Published Saturday, November 30, 2013 at 10:46 am / Updated at 10:48 pm
FOOTBALL
Osborne, regents, boosters echo Eichorst's support for NU's fiery head coach

Bo Pelini expressed gratitude for a statement of support from his bosses, apologized for his latest meltdowns with referees and the press, and said he looked forward to continuing to build toward bringing “championships back to Nebraska.”

The statement issued Saturday night on behalf of the fiery University of Nebraska football coach capped an eventful day, one that appeared to quell the rampant speculation over Pelini's status as leader of the Cornhuskers.

“I want to thank our administration and Shawn Eichorst in particular, for his continued and full support ... ,” Pelini said. “I am honored to represent this university and its great fans and I'm proud to lead this program into the future.”

The furor over Pelini's job status had reached new heights after Friday's 38-17 loss to Iowa in Lincoln. Not only did the setback end a disappointing 8-4 regular season, Pelini received a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct after swiping his cap toward a referee; he tersely responded to a sideline reporter in a nationally televised interview; he used profanity in his postgame press conference; and he appeared to call out his bosses, declaring, “If they want to fire me, go ahead.”

Coming after previous reprimands for his behavior, Friday's events caused a multimedia tempest both here and nationally, with many fans and pundits believing that Pelini would be fired. Online polls showed Husker fans evenly split into two camps: the “Bo-lievers” and those who felt that it was time for Bo to go.

But late Saturday morning, Athletic Director Eichorst affirmed Pelini's status. In a 106-word statement, Eichorst said he looked forward to Pelini coaching Nebraska's upcoming bowl game and “continuing to lead our program in the future.”

While surely not satisfying all fans, Eichorst's stance was praised by former Nebraska coach and athletic director Tom Osborne, several University of Nebraska regents and some of the school's biggest athletic boosters.

“I think Shawn made the right decision,” said Osborne, the iconic former Husker coach whose word is still golden to most Nebraska fans. “You just don't make a decision to get rid of a coach after an 8-4 season, and five straight 9- or 10-win seasons, and three division championships. Bo has had a good record.”

Osborne, NU regent and prominent booster Howard Hawks of Omaha and others also expressed optimism that the best days are still ahead for Pelini and a Husker team that this season was young and riddled with injuries.

“Our year hasn't been as successful as anyone would have wanted, but people get too cranked up,” Hawks said. “This was the right decision for our coaching staff and our players at this time, for sure. I thought it was an awesome statement.”

Still, to some it appeared Saturday that Pelini had pulled off the biggest upset of his reign in Lincoln, and on a day his Cornhuskers didn't even take the field.

Public speculation over Pelini's job had been steadily building across a state where rooting for the Cornhuskers each fall is rooted in people's DNA. Fans used to national championships under Osborne had watched their team for the 14th straight year fall short of even a conference championship.

Then came Friday's loss and more questions about Pelini's demeanor, on and off the field.

Friday marked the second time this season that Pelini's behavior had become a major public debate. The first came in September when a two-year-old audiotape surfaced in which Pelini blasted and cursed NU fans and the news media.

Eichorst and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman at the time had expressed concern about Pelini's conduct, saying “coaches must be held to a high standard.” That it had taken Pelini's bosses two days to affirm that he still had a job fueled speculation that the coach was on thin ice.

How Pelini's conduct Friday played into Eichorst's Saturday statement of support is unclear. The first-year athletic director made no mention of the reasons for his affirmation of Pelini. Eichorst has declined requests for interviews.

Perlman, who three years ago had publicly reprimanded Pelini after a particularly notable sideline tirade during a game at Texas A&M, on Saturday also declined to specifically answer questions about Pelini's conduct during Friday's game.

“Except in unusual circumstances, personnel matters associated with any of our coaches will be conducted within the Athletic Department and not the media,” Perlman said in an email response to World-Herald questions. “I am confident we have processes in place to appropriately address anything that may arise.”

In fact, it's possible that Pelini's statement of apology, issued hours later, could have come as the result of such processes.

“I apologize for reacting emotionally yesterday and for showing frustration both with the game officials and the media,” Pelini said. “I fully understand and respect their difficult jobs, and I regret any and all actions or words which may have shed a negative light on our program and university. Accountability is a core belief throughout our program, and as the head coach, I must set and maintain a high standard.”

It's possible that Pelini still could face sanctions from the Big Ten Conference office for his postgame comments about the referees, which could violate the league's sportsmanship standards. According to the Big Ten Handbook, standard disciplinary actions for such violations can include admonishment, reprimand, fines of up to $10,000 or up to a two-game suspension.

Osborne, who as athletic director in 2007 had hired Pelini, declined in his Saturday interview with The World-Herald to discuss the coach's Friday behavior. He said that was for Eichorst and Pelini to address. But he reiterated previous statements that he believes Pelini overall has made strides in controlling his temper.

Osborne also inferred that Pelini's Friday outbursts may have been in part fueled by stress and frustration over his uncertain job status.

“I think that they've gone through a fairly extensive period of uncertainty, with a lot of frustration that had built up,” Osborne said. “Those things sometimes build up and spill out.”

When asked if he had reason to believe that Pelini was experiencing such feelings, Osborne said he would not detail personal conversations that he's had with Pelini. The two speak regularly, Osborne said, most recently several days ago.

Hawks said he thought Pelini was understandably upset with the media given all the speculation on his status. “While everyone is upset with his postgame press conference, I thought it was a lot like the one I would have given,” he said.

Even after Eichorst's statement Saturday, some in the media were still questioning whether it left room for speculation on Pelini's job status. Some noted that it offered little in the way of praise for Pelini, and that it could be read as only an endorsement of Pelini coaching the Huskers through the upcoming bowl game.

Hawks and fellow NU Regent Hal Daub of Omaha, however, cautioned anyone who would suggest that the issue is somehow less than settled.

“I think we all should be more careful about fueling the fire of speculation,” Daub said.

Perlman, in his remarks to The World-Herald, also called for an end to the Pelini turmoil, which he said has been “unfair to all involved.”

Pelini has compiled a respectable 57-24 record in six seasons as Nebraska's head coach. But the Huskers have never finished in the Top 10 nationally and have frequently stumbled in big games that could have vaulted them back into the national spotlight, such losses often coming in humbling, blowout fashion.

When NU was eliminated from Big Ten title contention this season after a mistake-filled home loss to Michigan State, speculation over Pelini's future began to build again.

Pelini admitted that he had to gather his team together in the days leading up to the 23-20 overtime win at Penn State to refute a rumor that he'd agreed to resign. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said after Friday's loss to Iowa that NU coaches faced “constant” questions from recruits about the Husker staff's murky future.

At one point Friday, it appeared that Pelini was refusing to tape his weekly postgame TV show due to the uncertainty over his job status.

A recorded conversation between Husker Sports Network play-by-play announcer Greg Sharpe and former NU quarterback Steve Taylor that was accidentally released late Friday featured the men speaking over a Huskers.com video of quarterback Ron Kellogg's postgame press conference. Sharpe was heard saying that Pelini's job status was in doubt.

Said Sharpe: “Bo says, 'If I'm not the head coach any longer, why would I do a TV show that airs in two days?' I'm like, 'OK.' ”

Sharpe also said in the recording that Pelini hadn't been told anything. “He just doesn't know. They haven't talked to him,” Sharpe said.

But it appears possible that sometime Friday night, Pelini had received some assurances of his status. Sharpe said Saturday that Pelini did tape the show on Friday night. The program is set to air tonight.

And then came Eichorst's statement on Saturday, which he said was being released in response to “the volume of unfounded speculation and conjecture” regarding Pelini.

Now, Pelini said in his statement, he and his staff are prepared to hit the recruiting trail “full throttle” and to get the Huskers ready for an upcoming bowl game.

“We are committed to working with Shawn and our entire department staff to continue to build this program and bring championships back to Nebraska,” Pelini said.

World-Herald staff writers Lee Barfknecht and Jon Nyatawa contributed to this report.

* * *

Contact the writer: Henry J. Cordes

henry.cordes@owh.com    |   402-444-1130    |  

Henry's a general assignment reporter, so he could end up writing just about anything, though he usually focuses on public policy matters affecting the state, region or nation.

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