The Read-Option: Dissecting Bo Pelini’s situation and the nature of college coaching
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini came under fire this week when Deadspin leaked a profanity-laced audiotape (warning: NSFW) of his rant against Cornhuskers fans following a comeback win over Ohio State on Oct. 8, 2011. The tape sparked an outpouring of immediate reaction, with some fans backing Pelini and others calling for his head.
Things have since calmed down a bit in Lincoln. Pelini apologized for his comments, which were recorded without his knowledge, and the school released a statement on Wednesday saying it had “put this matter to rest.” But incident begs a number of questions. Should a coach’s words or actions behind closed doors have any bearing on his employment? What kind of behavior should fans expect from a coach? What are fans real priorities when choosing a headman? SI.com’s Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman discuss the subject in this week’s Read-Option.
Zac Ellis: Bo Pelini simply hasn’t had a very good week at Nebraska. First, the Huskers blew a 21-3 lead in an eventual 41-21 loss to UCLA on Saturday. Then Deadspin released the audio of Pelini’s expletive-filled, two-year-old rant against the Nebraska fan base. Obviously, this isn’t a great look for the Huskers coach, and it has caused plenty of debate about what exactly factors into a coach’s job security. How much should things like off-the-record remarks matter to fans and a school?
Martin Rickman: They are going to matter because everything matters to fans. If a coach doesn’t like a local restaurant that’s beloved by fans, or if Ohio State’s Urban Meyer were to wear blue one day, or if Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson decided he didn’t like Coke, it would matter. Fans want their coaches to live and die for their school, to only think about their school and to be perfect in every way. Aside from being ridiculous, it’s an entirely impossible standard. People are people. Still, college coaches can’t be naive. Especially at public universities, they’re similar to politicians. They’re state employees, so their public lives are fair game in the grand scheme of whether fans want them to represent a team or not.
ZE: I think so much depends on the expectations of a particular fan. If Alabama’s Nick Saban suddenly came out and said how much he loathed the city of Tuscaloosa, I doubt the majority of Crimson Tide fans would truly want to get rid of him. He’s the best coach out there, and he’s captured back-to-back national titles. If a coach is winning, these types of things are put on the back-burner in most fans’ minds. That’s why the Pelini situation is so intriguing to me. This audio recording was from October 2011. That’s almost two full years ago! And it just happens to leak on the heels of a meltdown loss and subsequent clash with program legend Tommie Frazier? To me, it’s best to look at the larger picture. Someone just wanted to make things worse for Pelini in an already shaky climate in Lincoln.
MR: If Nebraska goes up 21-3, wins 35-10 and is 3-0 to start the year, that tape goes back in the vault. Well, at least until the next bad loss happens and it potentially leaks again. Winning cures all, but if fans have their mind made up about a particular coach, regardless of what happens — win or lose, honestly — the verdict has been cast. That happens where I live in Cleveland all the time. Coaches don’t get a whole lot of time to turn things around (and they usually don’t), but if fans just don’t like a guy and he’s not winning, a coach is lucky to get to a third year. There might be a bit of that kind of feeling with regard to Pelini and Nebraska fans. Reading through the Deadspin emails, it seems like someone was just sitting on the tape and waiting for the right time to drop it. That feels a little psychopathic, but fan is short for fanatic, I guess.
ZE: I think you hit on an interesting point there: If fans don’t like a guy and they’re not winning, that basically means the end for a coach. A coach has to be likable for a fan base, at least at first. From then on, however, the priority of the fans is what matters most. Do they want a guy who wins at all costs? Do they want someone who emphasizes academics and student development? Do they want a strong representative for the university? It’s so rare to get all of these qualities rolled into one. It’s obviously a way, way different case, but I think of the example of Bobby Petrino. His off-field transgressions permeated the Arkansas program when he hired his mistress on the athletic department staff, a misstep that’s unquestionably and unmistakably worse than Pelini’s tirade. But last season, before Petrino was hired back at Western Kentucky, I heard numerous fan bases with lousy teams say they’d take Petrino in a heartbeat if it meant winning some games. If that’s the case, how does Pelini not survive this poor press?
MR: Winning cures everything. A guy like Bill Belichick, Saban or Meyer isn’t winning over fans with a smile and some pizzas. The reason they stick around and people buy into the idea of a dynasty is because they’re dynamic enough to win despite not coming across as handshake, baby-kissing types. Which brings us back to Pelini. I can’t help thinking, what happens to Nebraska if/when Pelini is gone? The team is going to lose a lot of offensive talent next year regardless. Expectations are through the roof, so a potential new coach would be measured against what Pelini did. Anything less than nine wins would be considered a failure. And when a school is hiring a new coach, candidates want to believe the AD and fan base is behind him — won’t some be spooked (even though Nebraska is a historically strong program) because some people are releasing what amounts to blackmail two years after something happens when things go sour?
ZE: What goes into the decision to fire a coach like Pelini is even more intriguing than the feelings of a fan base, especially if it’s based largely off something like this audiotape. I think it’s impossible to have a blanket policy for issues like this. Every situation is so different. What Pelini says in a press conference or on television is one thing, but in a private conversation recorded more than two years ago? Also, I think it’s necessary to take into account how some given statements or actions affect the success of the university and program. Say Pelini was cussing about his quarterback, not his fan base. To me, that’s more serious. But our central point stands: None of this matters if a coach winning.
MR: If the Huskers don’t fix things and start winning some games — and especially big games — soon, then Pelini will be in real trouble. And this two-year-old leaked tape won’t have anything to do with it.