LINCOLN, Neb. — Bo Pelini has been fired as Nebraska’s football coach after a seven-year stint marked by his inability to restore the program to sustained national prominence and a number of embarrassing losses in big games.
Pelini extended his streak of winning at least nine games every year with a 37-34 overtime win at Iowa on Friday but he never finished a season with fewer than four losses or ended a conference-championship drought that dates to 1999.
Pelini, whose tenure spanned Nebraska’s transition from the Big 12 to Big Ten, was 66-27 and led the Cornhuskers to three league championship games.
“Earlier this morning I informed Coach Bo Pelini of our decision to move forward in a new direction,” athletic director Shawn Eichorst said in a statement. “Coach Pelini served our university admirably for seven years and led our football program’s transition to the Big Ten Conference. We wish Coach Pelini and his wonderful family all the best and thank him for his dedicated service to the university.”
Eichorst will hold an afternoon news conference.
Asked for comment, Pelini wrote in a text to The Associated Press, “I’m good. Thanks for asking!”
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. tweeted, “Biggest mistake you ever made…. Bo was the best coach I’ve ever had and I’ll always appreciate the things you taught me.”
Associate head coach Barney Cotton, a Nebraska alum, will be the interim head coach for the Cornhuskers’ bowl game.
Even though Pelini brought the Huskers out of the depths of the failed four-year Bill Callahan experiment that ended in 2007, his four-losses-a-year habit and frequent bad losses on the national stage wore on a fan base that has filled Memorial Stadium for every home game since 1962.
Those fans have been conditioned to expect excellence. Nebraska ranks among the all-time leaders in victories and has won five national championships, including three in the four years before Tom Osborne retired as coach after the 1997 season.
The dominant run of success in the mid-1990s has been an albatross for the coaches who followed — first Frank Solich and then Callahan and Pelini.
Callahan proved to be a better recruiter than coach for the Huskers, and in his first couple seasons Pelini benefited from the talent his predecessor assembled, particularly on defense.
Bad losses started to haunt Pelini after Nebraska moved to the Big Ten, and they became the program’s identity. There was the 70-31 beatdown by unranked Wisconsin in the 2012 conference championship game, and last year there were one-sided losses to UCLA, Minnesota and Iowa.
Pelini’s undoing might have been the 59-24 loss at Wisconsin on Nov. 15 when Melvin Gordon ran for a then-FBS record 408 yards. The next week the Huskers squandered a 14-point halftime lead at home while losing 28-24 to then-unranked Minnesota.
Nebraska, as a ranked team, lost seven games by 17 or more points since 2011. No other ranked team has lost so many games so lopsidedly over that span, according to STATS.
“I fully support Shawn’s decision to make a change in the leadership of our football program, and wish Bo and his family all of the best,” chancellor Harvey Perlman said. “I am confident that Shawn will find the best coach, teacher and fit for this university and for our football program.”
Pelini, criticized for a defensive scheme that couldn’t seem to stop the run, also drew detractors for his volatile temper.
Nebraska made it to the Big 12 championship game in Pelini’s second year, losing to Texas 13-12. Officials put one second back on the clock after time apparently had run out. That was enough for Hunter Lawrence to kick the winning 46-yard field goal. An outraged Pelini shouted in the tunnel that the Huskers were robbed and that Texas was given extra time so it could play in the national championship game.
“BCS. That’s why they make that call,” Pelini yelled.
He also was reprimanded by Perlman for sideline meltdowns where he ripped into officials and quarterback Taylor Martinez during a loss at Texas A&M in 2010. After cameras in 2012 captured a couple of Pelini tongue-lashings, Perlman said the coach was a “victim of his reputation” and that “within reason [fans] have to accept him for who he is.”
Last year, though, Perlman and Eichorst had to put out a fire after the website Deadspin released audio of Pelini’s profanity-laced tirade against what he called fair-weather fans and two newspaper writers.
The same day that audio went public, Pelini made waves for his response to criticism from Tommie Frazier, saying if the quarterback of the 1994-95 national championship teams didn’t like the way he ran the program, he didn’t need Frazier’s support. Pelini apologized, and Perlman said the matter should be put to rest.
Pelini had initially endeared himself to Nebraska fans when he served as Solich’s defensive coordinator in 2003. Pelini was interim head coach after Solich was fired following the 2003 regular season, and he was in charge for the Huskers’ Alamo Bowl victory against Michigan State. As he walked off the field in San Antonio, Husker fans chanted, “We want Bo!”
Callahan was hired instead, and Pelini took defensive coordinator jobs at Oklahoma and LSU, winning the 2007 national title with the Tigers.
Osborne, as athletic director, picked Pelini to replace Callahan, saying the program needed an immediate defensive fix.
After the Huskers shut out Arizona 33-0 in the 2009 Holiday Bowl, Pelini famously shouted, “Nebraska’s back and we’re here to stay.”
Pelini’s proclamation proved premature.