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.
And Bo Pelini is on the hot seat.
A vocal minority of Nebraska fans harangue Pelini for an inability to live up to the standard. But the real standard in Nebraska isn’t winning conference championships. It isn’t winning national championships.
The standard coached the Huskers for 25 years.
The standard’s name is Tom Osborne.
Four seasons into his tenure at Nebraska, Osborne was on the hot seat, unable to live up to the standard set by his predecessor: Bob Devaney, who led the school to its first two national championships. After the 1976 Huskers (who finished 9-3-1) rallied to beat Texas Tech in the Bluebonnet Bowl, some university regents told Osborne that had he lost the game, he might have been fired.
But Osborne stayed, for 21 more seasons, and he went 60-3 in his final five seasons, winning three national titles along the way and creating the standard every following Nebraska coach would be compared with.
But it’s completely unfair to compare Bo Pelini to Tom Osborne. Pelini can’t be Osborne, because nobody can be Osborne.
Osborne is the only coach in history with more than 250 victories and fewer than 100 combined losses and ties; his career ended with only 49 losses and three ties. Osborne ranks fourth all time in winning percentage among coaches who worked more than 10 seasons. Of the top 18 coaches on that list, Osborne is the only one with more than 173 wins – with 255 wins.
And the eight coaches with nine wins in each of their first five years? He’s one of them. So is Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, who won nine games in is first eight seasons – the second-longest streak ever. But Osborne? He won nine games in his first (and only) 25 seasons.
From 1973 to 1997, Nebraska fans were spoiled by arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport. They were conditioned to believe that a football program could contend for national championships every other year and make it look effortless.
Osborne’s successors – just like every other coach in college football – have failed to live up to the standard.
Frank Solich, who coached the Huskers from 1998-2003, had the exact same winning percentage (.754) through five seasons as Osborne. Solich took Nebraska to a national championship game, had a team finish the year ranked No. 3 in the nation. But one bad season – which still included a trip to a bowl game, mind you – doomed him.
Solich’s successor, Bill Callahan, had two losing seasons in four years, and by the time he was fired, the program was trending downward.
That brings us to Pelini.
In his six seasons at Nebraska, his first six as a head coach, the highs have not met the standard, and the lows have caused knee-jerk comparisons to Callahan. But through it all, in the big picture, Pelini’s teams have been consistent; pessimistic critics point out that Pelini has lost four games each season. But Pelini has also won at least nine games each season.
Detractors argue that because college football teams play more games than they used to, it’s easier to win nine games in a season in the modern era. Yet only two coaches since 1990 – Pelini and Boise State’s Chris Petersen – have opened their careers with five straight nine-win seasons.
The Nebraska fans who want Pelini fired for on-field performance are living in the ’90s. Winning takes time, patience, more than six years. Osborne didn’t win an outright conference championship until his ninth season. He shared a conference title in his third season – but so did Pelini. In 2010, Nebraska finished the season tied for the Big 12’s best record, a feat that would have earned a league title in pre-conference championship game days.
Osborne inherited a team that had won back-to-back national championships a year before his tenure started, and he didn’t coach a national title contender until 1982, his 10th season.
Pelini inherited a 5-7 football team – yet he was held to the lofty standard of Osborne’s accomplishments after only a few seasons at the helm.
Other people want Pelini out because of his behavior; whenever Pelini is discussed on TV, a montage of footage with Pelini’s yelling and ranting and raving is shown. And that creates an image Nebraska fans don’t want.
But image is all about context. As Florida coach Will Muschamp (who is on a hot seat himself) said on “College Gameday” recently, victory justifies anger. When you’re winning, people call you passionate, he said. When you’re losing, they say you’re out of control.
At the end of the day, Pelini has a winning percentage of .704 in nearly six seasons. In his first five years, he had a winning percentage of .706. Better than Nick Saban. Better than Bear Bryant. Better than Lou Holtz, Bobby Bowden, Bo Schembechler, Jimmy Johnson, Frank Beamer, Steve Spurrier, Les Miles, Pop Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg and, oh, by the way, Bob Devaney.
With a victory in the coming bowl game, Pelini would become the fifth coach ever to win nine games in each of his first six seasons, joining Osborne, Switzer, Petersen and George Woodruff, who coached Penn in the 1890s.
Fifth. Coach. Ever.
Pelini has worked under the shadow of three national titles by one of the best coaches in history, and while he hasn’t spoiled Husker Nation, it would be unfair to say he has underwhelmed. Have there been bad losses? Yes. Have there been embarrassing moments? Yes. But if Pelini is fired for winning at least nine games a season, you’d be hard-pressed to find another person who wants to coach under that cloud.
Nobody wants to coach a program with unrealistic expectations. Nobody wants to face a rabid, impatient fan base. Nobody wants to work at a place where nine- and 10-win seasons get you fired.
For now, there is only one man right for the head coaching job at Nebraska.
His name is Bo Pelini.
Zach Tegler is a senior journalism major. You can reach him at sports@