How Harvey Perlman Destroyed Nebraska Football
By Dennis P. Crawford
When Tom Osborne retired on January 2, 1998, Nebraska was on top of the football world. The Huskers had won 60 of their last 63 games and 3 out of the last 4 national titles. Things looked good for incoming Coach Frank Solich.
Tom Osborne’s successor got off to a strong start — going 42–7 in his first 49 games as head coach. Then disaster struck late in the 2001 season. Nebraska lost two consecutive blow outs to Colorado and Miami to end the season.
Things got worse in 2002. The Huskers badly missed Heisman trophy winner Eric Crouch and finished 7–7. More ominously, Chancellor Harvey Perlman hired Steve Pederson as athletic director with the understanding that Pederson would fire Solich.
In response to the disappointing 2002 season, Solich shook up his staff and hired some young, promising assistant coaches. Bo Pelini, Barney Cotton and Marvin Sanders joined the Nebraska staff in early 2003.
Unfortunately, Pelini and the other new assistant coaches got off to a bad start with Perlman. The Chancellor reneged on Solich’s promise to his assistants that they would have two year contracts. This broken promise by Perlman would have severe ramifications several years later.
Solich’s new staff significantly improved Nebraska and the Husker went 9–3 during the regular season. Up to that time, a 9–3 season was (justifiably) seen as a successful season in Lincoln.
Blow out losses to Texas and Kansas State were unsettling to many fans and boosters. However, Texas had Vince Young as their quarterback and Kansas State blew out undefeated and top ranked Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
The day after Solich won a victory over Colorado in Boulder, he was fired by Steve Pederson. This was the first time in the history of college football that a program had fired a 9–3 coach. (Solich’s staff went on to defeat Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl and the Huskers finished 10–3 in 2003. They haven’t done that well since. )
Pederson soon learned that good coaches don’t want to work for a chancellor and athletic director who fire 9–3 coaches. They (correctly) perceive there is no job security at a program that fires a well respected coach with a good record like Frank Solich.
After the termination of Solich, at least 3 coaches rejected offers from Pederson. In the end, Pederson settled on Bill Callahan — shortly after he was fired by the Raiders. Well informed sources tell me that Pederson’s interview with Callahan consisted of the athletic director begging Callahan to take the job.
Callahan turned out to be a good recruiter but a very poor coach. Nebraska had two losing seasons in the four years Callahan was at the helm. The 2004 season was the first year Nebraska failed to go to a bowl game since 1968.
Disaster struck for Nebraska when they were blown out at home by USC early in the 2007 season. Callahan chewed out his staff and his team after the loss. As a result, the team became demoralized and gave up. Callahan’s stock with the players was already low before then because he was cool and aloof towards the players after they signed a letter of intent.
Nebraska finished 5–7 in 2007. Both Steve Pederson and Bill Callahan were fired. Tom Osborne saved Perlman from being fired himself when he agreed to take on the job of athletic director. After an extensive search, Osborne hired Bo Pelini to be the new Nebraska head coach.
Pelini got off to a very good start at Nebraska. The Husker made appearances in the Big 12 title game in 2009 and 2010 and narrowly lost those two contests. During his first three seasons at Nebraska while the Huskers were still in the Big 12, Pelini’s teams won 29 games, including two bowl games.
What turned out to be one of the big turning points in recent Nebraska history was the 2010 game at Texas A&M. The Aggies won a defensive struggle by a 9–6 score but the Huskers were flagged for 142 penalty yards in comparison to 10 yards for Texas A&M.
This gross disparity in penalties was most likely the result of the Big 12’s anger and bitterness that Nebraska was leaving the league. Even some reporters for the Lincoln Journal Star were of the opinion that it was a fixed game.
As a result of poor officiating in College Station that night, Pelini flew into a rage and repeatedly yelled at the officials. A few days later, Perlman publicly rebuked Pelini — which made a poor relationship with the coach even worse.
In 2011, Nebraska joined the Big 10. Becoming a member of a new conference created a new series of challenge for Pelini since his players were recruited to defend finesse, spread offenses and he hadn’t scouted any of the Big 10 teams.
Despite the transition to the new league, Pelini consistently won 9 or 10 games every season. In 2012, Nebraska made an appearance in the Big 10 title game but they were blown out by Wisconsin.
In 2013, Osborne retired as athletic director and it was expected he would have a role in picking his successor. Instead, Perlman ignored Osborne and acted as a one man search committee. Acting on a recommendation from a conference rival — Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin — Perlman hired Shawn Eichorst to succeed the legendary coach.
By the time Eichorst was hired, Perlman’s relationship with Pelini was toxic. Eichorst was hired with the understanding that he would fire Pelini.
Unfortunately, Eichorst came to Nebraska with a poor reputation. He was called the “invisible” athletic director at Miami. Nevertheless, Perlman agreed to pay him $1 million per year and made him the fifth highest paid athletic director in the country despite his inexperience.
Just before the 2013 Iowa game, Perlman and Eichorst tried to fire Pelini but Tom Osborne and the regents got wind of their scheme. As a result, the regents stopped the termination.
In 2014, Nebraska went 9–3 and narrowly defeated Iowa in the final regular season game. Most fans thought that Pelini’s job was safe — no chancellor or athletic director would make the mistake of firing another 9–3 coach.
Perlman and Eichorst shocked the football world when they fired Pelini two days after the Iowa game. This time, they kept the firing a secret from the regents and the regents learned about the firing from the media — like everybody else did.
In my opinion, Pelini was terminated largely due to his toxic relationship with Perlman. It has been described to me that Perlman had a personal vendetta against Pelini.
Once again, Nebraska faced the problem of hiring a good coach after firing a coach with a 9–3 record who graduated most of his players. Eichorst approached Kyle Whittingham, Paul Chryst and Brett Bielema but was rejected by all three of them. This was all reported in the media. A reliable source told me they were also turned down by Jim McElwain.
Perlman and Eichorst again shocked the world when they hired Mike Riley from Oregon State. Riley was a curious hire since he had a losing record in 3 out of his last 5 years in Corvallis and the Beavers finished last in the Pacific 12 North in 2014. What made the hire even more puzzling was that Riley was 62 when he was hired. (Osborne was 60 when he retired.)
Since he has been hired, Riley is off to a disappointing start. In 2015, the Huskers went 6–7 and recorded their only third losing season since Bill Jennings was coach back in 1961.
Last year, Riley led Nebraska to a 9–4 record that was sullied by embarrassing blowout losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee. It’s evident that Riley hasn’t improved the program since he was hired. In some ways it has gone backwards.
All Husker fans want Riley and his staff to be successful but the reality is that Riley has never won a championship of any kind at the college level. Informed sources tells me that Riley has at least two more seasons — barring some kind of meltdown where the Huskers have a losing record.
Only time will tell if this latest experiment with a pro style passing attack is a success. The only thing we can guarantee is that it will be interesting.
Go Big Red!
Postscript. This piece was originally written in 2015 after the Purdue debacle and it was updated in August 2017. Unfortunately, Riley and the Huskers have regressed in 2017. Nebraska has suffered two embarrassing home losses to Northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Barring a miracle, Riley and his staff will be fired no later than the end of the season and the new Athletic Director will be hiring a new coach.