Can Bo Pelini return Nebraska football to national prominence once again?
The Osborne Athletic Facility is a double shot of nostalgia. Red remnants of those back-to-back titles from 1994 and ’95 are unmistakable from the lobby.
Inside this impressive place, gifted athletes dead-lift hundreds of pounds, sprint on turf and occupy cold tubs on a frosty Monday in March.
Bo Pelini oversees all of this. He’s not prominently displayed on these walls. There are no gaudy collages to honor Pelini’s 48 wins in five seasons.
This is Nebraska. Win titles, get on the wall.
Pelini is working on that.
“I think an overwhelming majority appreciates what he’s done here,” says Tom Osborne, the architect of those title teams and now athletic director emeritus, soon to retire. “I think the fans and Bo are hungry for a conference championship and a BCS game.”
These are the achievements that have eluded Pelini. And to some die-hard Nebraska faithful, they are still expected, even after the Frank Solich and Bill Callahan eras humbled the program.
Nebraska is like Notre Dame in that, to be elite, it must recruit nationally. Pelini is a solid recruiter who has the Huskers linked to the top-25 recruiting rankings the last four years despite the fact that his average signee lives nearly 1,000 miles away.
He’s also won at least nine games in all five seasons, a feat accomplished by 11 coaches in college football history among BCS automatic qualifying schools, according to a Nebraska spokesman. Eight head coaches have more wins than Pelini the last five years.
But the combined 3–6 record in the last three games of the last three seasons, punctuated by a curious 70–31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, has cast a pall over Lincoln that only late-season wins will erase.
Pelini hasn’t hid from Nebraska’s lofty expectations, and he isn’t about to start.
“You’d want it no other way,” Pelini says. “You grow in a job and understand what the challenges are.
I believe I’m a better coach now than five years ago.”
He can use that coaching growth to improve a defense that allowed 115 points and more than 1,200 yards in the final two games last season.
For a guy who bolstered his reputation as the coordinator of LSU’s vaunted defense from 2005-07, last year’s performance has to chafe Pelini.
Nebraska replaces several defensive starters, which might not be such a bad thing. The theme of spring practices was competition — seniors, freshmen, anyone can start if you’re ready to maximize your potential.
Pelini came out of spring firing, saying his team was “mentally weak” after a mid-week session.
Nebraska’s fourth-year starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez, has helped the Cornhuskers win 29 games with a dazzling array of 50-yard rushing touchdowns while setting a school record with 9,449 total offensive yards. But he has been erratic late in seasons (six touchdowns, six interceptions in the last three games of the last three years). The Nebraska legacies of Pelini and Martinez are intertwined, at least for now.
That won’t matter much if the defense keeps flailing. As a result, Pelini isn’t overreacting with a scheme change — he stays committed to a 4-3 while mixing in the occasional 3-4 packages at different points of a game — but he is jumping into the fundamental-teaching pool with both feet.
NU signed seven defensive linemen in 2013 who will compete for spots.
“I have a pretty good idea of what we have to do,” Pelini says. “I like the potential of this group defensively. I think we’ll have some guys coming in this class that have a chance to help us. I think we’ll be very athletic and deep. Sometimes the youth aspect is a good thing.”
In an environment where losing is unacceptable, Pelini hasn’t wavered in his approach to the job that mixes hard-nosed teaching with an open-door office policy for players.
The way the staff sees it, this consistency will eventually pay off late in a season. Take the Wisconsin game. There was devastation all around, yet Pelini immediately dove into the game film, addressed the concerns (outmuscled up front, bad tackling) and struck a positive note in the following weeks.
“It’s tough to come back in and say, ‘All right, guys, it’s going to be OK,’” offensive coordinator Tim Beck says. “To his credit, he always talks about maintaining the process. Make sure you’re doing the right things. He’s very approachable for our staff and players. They feel a lot of love from him. There’s a lot of respect. They don’t want to let him down. If they have problems, they can talk to him. We have fun as coaches and players. It doesn’t become such a grind.”
Pelini wasn’t having much fun when chewing out Martinez on the sidelines against Texas A&M in 2010 or being hospitalized in September after falling ill during the first half of the Arkansas State game.
Coaching often demands intensity by the truckload, and Pelini knows that well. But entering his sixth year, Pelini sounds like a man in a relaxed, optimistic state.
He takes his kids to school every day. If he can’t do that anymore, he says he’s getting out of the business.
The losses he takes personally — the Wisconsin game is no exception. They stay with you, he says. But he cares more about a complete body of work at Nebraska than hallway adoration.
“I don’t care about the recognition,” Pelini says. “It’s about the kids you’re coaching. I like to compete. I want to win. Most importantly, I want these kids to grow and win.”
Written by Jeremy Fowler for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Big Ten Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 Big Ten season.
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