Players are resilient, Barney Cotton says, and he’s right about that. One of the gifts of youth is being able to move on from tough things fast.
But for Husker assistant coaches from Bo Pelini’s staff, Wednesday’s 65-minute visit to the practice field for the first bowl workout was perhaps some needed therapy.
“I’m not so sure our coaches didn’t need today more than our players,” Cotton said. “It was great for us as a coaching staff to get out there and be with our players today.”
Cotton, a former Husker and father of three Huskers, was the man tabbed by athletic director Shawn Eichorst to lead Nebraska in a Holiday Bowl game against USC … and then? Well, that’s where this business can be hard.
Cotton said he broke down a few times when talking to the team on the Sunday Pelini was fired. He also had a message he's wanted to make clear to players ever since.
“I’m basically telling them four things: Honor God with your effort, honor your teammates with your effort, honor Coach Bo with your loyalty and support along with your effort. And let’s reveal our character one last time in the Holiday Bowl," Cotton said.
As for the suggestion that Pelini assistants such as Cotton are spending these next 21/2 weeks not knowing what their futures hold, Cotton doesn't believe that's quite right.
“We do know what our future is. We know that we've got one last chance together,” he said. “That’s our future here. Then I hope and I pray that everybody has the opportunity to do what they want to do next year.
"Obviously, that’s how some coaches are spending their down time, trying to figure out what their future holds. I hope that God blesses all the coaches and their families with a great opportunity when this time ends.”
It’s different from 2003.
Cotton was here in 2003, the offensive coordinator for Frank Solich that year, feeling the same shock then that he felt this time when the head coach was fired the weekend after a 9-3 regular season.
But getting ready for the Alamo Bowl that year, under Pelini as interim coach, came without knowledge of who the next head coach would be.
“The biggest difference is in 2003, there was a carrot being dangled that Bo or possibly Turner (Gill) may possibly remain as a head coach. And then a number of us were hoping to stick along with whoever that may be. … This time is way different. Because, in the space of about 41/2 days, there as a new head coach named.”
Cotton has already spent some time with new head coach Mike Riley.
They talked for about 30 minutes in Eichorst’s office last Thursday night when Riley arrived in Lincoln. They talked about Nebraska football, about the state of Nebraska.
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“We looked out the window and kind of surveyed some things in the dark,” Cotton said. “We looked at some pictures on the wall.”
They saw each other in the hallway again briefly Monday, but then Riley had to hit the road recruiting.
That’s how it goes with these things: There are two staffs in one program for a brief stretch of time. One staff is coaching. The staff Riley is forming is recruiting, and time is fleeting.
“I hope that he gives an opportunity for somebody to remain on staff, but we really haven’t spent much time talking about it,” Cotton said.
He still has aspirations to keep coaching even after the trip to San Diego.
He says he was put in charge to keep this ship sailing in December, and the Nebraska native is taking that role seriously.
Part of taking it seriously is not always being so serious.
After team stretches Wednesday, Cotton asked three of his injured offensive linemen — Mark Pelini, Ryne Reeves and Zach Sterup — to race in their scooters.
Off … they … went.
Pelini won. Probably because he’s lighter, Cotton thinks. Either way, players appreciated the levity.
“He's done a great job, in my opinion,” said senior safety Corey Cooper. "He's pretty much responsible for the relaxed atmosphere at practice. Guys are working, of course, but it's fun. We're trying to make the most of the situation — it's not ideal — but he's doing a great job so far."
Senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said Cotton’s positive mindset is exactly what this team needs right now.
“To come into the meeting room and get guys fired up to go out there is a true testament to what kind of coach he is and what kind of guy he is,” Mitchell said.
There is no easy way to do the job Cotton is doing this month, but you make the best of it.
You do what you've done since you got into this profession: try to win a football game.
“I think what I’m drawing more on is my faith and having strength and courage to be the best guy I can for our assistants, and to love and honor our players with my effort,” Cotton said.
“I have a very simple job. That’s to help our players finish out the best way, and to help this coaching staff stay cohesive and united, and keep loving each other.”