Osborne again? Legend faces fractured Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. – He won the Heisman Trophy in 1972 and was voted Nebraska football's "Player of the Century."

Still, when Johnny Rodgers returns to Memorial Stadium for a game, he knows he'll be watching his alma mater from the bleachers – not the field.

"Oh no," Rodgers said, "former players aren't ever allowed to stand on the sideline. Not even me."

At least Rodgers can get into the stadium.

Jason Peter helped the Cornhuskers win three national titles from 1994-1997 before being selected in the first round of the NFL draft. But when Peter requested a pair of tickets to Nebraska's game at USC last season, administrators told him to look elsewhere.

"I offered to pay double, but they said they didn't have enough," Peter said. "I was stunned. I wasn't just an All-American. I'm on their freakin' All-Century team."

Peter pauses.

"I guess the people there now don't want ex-players hanging around," he said. "We're a constant reminder of everything they haven't done."

Here in Lincoln, folks can't believe it has come to this.

Nebraska went 40 years without a losing season, and now a group of men are at the Watering Hole on O Street, placing bets on whether the Cornhuskers will even earn a bowl berth. Two blocks away, at the Nebraska bookstore, the price of T-shirts has been reduced by 25 percent.

Even in the confines of his own home, university chancellor Harvey Perlman can't escape the community's angst thanks to the handful of anonymous callers who pester him each evening.

"They're stringing together four-letter words that I could never figure out," Perlman said.

With five national titles and 46 conference championships, Nebraska football has long been this state's unifying force, for decades its source of pride. These days, though, being a Cornhuskers fan is as much fun as working in a toll booth.

Fans and former players said they felt alienated by an athletic director who – before his firing Monday – showed no regard for the tradition and close-knit environment that once defined Nebraska's program.

Making matters worse is the Cornhuskers' dreadful performance on the field. Nebraska is 4-3 under fourth-year coach Bill Callahan, who will likely be fired at the end of the season. Included in Nebraska's win total is a one-point victory over Ball State. Last weekend's 45-14 loss to Oklahoma State marked the Cornhuskers' worst home defeat since 1958.

"We're getting spanked like a four-year-old at K-Mart," Rodgers said.

All of a sudden the boosters who used to throw money around like birdseed are threatening to cease their yearly donations. One of them is Dale Jensen, part-owner of Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks.

Just the other day, Jensen said a friend of his – a Nebraska fan – drove up in a new car. Jensen asked her why she didn't have a Cornhuskers frame around her license plate.

"I did," the woman told Jensen, "but I've already taken it off. I'm not very proud of them right now."

*****

Harvey Perlman said he took "no joy" in his decision to fire athletic director Steve Pederson, but the feeling hardly seemed mutual when he made the announcement at a news conference Monday.

Former Nebraska lineman Steve Glenn actually stood and clapped as Perlman entered a room filled with 23 television cameras and about 200 media members and fans.

"This," Glenn said, "is the best thing to happen to Nebraska football in the last 10 years."

Almost anyone close to the Cornhuskers' athletic department will tell you Pederson is responsible for the cloud of chaos that hovers over Lincoln this fall, which is surprising considering Pederson is an alum and native Nebraskan who came highly recommended in 2003 by legendary football coach Tom Osborne.

It didn't take long, though, to recognize that Pederson had a different vision for Nebraska than the one held by his predecessor, Bill Byrne.

Shortly after Nebraska hired him away from Pittsburgh, Pederson terminated the contract of football coach Frank Solich following a 9-3 regular season. Solich had been a longtime assistant under Osborne before taking over in 1998. Pederson did not consult Osborne before making the decision.

"I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity," Pederson said at the time. "We won't surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas."

Four years later, Nebraska finds itself with problems much more widespread than its woeful performance on the football field.

With Pederson leading the athletic department, members of Nebraska's 'N' Club – a group of former football letterwinners – said they often felt ignored and without a voice.

All-Americans and Hall of Famers strolled the hallways surrounding the coaching offices and notice their photos had been removed from the wall and replaced by pictures of current team members – some of whom contributed to a 5-6 record in 2004.

They said they were made to feel unwelcome when they wanted to use the team weight room, and if someone like Peter or Outland Trophy winner Aaron Taylor wanted to watch a practice? Forget it.

"I'm a little different," said Rodgers, the Heisman winner. "I could still do some stuff, but even I had to push. And if I had to push, that pretty much tells you everyone else had no chance.

"It wasn't an accident. That's the way Steve wanted it to be. He wanted a whole new deal. He didn't want to use the support of former players and coaches, and that's a shame. These are the guys that helped build the program. That's not ever going to change. It's not right to shun them. They made a huge contribution."

Boosters such as Jensen cringe when they hear those kinds of stories.

"You don't do those things if you're a good businessman," Jensen said in a phone interview from Arizona. "I've owned businesses before. If half of the stories I've heard are true – and I know more than half are – I'd never have someone like that work for me."

One group that Pederson did try to reach out to was current NFL players. Houston kicker Kris Brown was invited earlier this season to sit in Pederson's luxury suite during the Texans' bye week.

"Steve has always done a good job of reaching out to guys that were still in the league," Brown said. "But I've heard from other players – guys that aren't in the NFL – that said he didn't offer that same kind of extension.

"Once you were done playing, you always felt like you had a home to come back to. But now guys feel like they aren't all that welcome anymore."

That seems easy to believe when a former player of Peter's stature can't even buy a single-game ticket to Memorial Stadium. Peterson, who was living in California at the time, said he called Nebraska last winter to request two tickets to this season's USC game in Lincoln and was denied.

Peter said he was allowed to purchase season tickets a few months ago when he moved back to Lincoln and began working as a radio host. But even then, he wasn't given access to the field.

"And here's the worst part," Peter said. "Last weekend I look down there and some UFC fighter from Omaha, Houston Alexander, is down there on the sidelines. Everything has gotten so twisted.

"They tried to tell me they've never let former players on the sidelines. That's bullshit. When I was playing I'd look over there and see Danny Noonan and Roger Craig and Broderick Thomas. I remember thinking, 'Damn, that's Husker loyalty. I'm playing my ass off today.'"

Former players aren't the only ones who feel shunned. Osborne quit attending games and – get this – began serving as a consultant for Creighton's athletic department. Just last month, Paul Meyers, Nebraska's top fundraiser, abruptly resigned.

Perlman sent an email to athletic department employees earlier this year asking for their evaluations of Pederson. Two were returned: One positive and one negative. But after Meyers' departure, people came forward and expressed their frustrations.

"It seems strange that a person in my position is the last one to find out about these things," said Perlman, who said his decision to fire Pederson will cost more than $2.2 million.

A day after Pederson's dismissal, Perlman announced that Osborne, 70, had been hired as interim athletic director. Osborne coached the Cornhuskers from 1973-1997 and later served as a Republican member in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thrilled as fans were across the state, they know deep down that the move is hardly a cure-all to Nebraska's ills.

"A lot of people are really happy because Steve is gone," Rodgers said, "but they don't know what the future might bring, either. It doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot right now."

At least not until Nebraska starts winning again.

*****

Tom Osborne said he doesn't believe in leaving people "dangling." So shortly after Nebraska's regular-season finale at Colorado on Nov. 23, he'll make a decision regarding the future of head coach Bill Callahan.

"There won't be any changes until the end of the season," Osborne said. "And then maybe none at all."

Popular as he is in Lincoln, Osborne probably wouldn't endear himself to Nebraska fans if he chooses to retain Callahan, who hasn't exactly been embraced during his three-plus seasons with the Cornhuskers.

A year after being fired by the NFL's Oakland Raiders, Callahan brought his West Coast offense to Lincoln in 2004 and promptly finished 5-6 – Nebraska's first losing season in 40 years.

Things eventually began to turn, as Nebraska ended the 2005 campaign with an Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan. Last year the Cornhuskers won the Big 12 North.

This season, though, has been a catastrophe. Nebraska was blown out at home by USC a week before escaping with a 41-40 victory over Ball State thanks to a dropped touchdown pass in the final seconds by a Cardinals receiver.

Last week the Cornhuskers found themselves down 38-0 at intermission against Oklahoma State. The cherry on top was that the game was being played in front of Nebraska's 1997 national championship squad, which was in town for its 10-year reunion.

Callahan said talk of his job status has become a distraction for his team, and this week's firing of Pederson is making matters worse.

"We're all human," said Callahan, whose team hosts Texas A&M on Saturday. "We all have families and children. They hear and see things. It's not a good feeling.

"The players are very concerned about the status of a lot of things. They're inquisitive. But nothing has been said to me in relation to a dismissal, so we're going to press on."

The biggest knock on Callahan is that he treats the Cornhuskers as if they are NFL players. Nebraska rarely works out in full pads and it doesn't practice on Mondays. Callahan's West Coast offense is one of the most complicated schemes in football – especially for an 18-year-old trying to remember the playbook.

"The playbook is three-inches thick," Jensen said. "I took molecular biology and I had a smaller book than that. It's too damn complicated."

Glenn agrees.

"It's obvious he has a pro mentality in a college program," Glenn said. "They're not teaching them to tackle and block. Nebraska football has always been played from the neck up. We've always been tougher, smarter, meaner. Right now we're not playing like that."

The Cornhuskers certainly weren't last weekend against Oklahoma State, when Nebraska's usually loyal, supportive fan base began heading for the exits before halftime.

"It felt like a funeral," Peter said. "I guess people had just had enough. This team doesn't have any confidence at all. They don't believe in the staff and they don't believe in each other. I don't care what they say.

"Last week they suspended a kid for getting into a fight at practice. So what? We used to fight every freakin' day at practice. Every day we had us a big brawl. That's why we were so mean and nasty on Saturdays. Now they're soft – probably because they're getting suspended for getting into fights."

Nebraska's last two losses have come by a combined score of 86-20, but the Cornhuskers are confident they will turn their season around. A victory this weekend would make them 2-2 in league play and in contention once again for the Big 12 North title.

"The season is far from over," tight end J.B. Phillips said. "We're not going to be the team that leaves a black mark in history. We're not going to accept that."

Even if Nebraska ends on a winning note, it may not be enough to save Callahan's job. Firing Callahan would cost the school approximately $4 million, but Osborne said he doesn't anticipate money being a factor in making a decision.

"The last couple of weeks have been tough," Osborne said. "Games we thought would be competitive weren't competitive. That's been difficult. If you see it week after week it becomes a concern. But if it's just a couple of games it may not be a big deal."

If Osborne does fire Callahan, fans will be clamoring for him to hire LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who held the same position at Nebraska during Solich's final season in 2003. "We Want Bo" signs are beginning to pop up at Memorial Stadium, and sources close to the situation indicated Thursday that Pelini would be interested in the job.

Former Nebraska defensive end Chad Kelsay said he hopes Nebraska will hire someone with Cornhusker ties.

"We've been spoiled for a really long time because there's been so much continuity and success," Kelsay said. "We don't have to live in the past. But, to get it back to where it was, there has to be some connection to the past that embraces tradition."

Whatever happens, fans said they're ready for Husker Nation to be united again.

"It needs to get back to its roots," Jensen said. "That's why everyone was so in love with Nebraska football. Everybody laughs when someone says, 'It's not just college football. It's a way of life.' But at Nebraska, that's really true.

"It's a unique phenomenon. I don't know of another state that has this kind of identification with a team. It's almost like a religious belief. It's more than just the team and how it's performing. It's about the attitude – the 'way' as well as the result."

*****

Wednesday afternoon, a day after he was named interim athletic director, Tom Osborne emailed a letter to hundreds of former Nebraska football players.

The third paragraph reads: "Whether you were a walk-on or a non-scholarship player, from Nebraska or another state, you are a valuable member of this family and a key factor in our school's storied history and tradition of excellence. We want you to know that you are always welcome in our home."

Later in the letter, Osborne announced that a handful of sideline passes will be available for this weekend's game against Texas A&M and that former players will be admitted free of charge.

Also on Wednesday, Osborne asked an assistant to retrieve all the pictures of former standouts from the storage closet and hang them on a vacant wall. He then attended the Cornhuskers' practice and invited ex-players to join him.

"It's not going to solve all the problems," Brown said, "but at least gives people reassurance and hope that we can get it back to where it was. If there's one person who can bring everything back together, it's Coach Osborne."

Asked how long he wants to serve in his new capacity, Osborne said: "I plan to work myself out of a job.

"I don't want people to think that everything is fixed. It's not going to be that easy. There are no quick fixes in this business, no miracles. It's going to take time."

Back in Arizona, that was good enough for Jensen's friend, the one who had taken the Nebraska license plate frame off her new car.

"I just saw her," Jensen said, "and she told me she put it back on again."