LINCOLN, Neb. -- It got ugly on Friday. Uglier, perhaps, than those who have studied Nebraska football in Bo Pelini’s six seasons here imagined it might when everything reached a boiling point.
That moment is here. It’s D-Day at Memorial Stadium. Shawn Eichorst, you’re up; the floor belongs to Nebraska’s first-year athletic director. Time to throw your support behind the embattled coach, patch the wounds and commit to the future, or start over with a new staff.
Often on Friday during and after the Huskers’ 38-17 loss to Iowa in the regular-season finale, it felt like the end was near -- that it could arrive this weekend.
If this was it, the 45-year-old Pelini went out just as you’d expect, throwing punches, defiant and backed fully by his men.
Pelini took swipes at the officials and the media, his adversaries from the start. And the coach didn’t exactly endear himself to Eichorst and the Nebraska administration, either.
“They want to fire me, go ahead,” Pelini said. “I believe in what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for what I’ve done. I don’t apologize to you. I don’t apologize to anybody."
The media, he said, made a story of his job status.
“It’s impacted our football team,” he said, “and it’s hurt our football team. Let’s call a spade a spade.”
This was the ugly side of Pelini, on full display for a national audience, complete with the angry halftime interview.
“My record, our record since I’ve been here, speaks for itself,” Pelini said. “And this program’s heading in a good direction. You choose not to think so, that’s your prerogative. All I know is myself, this staff, the people who’ve been associated with this program since I’ve been here can look themselves in the mirror and feel good about what we’ve done.”
He talked and acted like a coach who worried it was over.
From a flea-flicker pass to open the game to the ill-fated, third-quarter fake punt at Nebraska’s 32-yard line, a sense of doom hung in the air Friday.
Pelini drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for arguing against a pass-interference flag thrown on linebacker Zaire Anderson against C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third quarter. The coach swung his hat in the direction of an official’s face before the second flag was thrown.
“I thought that was a chickens--- call,” he said. “Excuse my language on that, but I’ve never seen anything like that before.
“I’ve done a lot worse than that. I saw Kirk Ferentz over on the sideline acting a lot worse than I acted. I didn’t see a flag come out on him. The bottom line is, they knew they blew the call. They blew it. They blew that call over there, and everybody in the stadium knew it. They didn’t man up enough to pick that flag up.”
Pelini at his ugliest is a sight to behold.
When it ended, he exchanged a moment with Ferentz, the longtime Iowa coach. Pelini then found his daughter Caralyn. They walked quickly toward the field’s northwest exit, where fans assemble to offer support as the Huskers depart.
As Pelini reached the edge of the turf, a few fans took pictures. One yelled encouragement. Most were quiet as the sizable contingent of Iowa fans on the opposite end erupted in cheer.
Asked later about the fan support, Pelini came up with two words: “It’s great.”
Meanwhile, his players went to bat for Pelini. Several described him as a “father figure."
“He changed my life,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “I would play for Bo Pelini against Satan himself and a team of demons at the gates of the underworld. I love Coach Pelini.”
Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles lobbied, too.
“I sure hope he returns,” said Sirles, one of 23 seniors honored before his final home game on Friday, “because this program can only go up. I hope he returns [so] in 10 years, I can bring my wife or my girlfriend, and I can say, ‘This is Coach Bo. This is who made me the man I am.’”
Sirles and Huskers, of course, view the situation through a different lens than Eichorst.
The athletic director is likely to consider the bigger picture. Nebraska, at 8-4, slumped to its worst regular-season record since Pelini’s first year. The Huskers were eliminated from contention for a conference title with two games left for the first time in his career.
Yes, the Huskers showed impressive resilience this year in fighting through injuries and adversity.
“It hasn’t been any easy year,” Pelini said, “from any stretch of the imagination.”
But will it matter?
“We’ve done the right things,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We don’t cheat. We work hard. We’ve got good kids. They represent the program well."
“If they want to let us go, they can let us go,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
The man in charge may look at Friday as a microcosm of the Pelini era.
The Huskers committed three turnovers and a couple costly errors on special teams.
Iowa played a clean game. Pelini’s ugly side bubbled to the surface.
Let’s be realistic: The end, now or in 10 years, was never going be pretty. Pelini's personality and coaching style don’t allow for a moment in which he could walk into the sunset like Tom Osborne or gracefully bow out for a new job.
It was always going to be ugly. It was always going to look like Friday.