Steve Pederson was laughing, yucking it up. He stood in back of the south end zone alongside one of his minions. Both giggled, as if someone had cracked a joke. The team from the Sunflower State had just scored another touchdown. It was minutes before the final gun, and Nebraska football fans streamed toward the exits feeling morose and genuinely concerned about their beloved program.

The scene remains vivid in my mind. Maybe it’s no big deal that Pederson was laughing at this moment. After all, humor is a wonderful coping mechanism. Yet it seemed curious and sort of sad that at such an excruciating time in the history of such a wonderful football program, the athletic director was grinning widely in an extremely public setting.

That was November of 2003 in Lincoln. The team from the Sunflower State was Kansas State. Pederson was preparing to fire the head coach. What a hoot.

Please fast forward to late Saturday afternoon in Lawrence, Kan. Another Big 12 team from the Sunflower State, the University of Kansas, had just buried Nebraska with another touchdown, but this time Pederson wasn’t smiling. This time the loss was on Pederson’s tab, hence his pained look. He knew he was in for a rough week at South Stadium, perhaps another long winter, perhaps . . . Well, let’s see how things play out in the next few weeks.

Many fans in Husker Nation are at a loss right now. They’re confused, angry and flat worn out. It’s draining to ponder the enormity of all that has transpired in the program in four years. And just when you think Nebraska had reached rock bottom and was ready to climb — perhaps ready for a resounding November surge to a bowl game — the Huskers lose 40-15 to a Big 12 doormat and surrender 428 yards to an offense that had eked out 97 yards a few weeks ago against Oklahoma.

It’s become clear Nebraska players aren’t responding well to the second-year coaching staff. This season, once again, the Huskers (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) too often play with little enthusiasm and sporadic focus. Could you have imagined Nebraska surrendering opening-possession scoring drives in five consecutive games? Could you have imagined Nebraska rushing for a combined 35 yards IN THREE GAMES?

Today, as Nebraska prepares to face Kansas State, the Huskers rank 108th nationally in total offense, one spot behind Ball State. The Huskers possess ample talent on defense, but the offense’s repeated three-and-outs leave little time for recuperation. In November especially, physical and mental toll mounts. You’re seeing the effects now from the Blackshirts.

If Nebraska played with unyielding fire and determination, and didn’t repeat mental mistakes (read: false starts) every week, fuming Husker fans would show more patience.

If Nebraska showed discernible improvement as the season progressed, instead of the opposite, there would be far less teeth-gnashing.

It’s also unsettling that Nebraska’s consistently being outcoached.

Yet, it’s too soon to pull the plug on Bill Callahan. Even in an instant-gratification society, one season plus nine games isn’t enough to make such a rash move. The last thing Husker Nation should want is a revolving door to the head coach’s office. If it comes to that, Nebraska truly will have become “just like everyone else,” if it hasn’t already.

Bear in mind that when Callahan was hired, he hurriedly assembled his coaching staff in part because Pederson’s coaching search dragged for 40 days into early January, leaving NU with only two official recruiting weekends. Is this Callahan’s ideal staff? Perhaps not, which is why changes may be made in the offseason. Callahan, feeling the need to appease disgruntled fans, may choose to make a scapegoat of a colleague or two. It happens all the time at other places. Why not here?

It’s become clear that this Pederson-Callahan marriage of convenience needs intensive counseling. Year three might tell the tale for their union. Enough might be enough. Check out the 2006 schedule: road games at Southern California, Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas A&M, and a home game against Texas. Uh, oh.

As you sift through the muck and mire, and all of the mixed messages that emanate from South Stadium, it becomes a challenge to feel overly optimistic about the program’s future. As Pederson smiled in the end zone two seasons ago, did he know something the rest of us didn’t? If you bleed Husker red, you hold out hope he wore the smile of a visionary.

Mixed messages? The South Stadium spin is that Nebraska lacks enough talent to compete for Big 12 championships. Pederson and Co. point to Callahan’s 2005 recruiting class as reason numero uno for optimism. Yet even though true freshmen have made major impacts recently at several schools (Penn State, Michigan and Oklahoma, to name a few), only one of NU’s vaunted true freshmen (kicker Jordan Congdon) has cracked the starting lineup. If Husker veterans are so devoid of talent, why haven’t the young guns taken over their positions en masse?

Mixed messages? The Nebraska administration issues thinly veiled concerns about Bo Pelini’s gunslinger style, then shrugs off Callahan’s bursts of excessive emotion.

Yes, it all seems confusing at times. Your head spins as you ponder massive change in the program. You think back to fall of 2003 again. Nebraska rebounds from the K-State loss to win at Colorado.

Pederson is nowhere to be found amid the celebration. But his minions materialize for the postgame press conference, only there is no joking or smiling from them. They smiled and laughed when Nebraska stumbled badly two weeks earlier against the Wildcats. Now, after a riveting road win against an archrival, they frown and appear pale and sickly. Wow.

Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s life in the bottom-line corporate world and now it’s life in the Husker football world. It’s dog eat dog out there, friends. Gotta make hard decisions. Get used to it, pal. Get over it, people tell me. Yeah, yeah, I know.

Two years later, I still say it feels strange at the old stadium.

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