Steven M. Sipple: Pelini's successes warrant patience

2013-12-21T23:45:00Z 2013-12-22T19:32:30Z Steven M. Sipple: Pelini's successes warrant patienceBy STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

It's a bewildering statistic.

In its last six games this season, Nebraska was minus 16 in the turnover category.

If you're a Husker football fan, you didn't need to see the stat to know Bo Pelini's teams have an ongoing issue with turnovers. You also knew that the next time NU makes a punt return that exceeds 20 yards, CNN might send Wolf Blitzer to document the rarity.

At any rate, we're humans. Human nature dictates that we tend to fixate on the negative, even (or perhaps especially) if it involves our favorite sports teams. We perhaps gnash our teeth at the expense of seeing a bigger picture that could produce optimism.

When I consider the big picture as it applies to Pelini's program, I like what I see.

I see strong character in the form of a high team grade-point average (3.0 range on a 4.0 scale) and Academic Progress Rate (as of June, Nebraska ranked fourth in the Big Ten, the nation's top APR conference). I see strong character in that the team has had relatively few major off-field issues during Pelini's six-year tenure as head coach. Watch the players. Listen to them. You see admirable character up and down the roster.

Some folks gloss over Nebraska's academic performance, and even the team's character. But without strong character, and without a solid foundation, the Huskers would've been extreme longshots to finish the regular season 8-4 despite an unusual number of injuries. Ask Northwestern (5-7) and Florida (4-8) how crippling injuries can become.

There's a lot to be said for a program's culture. A culture is much more complex and time-consuming to repair than turnovers and punt returns.

I've longed admired a Pelini tenet: If players take care of business off the field, they have a much better chance for success on it. Evidence backs the notion: Only two coaches since 1990 — Pelini and Chris Petersen (formerly of Boise State) — opened their careers with five straight nine-win seasons.

Nebraska will shoot for its ninth triumph Jan. 1 against Georgia (8-4) in the Gator Bowl.

We've seen Pelini's core values bear fruit. However, more consistency and a higher degree of success is needed. Nebraska going without a conference crown since 1999 is ridiculous. On that, we can all agree.

It's dangerous to say Nebraska should win a certain amount of conference championships in a certain period because it fails to take into account the human element (such as an official putting one second back on a clock) and the funny shape of a football. The ball takes odd bounces. We're talking about reality, not a computer game.

That said, Nebraska needs to close the deal on a Big Ten championship within the next two or perhaps three seasons lest apathy becomes a serious issue. It's already something to monitor very closely. Bear in mind: Memorial Stadium's recent expansion depleted the waiting list for season tickets.

If Nebraska is regularly playing for the Big Ten title — let's say in two out of every five seasons — a berth in the upcoming four-team national playoff can't be far behind.

All the while, Nebraska should continue to operate within NCAA rules. The Huskers' clean record in that regard should never be compromised, even amid extreme pressure to win and extend the sacred sellout streak.

My sense is that Nebraska fan expectations are very demanding, but not necessarily unreasonable. My hope is Pelini — unlike Frank Solich from 1998-2003 — is receiving consistent support from the administration. No way the Huskers can capture championships if the head coach feels he's fighting too many in-house battles. You think Urban Meyer lacks such support?

In his book, "More Than Winning," Tom Osborne wrote about his early years as Nebraska head coach, when the Huskers lost to Oklahoma five straight seasons (Osborne didn't produce his first outright conference crown until his ninth season). Nevertheless, then-athletic director Bob Devaney firmly backed Osborne.

"I would have to say that Bob's support through those early years might have been the difference between my staying in coaching or being fired," Osborne wrote.

Of course, Osborne established an exceptionally high standard for the program. Along the way, Husker fans became increasingly intelligent and savvy. They loathe inconsistency. They cringe at repeat errors — NU is tied for 118th nationally in turnover margin this season (minus 1) after its 35 giveaways last season ranked 122nd.

Nebraska this season is 121st in punt returns (3.04 yards per return). The Huskers' return game is unsightly at times, but it's much less problematic than a cut-rate culture in a program or a decrepit foundation. Pelini and his staff made those repairs. The team's overall talent is on the uptick. Sometimes the wait for a breakthrough season requires a degree of patience. Just ask Osborne.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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