New coach understands tradition

Nebraska fans weren't happy with how the school searched for a football coach, but they should be happy with the hiring of Bill Callahan.

Originally Published: January 8, 2004
By Trev Alberts | Special to ESPN.com

The ideal situation for the Nebraska football program would have been to fire Frank Solich and then "win the press conference" by having a replacement in there just a few days later. Everyone in the Husker family would have been ecstatic with that, but we all know things did not work out that way.

Once that scenario failed to play out the focus for athletic director Steve Pederson became getting the best coach out there, and all of the candidates who interviewed were good football coaches. That includes new coach Bill Callahan, whose NFL experience and college background bring some additional credibility to the Cornhusker program.

Bill Callahan
AP PhotoBill Callahan won't face the same lockerroom obstacles at Nebraska as he did in Oakland.
Callahan is less than a year removed from taking the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl and knows what it takes to be successful at the highest level. And don't put too much stock in that 4-12 record this year in Oakland because there are far bigger issues at play in the NFL than someone outside the lockerroom can fathom.

And don't put much stock in the player unrest that helped get Callahan get fired. When the average salary on the team is higher than the coach's salary the leader loses a lot of his authority, and when he doesn't have the power to make personnel decisions the coach carries even less weight with the players. Neither will be an issue in Lincoln.

Taking all that into account, how ironic is it that Callahan could take the Raiders to the big game last season yet end up making more money at Nebraska? College football has changed a lot over the last few years, and when things like that happen it's easy to see why guys like Pete Carroll, Nick Saban and Al Groh have already come back to college.

But Callahan is not just a pro coach trying something new, he is a coach whose roots are in college. He coached at Illinois and Wisconsin, among others, during a college career that lasted from 1980 to '94. Callahan's boss at Wisconsin, Barry Alvarez, has raved about Callahan's ability to recruit, which is mandatory in this job if Callahan hopes to bring in the best players outside the state.

The reality is that every high school kid dreams of playing in the NFL one day whether he has a realistic shot or not, and Callahan can look every recruit in the eye and tell him he knows what it takes to be a success at the next level. He has coached players like Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Rich Gannon and knows how they got to the top of the heap.

Of course, there are plenty of other things in the larger picture that helped Callahan land the job. Near the top of the list is his understanding of the passing game and the ability to take the Nebraska offense into the 21st century, which will be another recruiting advantage. The Cornhuskers were never going to get the kind of athletes they needed -- especially at quarterback -- to compete in today's game running an offense that does not let the skill players shine.

And don't discount the fact that Callahan wanted this job and this challenge. He has been called a traditionalist and that's a good thing, because anyone who takes over this program must have a grasp of the Nebraska tradition. Interim coach Bo Pelini certainly did a terrific job with the defense over the course of the season, but if there was one overriding complaint about him it was that he did not understand the lore of Nebraska football.

Nebraska fans, administrators, coaches and players take everything about their program very seriously, and because of Callahan's experience under Alvarez in Madison he can relate to that kind of feeling about a football team.

Some in the Nebraska family might say "Well, they just took the first guy who would say yes." I ask those people, aren't you glad it was Bill Callahan, someone who has been to the top of the NFL and worked with some of the best coaches at the college level? Remember, Bob Stoops was not the first choice at Oklahoma and Jim Tressel was not at the top of Ohio State's list when those jobs came open.

Does Callahan have challenges? Of course. With his pedigree there is enough credibility to face them head on, but he little time to get comfortable. This year's recruiting class is not yet lost and there are still great players to be had, so it will be interesting to see what kind of impact his presence will have. The opportunity to walk into the home of the best available high school quarterback and tell him you have a spot for him in the West Coast offense -- with no competition -- is a huge one and Callahan needs to take immediate advantage.

Nebraska fans are historically impatient and do not settle for mediocrity, and the connection between football and the identity of the entire state is what makes them special. They are also the most knowledgeable fans in college football and they know the difference between good losses and bad. The Husker fans understand what effort and preparation mean and can swallow a two- or three-point loss if they know their team played the best game possible.

What they cannot abide is a 38-7 home loss to Kansas State in which the team is manhandled. Do those fans expect Callahan to win the national championship in the coming year? Probably not, but there will be high expectations for the ensuing seasons.

One of the issues that hindered the search is that the university did not do a very good job of articulating why Frank Solich was fired in the first place. It wasn't because he won "only" nine games. There were other issues within the program that helped Steve Peterson make that decision, and Pederson was obviously able to convince Callahan that Solich's dismissal was not about some magic number of wins he failed to reach.

Steve Pederson will realize in the end that he could have done some things differently. Bill Callahan won't help him win the press conference at this late date but, all things considered, getting a coach one year removed from the biggest game in football is a pretty good deal.

Trev Alberts is a college football analyst for ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com during the season.