Evan Bland World-Herald Staff Writer
LINCOLN—Thank goodness for football.
Brandon Reilly held the thought countless times in December 2014. It would have been easy for Reilly — then a Nebraska sophomore receiver — to go down the social-media rabbit hole in the hours and days after the head coach he committed to, Bo Pelini, was fired.
Who would take over the program in the future? What went wrong in the past? How were his teammates processing things now?
But there was no time to dwell in uncertainty. The Huskers had to prepare for a game.
“You get back in that routine,” Reilly said this week. “At the end of the day, no one wants to go out there and put a bad product on the field.”
Nebraska will have an interim head coach lead the program during a game for a third time in the last 20 years Saturday when the Huskers welcome No. 6 Oklahoma to Memorial Stadium in front of a national Fox audience. That man, Mickey Joseph — hired by since-dismissed coach Scott Frost nine months ago — will fill the role for at least the final nine regular-season games.
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After that? Conjecture is a luxury these Huskers can’t afford with the calendar only halfway through September.
Public player reaction since the change has been limited to a couple impromptu interviews from offseason transfers and a smattering of Twitter posts. Beyond that, a circling of the wagons in the run-up to a renewal of an historic college football rivalry.
Steve Kriewald doesn’t need to guess what the mood is like. The former NU fullback lived it in 2003. Barely 24 hours after flying home from Colorado with a 31-22 victory, he was among the Huskers who learned of coach Frank Solich’s firing on the ESPN ticker that Saturday night in late November.
He and teammates indulged in speculation after the initial chaos died down. They assumed Pelini — the defensive coordinator appointed interim head coach by Athletic Director Steve Pederson — would get the permanent job. Players later held a private meeting to discuss what could be done to sway Pederson into that decision. Someone even floated the idea of boycotting the Alamo Bowl against Michigan State, though Pelini squashed it.
Pelini implored the Huskers to focus on the bowl game. Players leaned on their position coaches. Workouts got the assistants’ minds off things for a few hours too.
“Looking back at the situation now, those guys had a lot more questions at the time,” Kriewald said. “Being 19 and naive, I just assumed they were fine. They must have handled it pretty well because I don’t feel like they were on pins and needles.”
While the 2003 and 2014 case studies are different in some ways from Saturday and beyond — both of those were nine-win regular-season squads finishing out bowls — the heart of the matter is the same, Reilly said. Players still want to win for each other and perform well for the state amid the tumult. Football is still what they know. What they can control.
“Your dreams and aspirations are still in front of you,” Reilly said. “It’s a wrinkle in things but after a few days it’s back to the grind. You have a great opportunity in front of you. My thought process now would be let’s grind through this week and shock the world.”
Nebraska played free under its previous interim skippers. The Blackshirts held Michigan State to three points in the 2003 Alamo Bowl as they played with the intensity of their former coordinator. The offense was more aggressive too.
“It loosened guys up — it did,” Kriewald said. “I think maybe the coaches were looser than we players were.”
The same was true 11 years later when offensive coordinator Barney Cotton assumed the interim job. NU lost the Holiday bowl 45-42 to USC but went for it three times on fourth down. Reilly said it was easy to play hard and, perhaps, “a little bit reckless” with nothing to lose.
Nebraska’s current roster has some experience in that area, having absorbed the loss of five assistant coaches in the offseason. Multiple transfers can tell firsthand stories of enduring in-season coaching turmoil at their previous schools like receiver Trey Palmer (LSU), edge rusher Ochaun Mathis (TCU) and defensive lineman Devin Drew (Texas Tech).
“A lot of guys are going to have to jump on board with (the) understanding that we’re going to have to continue fighting,” Mathis said. “At the end of the day, there’s no time to sit here and sulk about anything. We just got to get this stuff on and rolling.”
Pelini’s message in 2003 was Nebraska still had a chance to prove it was a good team. Cotton in 2014 acknowledged he was stepping up and challenged everyone to join him.
Joseph said Tuesday this is when the Huskers start from scratch and emphasized it by taking away Blackshirts to symbolize the reset. Move the struggles and frustration to the past and get ready for the first of nine one-week seasons.
He met with captains and quarterback Casey Thompson to share a new vision. It starts now with a game — and a season — that is only a lost cause if Nebraska allows it to be. Keep the focus on football and history reminds that anything can happen.
“We have nine more opportunities and we are capable of winning games,” Joseph said. “That is why they understand the first opportunity is this weekend against OU — a really good opponent, a really good football team.”