Omaha is my hometown, Michigan my school. Living in the heart of Big Red Country, if you want to be included in sports conversations you better be ready to talk about the Huskers. The ultimate villains in Nebraska are not Barry Switzer or Mack Brown, but Steve Peterson and Bill Callahan. Peterson fired Frank Solich and hired Callahan. Callahan was the first head coach that had no direct ties to the University either as a player or assistant coach since Bob Devaney. He was brought in to bring an offensive spark to an “outdated” system. In his first season, Nebraska had their first losing season since 1961 and ended their 35-year bowl streak.
When they were both fired following the 2007 season, people put mock gravestones in the backyards reading "RIP Bill Callahan and Steve Peterson".
Sound eerily familiar? So does the 30-35 years prior to the outside hires.
The coaching legends: Tom Osborne (25 years): 255-49-3 (.835) Bo Schembechler (21 seasons): 194-48-5 (.802)
The understudies (not including Gary Moeller): Frank Solich (6 seasons): 58-19 (.753) Lloyd Carr (13 seasons): 122-40 (.753)
Callahan and Rodriguez were both hired because of their offensive expertise. Both came in after the successful understudies of legends were fired or “retired”. Other than record, they would be judged by their teams’ offensive outputs. Here is a simplified analysis of their results by points per game (excluding 1-AA opponents):
Bill Callahan Rich Rodriguez
2004: 21.9 ppg 2008: 20.25 ppg
2005: 24.6 ppg 2009: 24.25 ppg
2006: 28.6 ppg 2010 (through PSU): 34.4 ppg
2007: 33.4 ppg 2011: ?
Both programs clearly improved offensively from year to year, delivering on their promise to improve offensively. However, for both the other side of the ball was a different story. Here are the points allowed per game (excluding 1AA opponents) for both programs:
Bill Callahan Rich Rodriguez
2004: 28.1 ppg 2008: 28.9 ppg
2005: 22.3 ppg 2009: 29.45 ppg
2006: 19.2 ppg 2010 (through PSU): 29 ppg
2007: 37.9 ppg 2011: ?
The interesting divergence is that through the first three years of Callahan’s regime the defense improved from year to year. Then in 2007, the wheels came off when in a crazy Big 12 North loaded with teams who had similar team structures to the 2010 version of Michigan, they lost to Missouri 41-6, Kansas 76(!)-39, and Colorado 65-51.
Thus far in Rich Rodriguez’s tenure, the most points allowed in a game has been 46 to Penn State in 2008. Instead, his defenses have been more consistently pathetic by giving up at least 30 points in 16 of 20 Big 10 games.
One note of optimism is that it seems once the Nebraska defense was entirely rid of Solich’s players, the defense took a complete nosedive. While in Ann Arbor, the defense has been on a steady decline since the great 2006 defense. Perhaps Michigan’s defense could turn around as Rodriguez’s defensive talent from the 2009 and 2010 classes mature and take greater control of the defense…or perhaps not.
Finally, a look at their records:
Bill Callahan Rich Rodriguez
2004: 5-6 (3-5 Big 12) 2008: 3-9 (2-6 Big 10)
2005: 8-4 (4-4 Big 12) 2009: 5-7 (1-7 Big 10)
2006: 9-5 (6-3 Big 12) 2010 (through PSU): 5-3 (1-3 Big 10)
2007: 5-7 (2-6 Big 12) 2011: ?
(2007 record worst in Nebraska history)
After four years of underachievement, frustration, and an entire state deep in depression, new AD Tom Osborne (people claim Nebraskans didn’t vote him in as governor because the AD job was more important) fired Bill Callahan and his defensive staff led by Kevin Cosgrove.
Instead of starting from scratch, Osborne kept OC Shawn Watson and hired defensive guru Bo Pelini as head coach. In year one, the Huskers went 9-4 while still giving up 30.33 ppg. In year two, they went 10-4 and had a Rodriguez-like leap on defense giving up only 10.5 ppg, all with Callahan’s recruits (Larry Asante, Prince Amukamara, Jared Crick, Phillip Dillard, Zach Potter, and of course, Ndominatin Suh). Interestingly enough, Pelini was Solich’s DC during his last year at Nebraska and took over as interim head coach for the bowl game (they beat Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl 17-3). It would be pretty weird if Michigan managed to keep the offensive staff and hire Ron English as head coach. Of course, that is probably about as stupid as it is unlikely.
Now, if I’m going to point out their similarities, I should also go into their differences. This begins with their coaching resumes prior to their respective jobs. Bill Callahan spent 15 years as an offensive assistant in the college ranks (primarily coaching OL) at most notably Illinois and Wisconsin before moving on to the NFL. He spent a few years as the OL coach for the Eagles until he was hired as Jon Gruden’s OC in Oakland. As many remember, he took over for Gruden when he left for the Bucs and ended up losing to his old boss in the Super Bowl. The following season, the Raiders finished 4-12 and many of the veterans (like say, Tim Brown and Charles Woodson) publically criticized him, some even saying he was purposely sabotaging the team. Those two years in Oakland represent his entire head coaching experience prior to Nebraska. Meanwhile, Rich Rodriguez had 15 years of successful head coaching experience at different levels of college football prior to his arrival in Ann Arbor.
Another difference has been their success in big games against big opponents. Against ranked opponents Callahan had a 4-10 record, never beating a team ranked better than #20. And while Rich Rod’s record against ranked opponents is a paltry 2-8, all but one was ranked higher than #20, and four of those teams were ranked in the top 10. Furthermore, Rich Rod has a victory against a top ten team (#8 Wisconsin in 2008). It may seem like splitting hairs or grasping at straws (probably because it is), but all of Callahan’s top 25 victories came against weak Big 12 North opponents who soon vacated the national rankings.
Perhaps more than the losing, the way in which he ran the program was a key reason Callahan was let go. He understandably wanted to do things his way, but that involved largely ignoring in-state recruits who would give both their legs and a testicle to play for Nebraska. He also killed one of the most successful walk-on programs in the nation, thus leaving the program without the blue-collared identity that it and the state has had from the beginning. Players like Seth Olson (Iowa, 3rd round pick of the Broncos), Adam Shada (Iowa), Jeff Tarpinian (Iowa), and Paul Homer (Washington) left to go elsewhere when all they needed was an offer. He ran a loose ship like he was still coaching in the NFL and it showed; the teams were undisciplined (particularly on defense) and didn’t have much fight to them. Rodriguez, on the other hand, made an effort to learn Michigan’s traditions and incorporate them in with his own. Instead of turning a blind eye to former players like Callahan did at Nebraska, he welcomes them to the facilities.
What does this all mean? Hell if I know. There are some alarming similarities in the way in which the two situations have played out to date, but some important differences. I have been telling myself for the better part of three years that the differences matter more than the similarities and that everything will work out. Let’s just hope that sentiment is right. Go Blue!