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A State on Red Alert

Times Staff Writer

Husker Headquarters has Nebraska jerseys, Nebraska bumper stickers, Nebraska flags, Nebraska No. 1 foam fingers, Nebraska toilet seats, Nebraska doggie treats and Nebraska tricycles.

What it doesn’t have are as many Nebraska customers as it did before Coach Frank Solich was fired Nov. 29 despite a 9-3 record, sending Husker Nation into a mood as dark as a recent afternoon sky.

“Sales have been down,” said Cheyenne Hemphill, owner of Husker Headquarters, located a block from the campus. “People have been calling me to say they’re going to burn their Husker sweatshirts.”

In a downtown office building not far from Hemphill’s store, Jeff McCullough also bemoaned the state of Nebraska football.

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“The son of a very close friend lives and dies for the Huskers,” McCullough said. “He visited Lincoln last summer and got a jersey. The best money could buy. Turns out he went out for Halloween as a beat-up Nebraska football player, with fake blood and bruises and everything. His friend went as a Missouri football player.

“There’s something wrong with that.”

To understand the anger and confusion many Cornhusker fans are feeling these days, it helps to know that Nebraska football is considered a state-sanctioned religion in these parts, and the coach -- depending on how much he’s winning -- is often more admired than the governor.

Nebraska is the state’s only Division I-A football team. The closest major league teams are in Kansas City, Mo., almost 200 miles away. When folks around the state say, “Big Red,” they’re not talking about the chewing gum.

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“I refuse to let this program gravitate to mediocrity,” Steve Pederson, Nebraska’s first-year athletic director, said during the news conference to announce Solich’s firing. “We will not surrender the Big 12 Conference to Oklahoma and Texas.”

Fans got the message, and many were pleased by Pederson’s swift action. A 9-3 record this season -- after a 7-7 mark in 2002, the school’s worst season since 1961 -- was not good enough by Nebraska’s standards.

The Cornhuskers are five-time national champions but have been overshadowed in recent years by Oklahoma, which was top-ranked this season until Kansas State defeated the Sooners in the Big 12 title game last week.

Solich had a 58-19 record in the six seasons since Tom Osborne retired as coach after the Cornhuskers went 13-0 and won the 1997 national championship. But Solich, Osborne’s handpicked successor after serving for 19 years as an assistant, was only 16-12 in his last 28 games.

What troubles so many others is the way Pederson cut Solich loose, one day after an emotional victory over conference rival Colorado and several weeks before the team’s NCAA record 35th consecutive bowl game.

Nebraska, with first-year defensive coordinator Bo Pelini as interim coach, faces Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio on Dec. 29.

Pederson, through the school’s sports information department, declined to be interviewed for this story. Solich also has refused interview requests. Osborne, now a United States congressman, had been mum on the subject until saying this week that he “feels sorry for Frank,” but continues to support the program.

“Steve’s the athletic director,” Osborne said during a conference call with reporters from his Washington, D.C. office. “It’s his program. I never called Frank at any time and told him what to do. It was the same with Steve.”

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Others are angry about Solich’s dismissal and concerned about the direction of the program.

“I had a friend from Colorado tell me the other day, ‘I don’t know what you people expect there,’ ” said Larry Sasek, a Husker fan who hunkered down to talk in the Quarterback Lounge at Misty’s steakhouse.

“Now you’ve got to understand that Colorado fans hate us and we hate Colorado, so when you get a guy from Colorado saying a coach from Nebraska got a raw deal that’s saying something.”

Sasek’s friend, Lloyd Minzel, listened to the story, smiled and nodded. “This could really backfire on Pederson,” Minzel said. “Maybe we should get a new athletic director.... I don’t think Pederson knows what he wants.”

Bill Doleman, host of the “Average Joe Sports Show” on the local ESPN radio affiliate, defended Pederson to a point. Doleman said his initial reaction to Solich’s firing was not unlike the responses he heard from his listeners.

“I was shocked,” he said. “Frank should have been treated better, even though he didn’t do a good job. I understand why Steve Pederson did what he did. I do wish Frank could have gone out with a little better dignity.”

In saying Nebraska needed to better keep pace with Oklahoma and Texas, Pederson may have been indicating that it is time for the Cornhuskers to ditch their traditional I-formation ground game in favor of a flashy passing attack.

Oklahoma’s potent mix of passing and running, as crafted by Coach Bob Stoops, has made Nebraska’s offense look like a broken-down pickup.

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“In his relatively short tenure in Norman, Okla., Stoops has won one national title, two league titles and has 48 victories in [53] games,” wrote Tom Shatel, columnist for the Omaha World-Herald. “The Sooner Schooner looks more like a locomotive these days, barreling toward another national title.”

Oklahoma plays Louisiana State for the BCS championship Jan. 4 in the Sugar Bowl at New Orleans.

As for the Cornhuskers, they have their Alamo, which means practice, which offers a brief escape from the swirl of conjecture.

“Everybody was really eager to get back on the field,” sophomore tight end Matt Herian told reporters Tuesday, after the team’s first bowl workout. “I think people were kind of sick of sitting around. They wanted to get out and do something.”

Pelini, 35, like Husker assistants Osborne and Solich before him, could step up to the head job. Or Pederson could go after a number of other young coaches, including Nebraska assistant Turner Gill, Utah’s Urban Meyer, Louisiana State’s Nick Saban and former Cornhusker running back Tom Rathman, now a Detroit Lion assistant.

There was even an unconfirmed report last week that Washington Redskin Coach Steve Spurrier had flown by private jet to Lincoln, landing under cover of darkness and taxing to a remote corner of the airport.

A new coach isn’t expected to be hired until next week at the earliest.

Cornhusker fans cringe when talking about modernizing the offense, however.

“It’s personnel,” Doleman said. “It’s recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Listen, in the early 1990s, there was a lot of criticism of Tom Osborne. People thought his offense was outdated and he couldn’t win the big one. There was a quiet undercurrent of people who wanted to get rid of Tom Osborne.

“So Tom Osborne went out and got fast players. Nebraska still ran the option with [quarterback] Tommie Frazier. They had great running backs, great fullbacks and an offensive line that was maybe the greatest in the history of college football.

“In the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska, with this ancient, archaic offense, beat Spurrier’s fun and gun offense. No, the key is recruiting.”

Whoever lands the job as the next Cornhusker coach will be ceaselessly compared to Solich, Osborne and Bob Devaney -- the holy trinity of Nebraska football. Wins and losses will be weighed as heavily as honesty and integrity, say the fans.

“I don’t know who the next coach should be,” Sasek said. “We’ve only had three coaches in the last 45 years and all three of them sort of represented what our whole state is about. We build things here on tradition and honesty and hard work. To me, that’s what Frank was about.”

The new coach also will bear the heavy burden of returning all those unhappy Nebraska fans to the fold, a challenge not to be overlooked in a state where it seems everyone roots for the Cornhuskers.

“Right now, Steve Pederson is Michael Corleone and Tom Osborne is the Godfather,” Doleman said, referring to characters in the movie “The Godfather.”

“Steve Pederson has upset the family and now everyone is waiting for Tom Osborne to bring it back together. The new coach, obviously, is going to be important, but Steve Pederson has to sell everyone on the new coach and heal Husker Nation.”

When times were tough during Osborne’s first few seasons at Nebraska, Devaney pleaded with the fans to be patient with the new man. Osborne’s statements this week were the first sign that he’s willing to adopt a similar role as a voice of reason.

“If you look at football around the country, to get by 41 years without a losing season and one 7-7 season is really pretty remarkable,” Osborne said. “We maybe have painted ourselves into a little bit of a corner where expectations are awfully high.”

Back at Husker Headquarters, expectations already are more modest. Surveying his nearly empty store one morning this week, owner Hemphill smiled faintly.

“I’m not ordering as much as I did in the past,” he said. “You can’t go into the season like you know it’s going to be a good season anymore. Bob Stoops and the Big 12 changed all that.”


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