “audio gate,” Pelini just put it up on a tee for Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Eichorst. And it can no longer be a question of if they will knock this one down the fairway, but when.

The question I have is, did he tee it up intentionally?

It's no secret it's been a long year for Pelini and Co., and part of that is a feeling by them that they haven't had the full support of the administration. Whether it was the 48 hours after the audiotape was released in September, or the past few weeks, Pelini was left flapping in the wind like one of the red flags outside the stadium.

Maybe he knew what was coming. Maybe he didn't want to wait. Maybe he'd had enough.

Pelini has a colorful vocabulary, but he's always known to turn it off when the cameras were rolling (the 2011 audiotape was presumably off-camera). So now he suddenly has a slip? I'm not sure I buy it.

You can make the case that Pelini was daring Eichorst to do something.

I'm not saying this was premeditated. But as soon as he flipped the hat toward the official, he had to know his tight leash might snap. That penalty, along with the fake punt and other calls, came off as acts of a coach on a tightrope who didn't necessarily care if he fell off.

Right on cue, his players stuck up for him as their father figure, a molder of men. Those good guys will all defend him to the end, and there's something admirable about that.

But whether it was the punt team slapstick or the up-and-down nature of fundamentals or how their mentor melted down on a weird Black Friday, this was an undisciplined program, and it apparently was to the very end.

You have to assume it's over and the situation was such that Eichorst won't even have much explaining to do. The thing is, without the antics, without the words, the narrative could have been that this was a beat-up team, going on fumes, and it finally just ran out of gas.

Maybe, just maybe, a more savvy coach could have made a plea to fill it up again next season and promise it would run better.

Now, that's all gone up in smoke.

* * *

Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:



Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the postgame press conference:



Video: NU's Kenny Bell at the postgame press conference:



Video: Husker seniors honored before the Nebraska-Iowa game:



Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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