Line between college sports and professional teams blurring

I’m not what people would call a big sports fan, but I do have a few soft spots. Besides Gophers hockey – men’s and women’s (I think it’s a shame the women don’t get as much coverage as the men) – I like Nebraska college football. I was raised on it. Unfortunately, it is no longer what it used to be.

My dad is from Nebraska, and every season during my childhood we’d drive there to visit his brother and nephews and go to a home game. Even my cousin’s wedding this fall was scheduled so as not to interfere with a home game. I remember the national championships of ’94, ’95 and ’97 and how everyone wished they were consecutive.

Some are still wishing for three consecutive championships, which has a lot to do with my topic today.

Over Thanksgiving, I learned Frank Solich, coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, was fired – meaning he didn’t get to coach Nebraska at the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, where it beat Michigan State 17-3. This was the Cornhuskers’ 35th consecutive bowl game, a National Collegiate Athletic Association record.

Solich’s firing made no sense for many reasons. The Cornhuskers were having a winning season. Solich was the fifth-winningest active coach in the nation – with a 58-19 record. He was in Nebraska’s system for 35 years, first as a player, then as an assistant coach and finally as head coach. Solich was hand-picked by his predecessor, Tom Osborne – head coach turned congressional representative turned god in some eyes – to succeed him.

Solich had the highest graduation rate in his conference and the most Academic All-Americans of any university at any time. Nebraska ended its season with nine wins and three losses in a rebuilding year, meaning most of the star players graduated in previous years.

Nebraska’s athletic director, Steve Pederson, was hired about a year ago and appears to have come into his job determined to fire Solich. The Cornhuskers had a 7-7 season in 2002, the first time since 1972 they hadn’t had more wins than losses. But it still wasn’t a losing season, or sub-.500. After that, Solich reorganized his staff and bounced back to an excellent season this year.

Like Pederson, many Nebraska fans believe the Cornhuskers should be in the running for national champions every year. However many fans Pederson might have appeased by firing Solich, he alienated far more. Solich’s firing occurred in the middle of recruiting and made prospective players nervous about committing to a school when they didn’t even know who their coach was going to be.

Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator, coached Nebraska at the Alamo Bowl in his first career game and first head-coaching opportunity at any level. He petitioned to become the permanent head coach, but Pederson wanted a “big name” – and was willing to pay the salary required to get one. Pelini, too, was fired after the bowl win and was replaced by Bill Callahan, who was himself recently fired from the Oakland Raiders. Callahan will receive more than $1 million per year with endorsements.

This is yet another ridiculous aspect of athletics. At Nebraska, like many universities – including Minnesota – the football coach makes more than the university president. Is coaching football, albeit important to school spirit and college revenue, really more important than running an entire university? I don’t think so.

Part of the obsession with college football in Nebraska can be attributed to the state not having a professional team, a phenomenon that can be observed in Iowa as well. Interestingly, Iowa State recently hired Barney Cotton, who used to be the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator, and Pelini has been hired by Oklahoma, Nebraska’s longtime rival. It appears Pederson’s former staff is determined to make life miserable for Nebraska.

I dislike professional teams in large part because I’m disgusted by professional athletes making more than teachers, nurses and politicians – including the president of the United States. Is playing with a ball really more important than saving lives and running the world? The line between professional and college athletics appears to blur every day, particularly when coaches switch back and forth between professional and university teams. The winningest record over the last 42 years, the high academic achievements and the tradition of loyalty – all have been disregarded by Pederson, but sadly, he’s not the only athletic director to do so. The bottom line appears to be all that matters. Too often, in the pursuit of winning, we forget what’s important and hurt ourselves in the process.

R.R.S. Stewart is a columnist. She welcomes comments at [email protected]