LINCOLN, Neb. — Barney Cotton choked up as he described the challenges that come with serving as Nebraska’s interim head coach.
He wants to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of maintaining a business-as-usual atmosphere in the wake of Bo Pelini’s firing. He vows to make sure the players have the best experience possible at the Holiday Bowl.
Yet, he still feels the punch in the gut from Pelini’s firing and sadness for assistant coaches who don’t know what the future holds after new coach Mike Riley takes full control following the Dec.
27 game against Southern California.
“Little by little, guys are being given notices that this spot will be filled by someone else and that spot will be filled by someone else,” Cotton said. “Those are the hardest things. You’re talking wives and kids and moving and new schools and all that. That really tugs at you. I wish I could make it all go away, but obviously that’s not the reality we live in.”
Cotton is among five interim coaches who will be in charge of teams this bowl season. The others are Dave Baldwin at Colorado State, David Gibbs at Houston, Joe Rudolph at Pittsburgh and D.J. Durkin at Florida.
— Barney Cotton
Cotton already has landed his next job as offensive coordinator at UNLV. Baldwin is a candidate to replace Jim McElwain as the Rams’ head coach. Gibbs hopes to stay on as defensive coordinator for Tom Herman. Rudolph might join the staff of former Pitt coach Paul Chryst at Wisconsin. Durkin has been connected to several defensive coordinator jobs since finding out this week he wouldn’t be retained by McElwain, Florida’s new coach.
The interim jobs might be more challenging for Baldwin and Rudolph, whose bosses were not fired but instead left for better jobs.
“It’s a process that goes through the mind right now,” Baldwin said. “You’re 10-2, yet you’re not sure if you’ll be employed at all next year. There’s limbo, but we accept that in this profession. If you’re worried about it, you shouldn’t have gotten into this profession.”
The bowl games amount to auditions for soon-to-be unemployed coaches, said Gibbs, who’ll be across the field from Rudolph when Houston plays Pitt in the Armed Forces Bowl on Jan. 2.
“If you’re good at your job,” Gibbs said, “you realize that if you go out there and coach your butt off and your kids play hard and play good, you have a better chance of getting a job than if your kids go out there and lay down and get beat up on national television.”
Baldwin, the Rams’ offensive coordinator, said he didn’t hesitate to accept the interim job for the Saturday’s game against Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty that goes on with the players in this process, and we wanted to make sure they understand we’re here for them and we’re going to make this happen,” Baldwin said. “We’re a 10-2 football team for a lot of good reasons. Let’s make some history and win 11 games.”
Durkin, who was Will Muschamp’s defensive coordinator, said because of the transitory nature of the business, it’s not awkward when an interim coach takes over for a departed head coach. He said he appreciated the trust athletic director Jeremy Foley showed in asking him to lead the Gators against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.
“I’ve been here five years with our guys,” Durkin said. “I want to make sure they get my very best as a head coach to go win this game and finish things off the right way. That’s where my focus is.”
For Cotton, his imminent parting with Nebraska will be more difficult than perhaps it will be for other interim coaches who will be somewhere else next year.
The 58-year-old Cotton grew up in Omaha, played offensive line for the Cornhuskers and served as a graduate assistant under Tom Osborne. He was Frank Solich’s offensive coordinator in 2003 and held several jobs on Pelini’s staff since 2008. He has had three sons play for Nebraska.
“I wouldn’t have traded my playing experience, certainly wouldn’t have traded working for Frank and working for Bo and having Coach Osborne as the [athletic director] here,” Cotton said. “And having the chance for Bo and Coach Osborne to give my boys the opportunity to come play at Nebraska, where their dad played and where my folks have lived … I’ll always be thankful and always be blessed.”