Nebraska's struggle to find coach surprising

Updated: January 8, 2004, 11:23 PM ET
Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. -- Long known as a bastion of coaching stability, Nebraska hasn't been able to find anyone to take over its football program.

Where most schools go only a few days between the departure of a coach and the arrival of a new one, Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson on Thursday began the 40th day of his search for Frank Solich's successor.

Anxiety in this football-mad state escalates with each passing day, as evidenced by the vitriol on local sports call-in shows and Internet bulletin boards.

Precious recruiting time is slipping away, and there still is a vigorous debate over whether Solich should have been let go after a 9-3 regular season.

Add to that the strong fan sentiment for defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who led the Huskers to an Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State, as interim head coach.

It has become a volatile mix for Pederson, who has conducted his one-man search in virtual secrecy.

Pederson is a North Platte native, a Nebraska graduate and a former recruiting coordinator for the university. In his first year as athletic director, he often said the fans' passion is a strength of the program.

Yet he has appeared to be caught off-guard by the frenzy the search has created.

"We are unusual in the fact that the University of Nebraska has not gone through this process in football since we hired Bob Devaney from Wyoming in 1962," Pederson said. "However, the process is proceeding as planned."

Pederson has acknowledged he has interviewed Arkansas coach Houston Nutt and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Whether either received offers depends on who you talk to.

Bill Callahan, fired as Oakland Raiders coach last week, was in Lincoln on Wednesday night and Thursday morning interviewing for the job. Pelini and quarterbacks coach Turner Gill, the in-house candidates, interviewed on Wednesday.

"If I were in Nebraska's position, I'd make sure I'm getting the right man at this point," Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles said. "I wouldn't go hire somebody just because it looks like I need to. When you go this long, find the best fit for Nebraska."

How long it takes to replace a football coach varies, depending on the time of year and circumstances.

Washington, for example, fired Rick Neuheisel on July 28 -- just a few days before the start of preseason practice -- and promoted assistant Keith Gilbertson the next day.

Texas A&M needed only three days to replace R.C. Slocum with Dennis Franchione in December 2002, and Florida took just four days to see off Steve Spurrier and hire Ron Zook.

"I always knew if Steve left who I was going to talk to," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "I was going to talk to three people, and I was going to hire one of them."

Nebraska, on the other hand, is conducting one of the longest major-college football coaching search in recent times.

According to Broyles, Pederson violated a firing-and-hiring axiom when he dismissed Solich.

"I was taught that you don't make a change until you know who you're going to hire," Broyles said. "And you also have to make sure the new guy is better than the old guy."

But Broyles praised Pederson for having the integrity to wait until after most of the bowl games to start talking to candidates from the college ranks. Broyles last week held off Pederson's bid to lure away Nutt.

Gil Brandt, who works closely with colleges as an NFL scouting consultant, said he's surprised Nebraska is having so much difficulty finding a coach, given the program's tradition and resources.

"If Mike Zimmer turned down the job... it's hard for me to understand why anyone would not want to go from being a defensive coordinator in the National Football League to being head coach at Nebraska," Brandt said. "If these are all turn-downs, there must be something to it that we're not reading or seeing.

"It's different if you're trying to get somebody to go to a school with lesser history, less money. To me, Nebraska is a very, very good job."

Pederson said when the search started that the next coach would be expected to return Nebraska's program to elite status, meaning it should be competing for national championships regularly.

Brandt said such an expectation should not scare away quality candidates.

"My educated guess is that job is going to pay $1.5 million a year," Brandt said, "and if you're going to pay top dollar, top performance is expected."

Foley said Pederson needs to go about his search in his own way and not be concerned with the public's reaction.

"No matter who he hires, there will be somebody out there who wishes he had hired somebody else, or why he couldn't have done it quicker," Foley said. "It's just part of being in the chair.

"They got the right guy conducting the search. He's a quality AD, and he knows his sports, and he'll find Nebraska a quality coach."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press