LINCOLN — Nebraska's players walked off the practice field on Tuesday in clusters, taking a moment to examine the circle of 45 cameramen and reporters surrounding their coach.
Some just shook their heads. Others pointed and stared. One only half-jokingly said, “Give him some room!”
There were more than a few guys who looked somewhat shocked, as if they'd never fully grasped this program's influence. How could a two-year-old audiotape — leaked on the heels of a disappointing loss — attract this much attention and scrutiny, even in a state already known for its football obsession?
Just in case the Huskers didn't fully understand before: Dealing with distraction and outside pressure is a part of the game at a program with the history of Nebraska's. Tuesday's scene — coach Bo Pelini swarmed by double the normal number of media members — is a perfect example.
And that wasn't the only potential distraction. It was a long week, from the release of Pelini's profane words about NU fans expressed in private two years ago, to the combative approach to criticism from Husker legend Tommie Frazier. And lest anyone forget, his team blew an 18-point lead against UCLA Saturday, starting the rumbling for change atop the NU program. Oh, and it also appears NU starting quarterback Taylor Martinez will miss this game due to injury.
How will the Huskers respond? Curious eyes in Memorial Stadium will be fixed on Pelini and his team Saturday when South Dakota State, a Football Championship Subdivision school, visits Lincoln. Those in the stands will be expecting, and hoping, to see a squad show signs of transforming into a legitimate contender. Like the good old days.
The burden on the players to play well has heightened.
Yet the team is trying not to see it that way. Pelini told the guys to ignore it all. He and his staff want their players to relax and enjoy the game with one another, a message receivers coach Rich Fisher thinks should help them stay focused in the moment.
“I honestly believe, and it's my personal opinion, that the stress for some of these kids to win 'em all, to win a championship, it's a lot,” Fisher said at the Big Red Breakfast on Friday. “We've talked to them about that. And so our goal as coaches now is to obviously create a little bit different environment for them to feel like the weight of the world's not on their shoulders, that this game is fun.”
It was the clear takeaway from last Saturday's 41-21 loss to UCLA. The Huskers mentally collapsed as the Bruins seized momentum. NU suddenly lost confidence and enthusiasm on a day that started with such promise.
Pelini suggested Monday that the root of the issue might be the staff's constant and unyielding pursuit of perfection. He said the players needed to let loose and have fun again.
Some team leaders dismissed that notion in interviews Monday, though the collective body language of the group during Saturday's loss clearly stated otherwise.
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“I saw it in their face,” Pelini said at his Monday press conference. “And for me to ignore that would be crazy.”
He's since implemented a plan, without disclosing the details, to help the players respond better in the face of in-game adversity.
What happened later Monday afternoon was not part of that plan.
Comments Pelini made about Frazier circulated through cyberspace as outsiders pondered both Frazier's contention that coaches should be fired and Pelini's retort: “We don't need him.”
Then the bomb dropped.
Deadspin.com released audio of Pelini after Nebraska's comeback win over Ohio State in 2011 in which he cursed two World-Herald reporters, railed at Husker fans who left a game early and said they'd see how the program could do without him.
Pelini apologized in a statement Monday night. He apologized again during a teleconference Tuesday. And again Tuesday evening after practice. And yet again in a letter to fans posted on Huskers.com on Friday.
It wasn't until Wednesday that Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst released in a statement that Pelini would not be disciplined.
But by then, the NU coaches' attempts to keep their players loose had already become exponentially more difficult.
“This has not been a normal week,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Tuesday. “But you can look at things one of two ways. Either it's a distraction or you use it as some form of motivation. We'll see how it ends up playing out for our guys.”
Nebraska's players weren't available for interviews after Monday morning, when a handful of them discussed the UCLA loss. But if the ex-Husker reaction on social media is any indication, this team will be inspired to play well for its coach.
Plus, players will be reminded of something that's often easily overlooked during the season's first sign of turmoil.
There's still a long way to go. And plenty to prove.
“The final story of this Husker team is far from over,” Papuchis said. “We'll be defined by how we play the next nine weeks.”