LINCOLN, Neb. — The start of bowl practice brought a sense of normalcy to a Nebraska team that has experienced a range of emotions in the days since the firing of Bo Pelini and hiring of Mike Riley.
Interim coach Barney Cotton said after Wednesday’s one-hour workout that he was proud of the effort the players showed under the circumstances.
“I’m telling them four things: honor God with your effort, honor your teammates with your effort, honor coach Bo with your loyalty and love and support along with your effort.
And let’s reveal our character one last time together in the Holiday Bowl,” Cotton said.
At athletic director Shawn Eichorst’s request, Cotton and the rest of Pelini’s assistants will coach the Cornhuskers (9-3) in their game against the No. 24 Trojans (8-4) on Dec. 27 in San Diego.
— Barney Cotton, Nebraska interim coach
“I really have a very simple job,” Cotton said. “That’s to help our players finish out the best way and help this coaching staff stay cohesive and united and keep loving each other.”
Riley has been recruiting and assembling his coaching staff since he was hired last week, and he said he would watch the Holiday Bowl as a fan. A number of assistants from Oregon State are expected to follow him to Nebraska. It isn’t known if any of the current Nebraska assistants will be retained.
“We know that we’ve got one last chance together. That’s our future here,” Cotton said. “Then I hope and pray that everybody gets an opportunity to do what they want to do next year. Some coaches are spending some of their down time trying to find out what their future holds.”
Senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said it was “definitely weird” not having Pelini at practice. He said he’s not worried about the team being out of sorts once it’s game time.
“They definitely want us to finish right,” Mitchell said. “We’re a competitive bunch and that’s one thing we preach. For us to have one more game, especially against an opponent we’re going to play, who wouldn’t want that? It’s not a huge BCS bowl game, but the opponent is a big name and we’re a big name. Why not strap it on and have some fun?”
Mitchell was among the players who, in the hours after Pelini’s firing, were vocal in their disappointment about Eichorst’s decision.
He said he felt better being back on the field.
“When we’re out on this field, everything else doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just what’s going on inside these walls is what matters to us, and playing on the football field is what we came here to do. It’s nice to be on this field and be away from everything and be around the people you want to be around the most.”
Senior safety Corey Cooper said Pelini would be on his and his teammates’ minds as they get ready for the Trojans.
“We definitely want to win and send him out on the right note knowing he pretty much coached 10 wins. That’s something,” Cooper said. “That’s one of the many motivations we’ve got for winning this game.”