LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska fired football coach Frank Solich because athletic director Steve Pederson believed the program was slipping in stature compared to its Big 12 rivals.

"I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity," Pederson said Sunday when he officially announced the firing. "We won't surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas."

Despite firing a coach with a 9-3 record this season and a 58-19 career mark, Pederson said he is not running a "win at all costs" program.

He said he did not like the direction the program was taking. Since starting 11-0 in 2001, the Cornhuskers have been 16-12.

"The byproduct of excellence in every area of your program is winning, and I don't apologize for having high expectations," Pederson said.

Pederson named defensive coordinator Bo Pelini interim head coach for the bowl game. The Huskers' bowl destination has not been determined.

Pederson said he would open a nationwide search for a head coach and hoped to have a successor to Solich named quickly.

Pelini said he would be a candidate for the permanent position.

"This is the best job in the country, and anyone who doesn't want to win the national championship shouldn't bother applying for this job," Pederson said. "I understand we aren't going to win the championship every year, but I believe we should be playing for or gaining on the championship on a consistent basis.

"I don't feel that currently we are playing for or gaining on the championship."

About a dozen players stood in the back of the room as Pederson spoke to the media.

Defensive end Benard Thomas stood alongside reporters in front, glaring at Pederson with his arms folded across his chest.

Thomas interjected with his own questions, about Pederson's expectations for next year and how Pederson can expect recruits to want to come to Nebraska if they're not sure about who their coaches will be.

Teammates eventually tugged at Thomas' arm and led him to an outside hallway.

"This decision was not an easy one, and I'm certain with a 9-3 season there will be questions," Pederson said. "But this was not a decision that would be determined by wins and losses. It was a decision based on the overall direction of our program and where I see our program headed in the next five to 10 years."

Solich was hired on Tom Osborne's recommendation after Osborne's retirement following the 1997 season. Solich took over a program that won at least a share of the national title in three of Osborne's last four years.

Solich leaves with a six-year record of 58-19, which Pederson called "solid."

"He deserves the admiration and support from all of us who care about Nebraska football," Pederson said.

Solich's team played Miami in the national championship Rose Bowl game after the 2001 season despite a 26-point loss to Colorado in the previous game.

In 2002, the Huskers had their first non-winning season since 1961. This season they blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in losing 41-24 at Missouri, they lost 31-7 at Texas and then suffered a 38-9 loss to Kansas State that was their worst at home since 1958.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman said that although Solich is a man of high integrity who made many contributions to the university, he fully supported Pederson's decision.

Perlman said when he interviewed Pederson for the athletic director's job last year, one of his main concerns was the direction of the football program.

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"We talked about a need to bring this football program back to where it had been," Perlman said. "I believe this is a fair decision based on the future of our football program in the long term."

Pederson said he had been thinking about dismissing Solich since taking the job. Pederson said he didn't make his decision based on Solich's number of wins and losses. He said he had concerns about slippage in recruiting, among other things.

"We're not recruiting like we were a number of years ago," Pederson said. "If you want to succeed at the highest level, you have to recruit the top players. At Nebraska, you should be able to recruit anybody in the country."

Solich's contract, which runs through June 2006, will be bought out for $796,693. The amount includes his base pay for 31 months and an extra month's pay for compensation for this year's bowl bonus.

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