Imagine, if you will, what your job would be like if you had fans. Actual people who followed all your movements. Who cheered your successes and booed your failings. Who stared at you at the office all day and, when you left at night, did nothing but think about what you will do when you're back tomorrow. Who wore the same clothes you did, to look more like you, to honor you. Who invested so much of their lives into what you do every day. Who obsessed over you, all the time, even though they'd never met you. Who, deep down, thought they could do your job better than you can.
I am not sure I would like this job.
From the inside, looking out, fans must come across as absolutely terrifying. Our movements are erratic, unpredictable and driven by pure emotion. We are fickle and vain; we demand that you answer to us, and that you cater to us, that you kiss up to us at every moment. When you are winning, you are the source of all that is good in the world. When you are losing, you have upset the natural balance of the universe. And you must be punished.
What must it be like to be a coach, to bore down deep into your trade, to spend every waking moment of your life obsessing about your sport, often at the expense of your (constantly moving, often unstable) family, giving up everything to solve the ongoing riddle of your sport, trying to improve, trying to get it right … and then you walk out to your office and get screamed at for three hours. And Lord help you if you ever decide to get online and see what they're saying about you.
I thought about this when audio leaked to Deadspin yesterday of Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini cursing out Nebraska fans two years ago. It's one of those classic coach's rants, when all the pressure and all the attention and just all of it explodes into a soliloquy that makes up in passion what it lacks in precision. This is almost certainly what all coaches, at some point, want to say about their fans. They probably don't think this all the time, even most of the time. But they definitely think it some of the time.
It took everything in my power to not say, "F--k you, fans. F--k all of you." F--k 'em … Our crowd. What a bunch of f--king fair-weather f--king -- they can all kiss my ass out the f--king door. 'Cause the day is f--king coming now. We'll see what they can do when I'm f--king gone. I'm so f--king pissed off.
As coach-versus-fans communiqués go, this is near the top of the list, battling only Lee Elia's heroic destruction of Wrigley Field fans in 1983. (Video NSFW, but still never not hilarious.)
Here's the transcript of that NSFW rant. The best line remains, "85 percent of the f--kin' world is working. The other 15 come out here." The differences between Pelini and Elia, of course, are (a) Cubs fans never heard Elia's rant until he was gone from the team, and (b) if they had, they probably wouldn't even disagree all that much. When you insult Cubs fans, well, it becomes part of Cubbie lore. When you insult Nebraska fans … you are toast.
It's difficult to overstate the obsession Nebraska fans have with Nebraska football. The stories are legion, from their taking over of Notre Dame Stadium in 2000, to stalking the hotel rooms of potential recruits, to the 80,000 people who showed up for a spring game. When you have that sort of devoted fanbase, as a coach, you are dealing with something larger than yourself. You are not a football coach anymore; you are a cult leader. And the thing about cult leaders is that while your following may be loyal and massive, when it turns on you, the ousting is always brutal. A mob of 80,000 people wearing red with cornstalks on their head tends to not handle slights well, and there are a lot more of them than there are of you.
I have sympathy for Pelini here. I doubt he actually thinks those things about Nebraska fans, at least at any sort of deep level. He just got frustrated, the sort of thing that will happen when you spend your entire life trying to perfect your craft and everyone keeps telling you how poorly you're doing it. To Pelini, this is football. But to Nebraska fans, it is much more than that. When you're the coach of a football team, you think you own the team you coach, you think you're the most important person. But you're not. You're just renting. In 25 years, Bo Pelini will be gone, the athletic director will be gone, the players will be gone, everything will be entirely different. But the fans will always be there. They're the only constant. They're far more powerful than you. No matter how much they may drive you crazy, they are in charge. Pelini surely knows this. But it doesn't matter now, not after that.
Nebraska understands the situation it has on its hands. The official statements from the university and the coach have a panicked, please-do-not-set-the-castle-on-fire subtext to them. But it is worth remembering what set all this in motion. The recording was made two years ago, and the Deadspin tipster has just been sitting on it all this time. He or she waited until Nebraska lost to UCLA last week -- a home loss in which the Bruins scored 38 consecutive points, one of the most embarrassing losses in Cornhusker history. This was, essentially, a fan firing, a member of the fanbase deciding that enough was enough.
Fans have always been powerful; they pay for all this, after all. But now they're more powerful than ever. And a Nebraska fan scorned is a furious, avenging angel of death. Bo Pelini will coach Nebraska against South Dakota State on Saturday, but he's already gone. I suspect he knows it. I suspect, deep down, he's kind of relieved about it. It can be exhausting to have 80,000 people watch your every move, all the time. Particularly when they're your boss.