LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's first practice since the Nov. 30 firing of Bo Pelini provided important structure on Wednesday for its players.
Pelini's former assistant coaches may have needed it even more, according to Barney Cotton.
"It was great for our coaching staff to get out here and be with our players," said Cotton, the eight-year Nebraska assistant and interim coach. "This was really good for us."
The 58-year-old Cotton, a former offensive lineman at Nebraska and Omaha native, served as run game coordinator and tight ends coach under Pelini. He and eight other assistants, unsure of their futures, are set to remain on staff through the Dec. 27 National University Holiday Bowl against USC.
Before Wednesday, the last time they gathered with the Huskers, a celebration followed Nebraska's 37-34 overtime win at Iowa to cap a 9-3 regular season.
The 12 days since have included plenty of sorrow.
"What I'm drawing more on is my strength," Cotton said. "I really have a very simple job, and that's to help our players finish out the best way, and to help this coaching staff stay cohesive and united and keep loving each other."
Cotton sent each of his three sons to play at Nebraska, including Jake, a senior offensive guard and co-captain this season, and sophomore tight end Sam.
The elder Cotton said he nearly broke down three times in a 20-minute meeting with the Huskers after Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst addressed the team over the decision to fire Pelini at the end of seven seasons that included no fewer than nine victories each.
Many of the Nebraska players have struggled to accept the move.
"I've learned a lot of life lessons since I've been here," senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said Wednesday. "The biggest one that Coach Bo taught us was to focus on the process. It's about being a man. Sometimes things in life just don't go the way you want them to go, but you've got to move on. Life goes on."
Mike Riley, introduced Friday in Lincoln as Pelini's replacement, met for about 30 minutes last week with Cotton. They talked in general, Cotton said, about Nebraska football and state of Nebraska. Cotton said no members of the old staff have learned if they would receive a chance to coach for Riley.
The new coach, on the road recruiting through the contact period that ends Sunday, will not be involved in Nebraska's bowl preparations. He is believed to have added four assistants at Nebraska from his previous job at Oregon State.
Nebraska received a waiver from the NCAA, similar to Ohio State in 2011, that allows it employ two coaching staffs. Riley's new staff cannot be involved in coaching this month; the Cotton-led group cannot recruit.
The practice on Wednesday was the first of three this week. Nebraska will conduct a normal series of practices next week and travel to San Diego before Christmas for the National University Holiday Bowl.
Despite the circumstances, the Huskers said they will not lack organization or motivation this month.
"I know the team is fired up right now," Mitchell said. "I know they want to have a great time. Everyone is just excited to get away from everything and play some football. As competitors, you've got to go out, strap it up and have some fun."
This trip marks the Huskers' fourth to the Holiday Bowl and third since 2009. Nebraska lost to Steve Sarkisian-coached Washington 19-7 in the 2010 Holiday Bowl, sandwiched between regular-season Nebraska wins over the Huskies in 2010 and 2011.
Sarkisian is at the end of his first season USC, the Huskers opponent in this year's Holiday Bowl. The Trojans own a 3-0-1 record against Nebraska, including wins in 2006 and 2007.
"We're going out there, expecting to win," senior safety Corey Cooper said. "Guys have a lot of different reasons why they want to win. It."
Cotton said he laid out four objectives for the players.
"Honor God with your effort," he said. "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."
Of the old staff, "we do know what our future is."
"We know that we've got one last chance together," Cotton said. "That's our future here. And I hope and pray that everybody gets an opportunity to do what they want to do next year."