TIME OUT with Joe Flanagan

What’s the old saying? Hope springs eternal?
Or, in the world of college football – Every spring there’s new hope!
More than 60,000 Husker faithful gathered in Memorial Stadium Saturday for Nebraska’s annual Spring Game affair.
This year didn’t much resemble a ‘game,’ but there was certainly entertainment mixed in with the controlled offense-vs-defense scrimmage plays.
Everything from Bo Pelini – or was that Faux Pelini? – with his “kitty entrance,” to spirited competition drills, to several lighthearted contests between coaches and players, to cheerleaders calling plays (beware Tim Beck!).
A good show, all in good fun. You could almost hear the Beach Boys singing “Good Vibrations” in the background.
It was refreshing. And welcomed after all the angst last fall.

Husker coaches, players and fans all yearned for a reason to feel good going into the summer months. A spring cleansing. Renewed hope.
It’s also a good time, I think, to clear up a few misconceptions about a column I penned last November. Most of you remember it. In fact, it was almost certainly the most widely-read piece I’ve ever written, with the link being tweeted and prompting nearly 200,000 hits on our Albion News website.
I’ve heard comments since that I outright called for Bo Pelini to be fired and, well, that’s not truly accurate.
At the time, following Nebraska’s second-half collapse vs. UCLA and disappointing losses to Minnesota and Michigan State, and actually preceding the debacle against Iowa, I simply posed a question to each and every Husker – including Nebraska’s athletic administration.
Are the past six seasons, each with four losses, an acceptable standard for Nebraska football? Is this type of repeated performance meeting your expectations?
My sincere hope was, and is, that it falls short of what we all consider Husker excellence. I still believe the vast majority – including those in charge of the NU athletic department – expect more.
In which case, changes needed to be made.
What kind of changes? That’s not for me to say or decide. I didn’t profess then, nor do I now, to have all the answers.
However, it’s not difficult to identify many of the problems that have plagued Pelini’s tenure. Turnover margin among the worst in the nation. An abundance of penalties. Spotty, at times abysmal, special teams play. Inconsistent offense. In recent years, alarmingly leaky defense. Lack of discipline by both coaches and players. Up-and-down recruiting efforts.
So, yes, there are things that must change for Nebraska to break out of its four-loss rut.
Does that mean making a change at the head coaching position? Maybe. Maybe not. It was, and is, certainly one of the options that needed to be explored and considered. Not necessarily the be-all, end-all ultimatum, however.
In fact, at least for present, it’s not going to be the change made. Husker Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst voiced his support for Pelini shortly after the Iowa loss and resulting controversy. (Actually, Eichorst released a very brief written statement, which seems to be his modus operandi to date, but that’s a topic for another day.)
That’s fine. Eichorst should, we must hope, have the needed information and a good feel for the pulse of the program. He says Pelini is the coach. Many applauded the decision, a good number were disappointed. Whatever. It’s time to move on.
Which means, what changes can be made to help Pelini and the Huskers “break through?”
There seems to be good news on that front.
Talk from those around North Stadium suggests the bowl victory over Georgia gave the coaching staff and players a needed morale boost. The end of speculation regarding Pelini’s job status seemingly lifted a cloud of malaise that had hovered over the program.
That’s all well and good, but more importantly, tangible changes have been implemented, as well.
Nebraska, taking advantage of new NCAA regulations, hired additional full-time athletic staff that will focus 100 percent on recruiting. We’ve already seen the benefits with nine impressive early (verbal) commitments.
There was one staff change, the addition of Charlton Warren, who had earned a reputation as an enthusiastic, unrelenting recruiter at the Air Force Academy. There was shuffling of duties among remaining staff members in an attempt to improve certain areas. Pelini himself has said he is more focused on and involved with special teams.
Offensive Coordinator Tim Beck has talked about simplifying and streamlining his offense for the talent on hand. Pelini and Defensive Coordinator John Papuchis are looking at fresh approaches on that side of the ball, including the intriguing experiment of linebacker Marcus Newby doing a Demorrio Williams 2003 impression.
There were reportedly changes in strength and conditioning over the winter, a serious revisitation of what seemed to be working and what was not.
Pelini – yes, Bo Pelini! – opened spring practices to the media and even embraced and had fun with his Faux Pelini alter-ego over the winter. Make of that what you will.
Which all brings us back to Saturday’s festivities, complete with the now-famous ‘Kitty Tunnel Walk.’
There’s a lot to like about Nebraska football. The Huskers may have a local Heisman Trophy campaign next fall. NU might also have the most-feared pass rusher in college football, who could reap his own post-season accolades.
Yes, there is talent. Ample talent, I believe.
There’s also a fairly ‘soft’ schedule again. Yes, road games at Michigan State and Wisconsion, but a less-than-daunting non-conference slate featuring a Miami team that was in disarray at the end of 2013 and, once again, no Ohio State. It spells opportunity.
So, it’s time to set aside nine-win and four-loss talk. There’s no sense comparing the current Husker program to the Osborne era anyway. It’s a different day and age. The ‘95 Huskers aren’t the opponent, nor will they be ranked in 2014 or qualify for the initial college football championship playoff. Today’s comparisons need to be with the Ohio States, Wisconsins, Stanfords and, yes, Alabamas.
Will the mentioned changes, and possibly more, be enough for Nebraska to again rub shoulders with the current elite? Can we meet what should be Husker standards and expectations in the future?
There’s hope.
As I drove home Saturday, I listened to a Sister Hazel CD as I pondered some of what I’d witnessed. A line from one song caught my attention – “It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going.”
It’s spring. The time of eternal optimism and renewed hope.
Go Big Red!