Nebraska Football: Was Stewart Mandel Right, Have Huskers' Standards Fallen?

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Nebraska Football: Was Stewart Mandel Right, Have Huskers' Standards Fallen?
Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Many Nebraska football fans were up in arms after Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel said in his most recent mailbag column that he was “baffled as to how Pelini remains in charge in Lincoln.” Mandel’s position was in response to a Daily Nebraskan article by Zach Tegler arguing that Pelini’s overall success in Lincoln has been historically remarkable. Quoting from Tegler’s article:

Of the 2,053 men who have ever coached major college football, 107 – about 5 percent – had winning percentages of .706 or better through five seasons.

Of those 107 coaches, 43 are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Sixty-two worked before World War II. And eight – much less than 1 percent – won nine games in each of their first five seasons as a head coach.

Of those eight, only one inherited a team with a losing record.

His name is Bo Pelini.

Mandel starts his argument by pointing out that a nine-win season when teams play 13 or 14 games in a season is far less impressive than when teams would play 11 or 12-game season. And of course, he’s right. Tegler brings up Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne, so let’s do a side-by-side comparison of those three coaches’ performance in their first six years.

Coach Overall Record Winning Percentage Bowl Record Conference Titles National Titles Top 10 Final AP Rankings Highest Final AP Ranking
Barry Switzer (1973-1978) 62-7-2 .887 3-1 6 (3 shared) 2 (1974, 1975) 6 1 (1974, 1975)
Tom Osborne (1973-1978) 55-16-2 .767 4-2 2 (both shared) 0 5 7 (1973)
Bo Pelini (2008-2013)* 57-24 .704 3-3 0 0 0 14 (2009)

* Pelini’s record excludes the 2003 Alamo Bowl where he was interim head coach.

Eric Francis/Getty Images

The mythical nine-win season threshold is a relatively meaningless concept in an era of 13 and 14-game schedules. In Switzer and Osborne’s day, winning nine games equated roughly to an average winning percentage of 78.3 percent. In the modern era, winning nine games equates roughly to an average winning percentage of 66.7 percent—which translates into winning 7.7 games a season in Osborne’s era.

In other words, if you are saying that winning nine games in the modern era is good enough, that means you are saying in Osborne’s era it would be good enough to average winning eight, eight and seven games in a three-year span. I have a hard time believing Nebraska fans in that era would have seen that production as adequate. Heck, Osborne was almost chased to Boulder by Nebraska fans with the record he did accomplish. What would those Nebraska fans have done if Osborne went 8-4, 8-4 and 7-5 in three years—the statistical equivalent of a nine-win streak in the modern era?

Tegler does point out that Pelini inherited a program in disarray, making his job far more challenging than other coaches who take over for a retiring legend. That’s a fair consideration in the first few years. But now that we have reached year seven of Pelini’s tenure, it’s harder and harder to give that weight. It’s Pelini’s program now, and it is fair to hold him accountable for the results on the field.

Tegler also points out that only two current coaches, Pelini and Washington’s Chris Peterson, won nine games in their first six seasons. Nick Saban, the undisputed king of college football at the moment, went 34-24-1 in his first five years at Toledo and Michigan State.

So, does that mean that Pelini is a better coach than Saban? Does it mean that Pelini’s potential is higher than Saban’s? Or does it prove the truth of Mark Twain, in that there are “three kinds of liars: liars, damn liars, and statistics”—particularly with regards to the mythical and misleading nine-win threshold as a standard of excellence.

Eric Francis/Getty Images

Ultimately, Mandel’s j’accuse makes two arguments. The first is that Pelini’s outbursts and immature actions are ill-befitting a university of Nebraska’s stature. Between the release of the Deadspin audio where Pelini called Nebraska fans (the ones whose support pay his salary) “f***ing fairweather” and the “Coach Chickenbleep” press conference following the Iowa game, where Pelini failed to take any responsibility for his embarrassing sideline behavior and all but challenged Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him, it’s hard to argue that Pelini’s demeanor has covered the program in glory.

The more damning argument Mandel makes, though, is that Nebraska retaining Pelini is evidence that NU’s standards have fallen. In Mandel’s words:

This is a program that once considered national titles and top-10 rankings as its birthrights. Now, the Cornhuskers are just tickled to beat an 8-4 SEC foe in the Gator Bowl … Nebraska, what the heck happened to you? You're like a former supermodel now slumming it as a B-list actress. You can do better.

OK, the B-list actress line might be a bit of trolling the Nebraska fan base, as observed by Steve Hanaway of Big Red Network. But the underlying question Mandel raises is legitimate, indeed going to the very heart of the Nebraska program.

Is this good enough?

Nebraska has not won a conference title since 1999. During the entire BCS era, Nebraska only played in two BCS bowls, beating Tennessee in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl and losing to Miami in the 2001 title game. Yes, Nebraska has never won fewer than nine games under Pelini. But it has also never lost fewer than four games.

Nebraska has won three outright division titles under Pelini. It has lost two conference title games in heartbreaking fashion (2009 to Texas, 2010 to Oklahoma) and one in a humiliating blowout to a 7-5 team that finished third in its division (2012 Wisconsin).

Is that good enough, Husker Fan? If so, there’s no question Pelini should remain in charge. All the evidence to date suggests Pelini’s ability to maintain Nebraska at its current level.

But if that is good enough, then Mandel is right, and Nebraska’s standards have fallen dramatically. If that’s good enough, Nebraska should start putting divisional titles on the West Stadium façade and lining the stadium with icons of bowl appearances, like schools do that have less tradition and pedigree than NU.

If that’s not good enough—and I truly believe most Nebraska fans would say it is not—then the only reason to retain Pelini is the belief that he will start filling the trophy cabinet in year seven of his tenure.

That’s not an unreasonable belief. Nebraska’s talent level on both sides of the ball is as good as it has been in some time. Nebraska was forced to play a lot of youngsters last year—and still had the talent to beat eventual conference champion Michigan State absent a minus-five turnover margin. Most of those youngsters will be back in 2014, with a year more experience and another offseason in the weight room.

So, was Mandel right about Nebraska's standards having fallen?

Submit Vote vote to see results

But it is more than fair to ask when the rewards for Nebraska’s patience with Pelini will be reaped. Pelini has been learning how to be a head coach on the job at Nebraska, whereas most big-time programs (Michigan’s Brady Hoke, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban, to name three) hire coaches who have prior experience.

In year seven, though, the training wheels should be off. If the standard is conference championships—and at Nebraska, that should be the standard—then Pelini must start making the grade in 2014 if he wants to keep his job.

If not, Husker Fan, and you still back Pelini, then you should let Mandel know he was right about where the standards of the Nebraska program have fallen.

If you'd like to contact Patrick, send an email to patrickrunge@gmail.com.

Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.

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