It was only one game.
For only the sixth time since 1962, the Nebraska Cornhusker football program debuted a new coach on its sidelines Saturday. It was a game very much anticipated by the fans and supporters of one of college football's most historically prestigious programs. They wanted to see the changes. They wanted to see the new-look, Mike Riley-coached version of the Huskers. And like in every home opener in the last 29 tries, they wanted to see a win.
When the game ended, both sides of Husker Nation were disappointed. Yes — both sides.
The Husker fan base is at war with itself — something I've rarely seen in college sports. On one side, you have the Kool-Aid-drinking eternal optimists, confident that every hurdle the program encounters is just part of the journey back to the top of the college football mountain. They believe in the program because they want to believe. It's the textbook definition of faith.
On the other side, you have a strange mix of something else. Some call them realists, while others call them "Bo-lievers" — a nickname given to the Bo Pelini supporters who did not want him fired and maintain to this day that he should not have been fired. They felt that the seven consecutive 9-win seasons he posted were good enough in today's college football world — a world much different than the one where Nebraska was competing for and winning national championships a decade and a half ago.
Neither side is willing to budge, with loud, outspoken ideologues on both sides leading the charge, shouting down the opposition the best they can, usually — and thankfully — with keyboards.
As the Hail Mary pass fell into the hands of BYU wide receiver Mitch Mathews to end the game, I calmly pulled up Twitter and Facebook on my phone and laptop and waited for the war of words to begin. And it did.
The Bo-lievers fired first, questioning the timeouts called by Riley and his staff right before the play. They followed it up with questions about the pass-rush (or lack thereof). They pointed out missed field goals. They pointed out the broken NCAA record home-opener winning streak and the fact that Pelini kept it alive.
The optimists fired back, citing injuries and uncalled or incorrectly called penalties. They pointed out Tommy Armstrong’s progress from last season. They pointed out that Pelini’s teams would have folded at halftime. They tried to stay positive.
Over in the fan groups and message boards, admins launched threats and acted on them. In one group, an admin threatened to ban anyone who bad-mouthed the coaching staff or administration — including those who posted any positive pictures or memes of Bo Pelini and negative ones of Riley.
In the football-crazed state of Nebraska, the Huskers are everything. The morale of the state runs parallel to what’s going on with the football team in the fall and early winter. Normally, the team is something for everyone in the state to rally around and be proud of. Nowadays, football Saturdays in Nebraska are filled with angst and some anger at your fellow man — simply because he has a different opinion about the program.
Many around the country envy the passion of the Nebraska fan base, but there is little doubt that it — along with high expectations — may also be having a detrimental impact on the program’s quest to get back to relevancy. Bo Pelini found that out the hard way, as he coached against both the teams on his schedule as well as the ghosts of coaches who came before him — both good and bad.
As I watched Mike Riley’s postgame press conference, I saw all of the weight that comes with coaching the Nebraska football program hit him. I watched him keep his poker face, doing his best to answer with class the same questions that caused his predecessor to openly and consistently fume. He’s never coached anywhere like Nebraska before, and the strain of holding back what he really wanted to say was showing through that almost military-like bearing.
The Nebraska-BYU game did little to unite a broken fan base. All it did was strengthen both sides of a divided house. One side’s argument against firing a winning coach got stronger from their point of view, while the other side’s support for Riley likely grew based on how the game ended — turning Riley into a somewhat sympathetic figure.
From the outside looking in, it may be difficult to understand the what’s and why’s of what is happening within the state of Nebraska and its football team’s fan base. But here in the heart of it, with a vantage point that can see and understand both sides of the argument, I find it all both incredibly fascinating yet sad. It will likely only get worse before it gets better.
And it was only one game.