Every time Nebraska loses - and sometimes when it wins - every time the Bill Callahan Cornhuskers reach a new low, these words come back to haunt Steve Pederson:
``I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity,'' the Nebraska athletic director said four years ago when coach Frank Solich was fired after a nine-win regular season. ``We won't surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas.''
Mediocrity would be an improvement for the Cornhuskers these days. Forget about surrendering to Oklahoma and Texas. Nebraska is now waving the white flag to Missouri.
College football's winningest program since 1970 has lost its last two games by a combined 86-20.
A 45-14 loss at home to Oklahoma State on Saturday was the Cornhuskers' most lopsided defeat in Lincoln in 49 years. As if any of those among the NCAA-record 287th consecutive sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium needed a reminder about how far the program has fallen, Tom Osborne and his unbeaten 1997 team were honored before the game.
``I feel bad for the players and coaches,'' Osborne said after the game. ``I'm sorry it didn't work out better today.''
Osborne stepped down after winning a share of the national title in 1997, handing the program to Solich, his longtime assistant. In six seasons leading Nebraska, Solich won 75 percent of his games.
Make no mistake, though, Nebraska had slipped in the Solich years. The 2001 season ended with two humiliating blowouts to Colorado (62-36) and in the national title game to Miami (37-14).
The Cornhuskers went 7-7 in 2002, the first non-winning season in 41 years. The next season they went 9-3, but when they did lose they were beaten badly.
Pederson had seen enough. Solich was a good football coach but Nebraska need a dynamic and charismatic leader. The Cornhuskers needed a coach like Bob Stoops, who pulled Oklahoma from its dark ages and turned the Sooners into champions again.
In came Callahan, fired by the Oakland Raiders a year after leading them to a Super Bowl, and his West Coast offense.
Out went the I-backs and the option offense that were Nebraska's identity. Out also went most of the assistants who were holdovers from the Solich and Osborne days.
Nebraska underwent an extreme makeover and it was only fair to give Callahan and his system a couple of years to take root.
There was progress in each of Callahan's first three seasons - 5-6 the first, 8-4 the next, 9-5 last season.
This season the Cornhuskers are in reverse. They're 4-3 and lucky to be there - remember that 41-40 victory at home against Ball State?
The Blackshirts defense has been brutal, ranked last in the Big 12 and seemingly getting worse every week. For the first time in the 118 years Nebraska has been playing football, the Cornhuskers have allowed at least 40 points four times in a season.
``When practice comes out Monday or Tuesday, nobody should have a black shirt,'' said radio color commentator Adrian Fiala, who played linebacker for Nebraska from 1967 to 1969, during the broadcast of Saturday's game.
Today, Callahan's record stands at 26-18. All those so-called measuring stick games, when the Cornhuskers had a chance to show they were again a team to be reckoned with - games against USC, Texas and Oklahoma - they've lost.
``You just have to believe,'' Callahan said after the Oklahoma State game. ``You have to keep hope alive for those kids. You can't walk away from them and point fingers and blame and do anything like that. We're all in it together.''
For a while, too.
Just days after Nebraska opened the season with a 52-10 home win over Nevada, Callahan received a new, five-year contract for $1.75 million a year. It runs though the January 2012.
A big deal like that makes it unlikely Nebraska would make a change at the top anytime soon, though it's amazing what a few rich boosters can accomplish when they put their minds and wallets together.
More likely, defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove will take the fall for this mess in Lincoln.
The Cornhuskers certainly aren't the first tradition-rich program to fall on hard times. Tough times at Notre Dame, Alabama, Oklahoma, Southern California and Penn State in the last two decades have proved that no team can live off its storied past.
To win big, you need a wealth of resources and revenue, decked-out facilities and a big stadium that is packed beyond capacity seven or eight times a season. You also need strong leadership at the top.
Which of those is Nebraska lacking?
AP Sports Writer Eric Olson in Lincoln, Neb., and Oskar Garcia in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.
Ralph D. Russo covers college football for The Associated Press. Write to him at rrusso(at)ap.org.

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