Between 1962 and 1997, Nebraska suffered nine blowout losses (games decided by at least three scores). That’s 36 seasons and 429 games. Of course, that was during the Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne eras, when Nebraska lost only 69 games. Since Osborne’s retirement following the 1997 season, the Husker football program has been on a steady decline, leading us to the 2017 season, where the team stands at 4-5 and likely faces losses in its final three games.
Devaney’s teams lost by three or more scores only twice during his 11-year tenure. The worst beating was a 47-0 loss at the hands of Big 8 rival Oklahoma in 1968, which happened to be the same season people tried to petition the school to fire the coach. The next season, Nebraska started an NCAA-record 33 consecutive years with at least nine wins. The Huskers won their first national title in 1970 and followed it with an encore in 1971. Devaney finished his Nebraska career with a 101-20-1 record.
Coach Osborne took over in 1973. He went on to have one of the best coaching careers in college football, finishing with a 255-49-3 record. He came close to winning national championships several times during the 1980s before capturing three crowns during the 1990s. His teams suffered seven losses by at least three scores, with the worst being a 45-10 blowout to Oklahoma in 1990.
Both men were held in such regard that the university erected statues in their honor outside Memorial Stadium.
Why do I say Nebraska has declined into mediocrity? Under Devaney and Osborne, Nebraska enjoyed a position at the table with other powerhouse programs, such as USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas and Oklahoma. During Nebraska’s 36-year run, the Huskers and these teams won 30 national championships between the Associated Press and Coaches polls. Nebraska won five national titles during that time. The Huskers finished in the Top 20 all by three of those years.
Since 1998, four coaches have patrolled the sidelines in 20 seasons. With them, have come 85 losses. That may not seem like a lot, but Nebraska went from winning 83 percent of its games under Devaney/Osborne to winning 67 percent from 1998 through this season. The path to mediocrity includes 35 of those losses being by margins of at least three scores. Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini each presided over teams that gave up 70 points in a game. Solich started the slide with a 62-36 loss to Colorado during the 2001 season. The Huskers went on to play Miami in the national championship game that year, with the Hurricanes beating them 37-14. The following season, Nebraska staggered to 7-6 in the regular season, needing a hard-fought win over Division 1-AA McNeese State to become bowl eligible. The Huskers lost to Ole Miss and made Eli Manning look like a Hall of Fame quarterback during the bowl game.
Solich lasted one more season, being fired by athletic director Steve Pederson after the 2003 season. He finished his Nebraska career with a 58-19 record. While his 75 percent winning percentage sounds good, it was under his leadership that Nebraska started to lose games by large margins. Of his 19 losses, eight of them were by at least three scores – an average score of 41-15.
After Solich was banished, Bill Callahan took over the Nebraska program. He had coached the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl two seasons before, so he had the pedigree to lead the Huskers back from mediocrity, right? Four seasons later, he was fired by acting AD Tom Osborne, who himself replaced Steve Pederson, who was let go mid-season. Callahan’s unremarkable Husker career ended with a 27-22-0 record and 11 blowout losses, including a 70-10 beating at Texas Tech.
The Huskers suffered five of the 11 losses in 2007, Callahan’s final season. That season also saw Nebraska surrender 65 points to Colorado in a 65-51 season finale loss. Callahan’s 2007 team had Nebraska’s first losing season since 1961.
Bo Pelini ran the football program for the next seven seasons. Pelini – who served as Solich’s last Husker defensive coordinator in 2003 – was a fan favorite for a few seasons. But, his gruff personality and “us against the world” mentality he built his teams around, ended up being his downfall with Shawn Eichorst, who served as athletic director during most of his tenure. It didn’t help that 12 of Pelini’s 27 losses were by at least three scores, a 44 percent mark. He finished his Husker career with a 67-27 record. His worst losses were 70-31 to a 6-6 Wisconsin and 62-28 to Oklahoma. In those 12 blowouts, the Huskers gave up an average of 48 points.
So, that brings us to Mike Riley. The affable former Oregon State coach brought a 53 percent winning mark to Nebraska when he was hired in 2015. His first team went 5-7. But, with a lack of enough winning teams to fill out bowl bids, Nebraska played in the Holiday Bowl, winning to finish at 6-7.
Last season seemed to be the bounce back season fans expected, with Nebraska winning nine games. But, the wheels appear to have come off the wagon this season. Nebraska stands at 4-5 with three games remaining. They are underdogs to win any of them, including this weekend at Minnesota, another 4-5 team, but 1-4 in the Big Ten west division. Nebraska is 3-3 in the division, dropping three of its last four games. The Huskers are on the verge of winning their fewest games since 1961.
Riley, 19-16 as coach, has suffered three blowout losses, two to Ohio State over the past two seasons by a 115-17 margin and 38-17 to Wisconsin a few weeks ago. If the Huskers finish below .500, it will be the fourth losing season since 2004.
The Huskers are 2-4 at home this season. They have beaten a Top 10 team only twice since 2010, both over Michigan State.
How did the fall into mediocrity happen? Was it inevitable? Cyclical? Was it bad hires by the athletic directors? Laziness on the part of coaches? Did the times catch up with Nebraska? Once, the program was noted for having the best weight and nutrition programs. The Huskers’ training facilities were the best in the land. Nebraska was on TV every week. Today, almost every major college program has great facilities, some better than Nebraska. Every conference has television packages, so most games are televised, leaving little need for kids to travel thousands of miles away from home to play football.
Nebraska had one of the best walk-on programs in the country. Today, those kids’ parents are encouraging them to take scholarships from smaller schools, so that they don’t have large school loan bills after they graduate. Nebraska doesn’t have the natural recruiting ground in the state to compensate for that.
With 35 of 85 losses coming by a margin of 45-17, Nebraska has declined as a program and can’t be mentioned in the same breath as its counterparts from the 1960s and 1970s. Fans realistically don’t expect the program to go back to the 1990s, when Nebraska posted the best record in a decade for a college powerhouse. But, we do expect the team to challenge Wisconsin and Iowa annually for the division title and Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State for the conference championship. The days of blowout losses must stop.
So, if that means nice guy Riley is let go and another coach – fans’ favorite being ex-Husker Scott Frost – comes in, that coach needs time to build the program, but must know his teams can’t lose by three or four touchdowns on a regular basis. Husker fans need to give the next guy a real chance to build the program and drive the Husker wagon back on to the road to success.