Steven M. Sipple: Pressure on NU coaches bound to affect players

2013-11-08T09:00:00Z Steven M. Sipple: Pressure on NU coaches bound to affect playersBy STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Lincoln Journal Star

People interpret the word "fun" in different ways.

Same goes for "pressure."

Seeing Nebraska players' jubilation after Jordan Westerkamp's game-winning catch last Saturday, and hearing the crowd's thunderous roar, well, that was about as fun as it gets in sports.

Which is why Tim Beck's reaction struck me.

He said he broke down in the press box. Said he was in tears. He was happy for the players, he said.

However, "It just wears on you; it just wears on you," the Husker offensive coordinator told reporters after the game. "Everything wears on you here. It's tough. All you can do is the best you can do."

Beck's comments took me back to Nebraska coach Bo Pelini's Sept. 16 news conference, two days after a 41-21 loss to UCLA. Pelini was in soul-searching mode, saying he personally needed "to start having fun again" in hopes his attitude would trickle to the players.

He felt they were pressing because he was pressing "to push this program to the next level." The players were trying too hard not to lose instead of playing to win, the coach said.

Which begs a question: Can Pelini and his staff possibly enjoy coaching in the current climate surrounding the program? Can they possibly enjoy what they perceive as a week-to-week battle to retain their jobs?

The pressure the coaches are feeling is bound to trickle to the players, at least some of them, and therefore could affect the team's performance. 

Yeah, what fun.

Think about last week's game. In beating Northwestern, Nebraska merely did the expected, in the minds of many fans. With a loss, Husker coaches would have had a significant part of the fan base calling for their heads.

I asked Pelini earlier this week if, as the program's leader, he counsels his assistants about dealing with stress and pressure.

He said they do discuss it, saying the key is maintaining perspective. It's also important to try to ignore fan/media criticism, he said.

"It's kind of what you tell the players -- you can't read the papers," Pelini said. "You've got to ignore the outside noise and stay the course and do your job the best you possibly can."

Pressure, of course, is a relative term.

Pressure is a single mother living paycheck to paycheck, forever struggling to pay rent.

Pressure is an attorney fighting for a man's liberty.

Pressure is felt by a tightly knit crew of Nebraska coaches who see Pelini popping up on "hot seat" lists. It makes recruiting that much tougher.

Let's be clear: Pelini's isn't complaining one bit about the heat on him. He knew what he signed up for here. Coaching at Nebraska is "very unique," he said.

Yes, he said, it can consume you. He tries to guard against that feeling, mindful of the potential effect on the players.

"It's what this job is," he said. "It can be hard work for coaches. But we laugh. We joke. We have fun with each other. Fortunately, we have a good group of guys.

"As long as I'm able to look myself in the mirror every night, and know that I've done everything I can to help these kids, that's what puts a smile on my face."

Pelini acknowledged that last week's triumph was "an emotional time" for the staff.

"Our coaches coach for these kids. That's how they're wired," he said. "And to see something good happen for the team ..."

His voice trailed. He thought of a friend, Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who Sunday night suffered a mini-stroke. Pelini and Kubiak were assistants with the San Francisco 49ers during the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, Denver Broncos coach John Fox is recovering from aortic valve heart surgery.

No question, Pelini said, the grind and pressure of the profession can take a physical toll.

"Yeah, it's something that's always a concern," Pelini said. "The human being can take only so much."


These games are key

The obvious: No. 10 LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) at No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0): The Crimson Tide captured last year's game with T.J. Yeldon's touchdown in the final minute. In the 2011 BCS title game, Nick Saban's crew slowly squeezed the Tigers in a 21-0 triumph. This year's game probably will be more like the 2011 contest: a convincing Tide victory. Alabama's final three regular-season games: at Mississippi State, Chattanooga and at Auburn. Don't punch the Tide's ticket to Pasadena, Calif., just yet.

The not-so-obvious: Penn State (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) at Minnesota (7-2, 3-2): It would be unwise to pick against the Gophers in this game. Jerry Kill says his squad is "playing pretty loose right now. I think early, we were pressing so much, and now they're just playing hard and having fun, and not panicking." What's more, Minnesota understands its identity: It's a physical, ground-oriented team that stops the run pretty well. The Gophers are poised for their first eight-win season since they went 10-3 in 2003 under Glen Mason. Nice story brewing in Minneapolis.

Heisman watch

QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State

QB Bryce Petty, Baylor

QB AJ McCarron, Alabama

QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

Keep an eye on: Braxton Miller, Ohio State junior quarterback. Remember a month ago, after Miller committed his third turnover against Northwestern, and Urban Meyer had backup Kenny Guiton warming up on the sideline? Since that point, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Miller is 65-for-83 passing (78.3 percent) for 796 yards and nine touchdowns, with one interception. He's rushed 36 times for 198 yards.

Numbers game -- 41 percent

Johnny Manziel likely won't repeat as Heisman Trophy winner. That's too bad, because he's still the best college player out there. Consider: In his 22 college games, Manziel nine times has accounted for at least five touchdowns. That's 41 percent of the time. A&M still has three regular-season games and a bowl game remaining, and Manziel already has tied his passing TD total of last season (26). His completion percentage is up from 68 percent to 73 percent and his yards per attempt has gone from 8.5 to 10.4. The kid is ridiculous.

Thumbs up, down

Thumbs up to Bo Pelini. An alert reader emailed Cram Session headquarters to point out that when a Northwestern player was seriously injured last Saturday, Pelini walked across the field to show his concern and support. Pelini made contact with both the player and Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald. The TV made no mention of the gesture. You don't always see coaches do that. Am I surprised Pelini did? Not one bit.

Thumbs down to Richie Incognito, the former Husker. He was and is a special player. A ferocious, intelligent offensive lineman. I wish I could say something profound to defend his history of abusive behavior. Alas, there is no defending Incognito at this point, although folks (even current Dolphins) continue to try, under the guise of "locker room culture" and "team building." I don't care what locker room it is, certain words don't fly. Incognito crossed the line.

Five to go

Nebraska's recruiting class of 2014 is ranked 47th by, or sixth in the Big Ten. Here are the league's top five (with Rivals ranking):

3. Ohio State. Of the Buckeyes' 18 verbal commitments, six are in-state players.

17. Michigan. Five-star cornerback Jabrill Peppers of Paramus, N.J., is the bell cow.

26. Wisconsin. Six in-state players are among 18 verbal commits.

29. Penn State. QB Matt McGloin's surprising ascent to No. 2 on the Oakland Raiders' depth chart gives Bill O'Brien a nice story to pitch to prospects.

33. Michigan State. OLB Byron Bullough follows a long list of family members to Spartan country.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or

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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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