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Steven M. Sipple: Husker season beginning to feel like 2003

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During the final few minutes of Nebraska's crushing defeat Saturday, a friend approached me on the sideline wearing a wide smile. He enthusiastically shook my hand.

My friend is a Husker "insider." He's well-connected. I've long admired his passion for Big Red.

He is essentially anti-Bo Pelini. He thinks the football program needs a change at the top. He knows I'm pro-Pelini, and I'm guessing that explains his smile, if you know what I mean.

The final two lines of a 1970s classic by The Temptations, "Smiling Faces Sometimes," came to mind:

"Don't let the handshake and the smile fool ya

Take my advice I'm only tryin' to school ya…"

What a wonderful time of year for Nebraska football. Yeah, just freaking wonderful. The head coach is under fire. Fans are choosing sides. Leaves are falling. Two regular-season games to go. Can the head coach save his job? 

It's a valid question.

Nebraska is 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten. Prevailing wisdom says nine regular-season wins would make it difficult for NU athletic director Shawn Eichorst (and Chancellor Harvey Perlman) to fire Pelini. Eight wins may put Bo on the bubble. But who really knows?

Passionate Husker fans pump unyielding energy into the program. But in awkward times like these, the negativism surrounding the program hurts recruiting. That is one of Pelini's primary concerns at the moment.

My friend smiles all the while. Here we go again. In November 2003, as Kansas State put the final touches on a 38-9 triumph in Lincoln, it struck me odd to see then-Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson yucking it up on the sideline with one of his underlings. They were all smiles.

If there were any doubts at that point that Frank Solich's goose was cooked, they were erased after the next game, the regular-season finale at Colorado. Nebraska prevailed 31-22. However, as players and coaches celebrated, three high-ranking athletic department officials wore glum faces. The Huskers were 9-3. An 8-4 mark would've made it easier to sell Solich's firing.

The awkwardness of that scene is burned in my brain. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence at NU. Maybe I was wrong.

Eichorst remains mum regarding Pelini, 56-23 in five-plus seasons at Nebraska. The first-year Husker athletic director is right to take that tack with the season in progress. Whatever he says would be parsed and re-parsed. 

Pelini says he has a good relationship with Eichorst. A native of Lone Rock, Wis., Eichorst acutely understands the magnitude of Nebraska's Nov. 9 win at Michigan, in the venerable (and daunting) Big House. He fully understands the rugged nature of the Big Ten.

Since beginning competition in the conference in 2011, Nebraska's regular-season league record is 16-6, which is tied with Michigan State for second behind Ohio State (17-5). Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State are 15-7. For many Husker fans, going 16-6, without a conference title, is simply not enough.

What is enough for Eichorst, a genuine "football guy"? An all-conference defensive back at Wisconsin-Whitewater in the late 1980s, one would think he appreciates the strong overall character and unity that help define Pelini's program. Eichorst no doubt recognizes the team's toughness and resilience.

That said, Eichorst must wince at Nebraska's oft-calamitous special-teams play. The Huskers' flops in high-profile games aren't helping matters, either.

Meanwhile, Perlman is nothing close to a "football guy." But you don't have to be Don Shula to recognize the championship-level potential of Nebraska's youthful defense. And you don't have to be Socrates to appreciate the Huskers' team grade-point average, which hovers in the 3.0 range (on a 4.0 scale) — highest it's been since at least 1987.

Perlman and Eichorst must be forever mindful of ticket sales. Memorial Stadium's recent expansion depleted the waiting list for season tickets. Yes, that's become a concern.

There's so much to consider. What are the "boosters of substance" thinking? You know, Howard Hawks, Jim Pillen, perhaps Dan Cook, among others. Reporters might be calling them soon, if they haven't already.

Yep, we've seen it all before.

Two games to go. …

"Everybody in that locker room has a pretty good understanding of what's going on," wide receiver Kenny Bell said Saturday. "You've got to stay mentally tough, and the way you do that is you circle the wagons around the guys you love, the guys that come in and do it every single day — in the weight room, upstairs and in the locker room, down on the practice field. Everything else can go by the wayside. We've got each other. That's all we need."

I wish Bell didn't feel it's the program against the world. It's obviously not the case. But it's easy to understand why he feels that way.

Might as well grin and bear it.

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

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Husker sports columnist

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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