You didn’t want to kick the guy as he went out the door Monday.
But you probably were glad to hold it for him.
Steve Pederson’s hiring as Nebraska’s athletic director was greeted with toasts and cheers five years ago.
His firing elicited the same reaction in most quarters.
You always got the feeling Pederson was trying just a little too hard to create his own legacy at Nebraska, and in a sense he did.
He’ll go down as the AD who stripped Nebraska football of nearly everything that made it unique for four decades. It’s not exactly what we expected from the North Platte native with deep roots in the program’s exalted past.
Pederson hired an ex-NFL coach who has made it feel a little too much like the NFL down on Stadium Drive. Pederson figured four years ago that Nebraska needed to change its ways. He had the audacity to level a unique culture and replace it with one that, best I can tell, emphasizes its potential to send players to the NFL.
That probably helps explain the 2007 Nebraska team’s lack of chemistry and overall effort, traits that have resulted in some of the program’s worst showings in the modern era.
“To see the way the program’s declined, it’s heart-wrenching,” said former Nebraska offensive lineman Matt Hoskinson.
However, Nebraska football’s precipitous decline under Bill Callahan wasn’t the primary reason for Pederson’s firing. It was his management style. The culture Pederson fostered in the athletic department had become a deep concern for Chancellor Harvey Perlman. Pederson had lost the support of many people who had supported him initially.
Indeed, top lieutenants were dropping like flies. Some who have worked in the athletic department will tell you Pederson created a culture of fear. He used fear as a motivator, they say. Employees looked over their shoulders. The culture felt oppressive and wore out some folks.
Nebraska’s sudden vulnerability on the gridiron emboldened some of those folks to seek out Perlman with their concerns about Pederson. The two factors generated a perfect storm of sorts, at least if you’re in the anti-Pederson camp.
Perlman decided Pederson had to go, and one could surmise that Paul Meyers’ surprise decision two weeks ago to leave the athletic department essentially represented the tipping point in Perlman’s decision-making process.
Meyers, an associate athletic director and former Husker baseball All-American, was a key figure in attracting million-dollar gifts to the athletic department. Howard Hawks, a university regent and one of the most prominent boosters, was among those rocked by Meyers’ decision to leave NU.
Pederson suddenly had some explaining to do, and Perlman evidently didn’t like what he heard.
In short, Pederson had become a Nixonesque figure. He could be deceptive in the eyes of many. He wasn’t always trustworthy.
What’s more, Pederson no longer was making a strong connection with many donors, fans and former athletes.
“The alienation, he brought that on himself,” said Hoskinson, voicing a familiar complaint among ex-Huskers. “We never knew what was going on. Steve would say, ‘Just trust me.’ But he wouldn’t give you a reason.
“For a ton of guys, this (firing) comes as a sense of relief. I know that sounds negative. But we care that much.”
Tony Davis, a hard-charging Husker fullback from the 1970s, seemed energized by Pederson’s firing, “because of the obvious,” he said.
“The loss of our identity was very concerning to me and to everyone who has worn the uniform,” the Tecumseh native said.
Nebraska’s football program now has an “every-program” feel about it. That’s what bothers many people the most. Pederson, through his hiring of Callahan, essentially robbed many fans of something they held dear to their hearts — a football program that felt like no other. Maybe it can return.
The next athletic director — and the next head coach — absolutely should have Nebraska roots. Ideally, Tom Osborne becomes the next AD, or perhaps Barry Alvarez, or Dave Rimington. The NU brass tried to look outside the Big Red loop for help after Frank Solich was fired. Pederson seemed bent on hiring an NFL coach. It’s been a terrible fit. Now it’s time to turn to someone familiar.
It’s too early to speculate. But it’s not too early to say the AD should be somebody with a deep understanding of the Husker culture and tradition. It should be somebody with the presence of mind to understand the importance of the program’s uniqueness to millions in Husker Nation.
Fans simply want that “feeling” back. It has to happen.
In a sense, Perlman completed only half the job Monday. He also should have fired the coaching staff, effective at the end of the year. The program has sunk to depths nobody could have imagined. It’s time to cut the cord. But that’s another column for another day.
Perlman made a strong move in firing Pederson.
“There is no joy in my heart for having to do this,” Perlman said.
There is no joy in my heart for having to write this. Pederson no doubt returned to Nebraska in December of 2002 with noble intentions. Maybe he just became carried away with his power. Maybe he became a tad arrogant. Whatever.
There is no joy in seeing any person get fired. In this case, however, it was clearly the right move at the right time.
Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or email@example.com.