- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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It seems so obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Bill Callahan and Nebraska went together like steak and tofu, or, to put a finer point on it, like the West Coast (offense) and Lincoln. In four seasons, Callahan won 27 games and one Big 12 North championship in 2006. More importantly, Callahan and his passing offense, not to mention his determination to chart his own path in other ways, never won the hearts and minds of Huskers fans.
Interim athletic director and permanent legend Tom Osborne announced the firing of Callahan on Saturday morning.
"As a former coach, this is a role I really don't like," Osborne said. "I hate to sit in judgment of other people. I never envisioned being in a situation where I would have to make a decision on somebody's employment opportunity, but that's the nature of this business."
Callahan finished with a record of 27-22 (.551) over four seasons. His problem, among others, is that it took Osborne fewer than three seasons to win 27 games and nine to lose 22. Nebraska went 42 consecutive years without a losing season. Callahan went 5-6 in 2004, and, after the 65-51 loss to Colorado on Friday, 5-7 this season.
Former athletic director Steve Pederson fired Osborne's hand-picked successor, Frank Solich, after the 2003 season to arrest a slide in the Huskers' success.
"I knew how disruptive it would be," Pederson said in the spring of 2004. "It's a miserable thing to do. I also knew if we got to a point where we had a big-time lack of success, that would be far more disruptive to far more people."
Callahan accelerated the Huskers' slide, proving to be disruptive to no one more so than Pederson, whom the university abruptly fired last month. But at the time Pederson hired Callahan, Nebraska fans were willing to give Callahan a chance. He had taken the Raiders to the Super Bowl as head coach after starting out in Oakland as the offensive coordinator under Jon Gruden.
More importantly, Callahan had helped former Nebraska linebacker Barry Alvarez take Wisconsin from the bottom of the Big Ten to the top. That gave him credibility among Huskers fans. On the first play of the 2004 spring game, Callahan called a play-action pass, and quarterback Joe Dailey threw deep. The crowd roared with approval.
The pass fell incomplete.
"The technical, strategic, tactical aspect is different for our players," Callahan said. "The culture is going to change because of that, but not the tradition."
The culture changed in many ways. Callahan and Pederson put up walls between Nebraska football and its fans. They changed the offense. Callahan downsized the walk-on program, a signature element of both Osborne and Solich. They built new facilities that were meant to modernize Huskers football but instead helped disorient fans used to the way Osborne did things.
When his football team struggled on the field, Callahan had little support off the field. Nebraska fans have earned a reputation as the best in the nation. In an era when the behavior of fans is so often over the top it's hard to know where the top is anymore, Huskers fans still treat their opponents with respect.
But for their support, they demand competence. When Nebraska played USC last season and this season, the difference between the two programs illustrated how far the Huskers have fallen. The spectacular failure of the Nebraska defense this season (49 points to USC, 76 points to Kansas, 65 to Colorado) left Big Red faces bright red. It wasn't that Nebraska went 5-7 as much as it was the way the Huskers went 5-7.
On the day Callahan coached his last game, Arkansas defeated No. 1 LSU 50-48 in triple overtime. Before Pederson hired Callahan, he tried to hire Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt and nearly succeeded. In the end, Nutt couldn't leave his home state.
Four years later, Pederson is out of a job. Nutt is on his way out of Fayetteville. The point is not that Nebraska should have hired Nutt or that Osborne will. But the next Nebraska coach will be closer on the coaching spectrum to Osborne than to Callahan.
All across Nebraska, from Scottsbluff to Omaha, high school senior football players should begin working out. No matter who the next Huskers coach is, it's a good guess that an expanded walk-on program will return with him.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
Nebraska hired Bill Callahan to arrest a slide, but the Huskers' slide accelerated during his tenure, and the coach never won the hearts and minds in Lincoln.