CHICAGO — The Bo Pelini image makeover isn’t a makeover at all, at least as far as his players are concerned.
Pelini’s sideline blowups have been well-documented. During the season, he can be short and gruff with answers to the media.
But his players are perplexed the outside world is starting to see the new, looser side of their embattled coach.
“It’s funny, man, everyone keeps saying he’s changed. He hasn’t changed a bit to me,” Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah said from Big Ten Media Day on Monday. “He’s the same guy as when he sat on my couch recruiting me.”
The coach Abdullah knows is the one who brings a cat to the spring game and hoists the feline into the air to present the him in to the crowd. The coach Abdullah knows is the one who teamed with former defensive tackle Thad Randle for a prank in which Pelini smashes a cell phone with a hammer during a team meeting.
That’s the coach Nebraska safety Corey Cooper knows, too.
“The cameras are on him when he’s at his most stressful point — when he’s coaching,” Cooper said. “We see him every day, and he’s a player-friendly guy. I wouldn’t want to play for any other coach.”
That’s the side those around Pelini — those he trusts and sometimes the staff, he says — want him to show more often.
“Some people around me have encouraged me to show that side,” Pelini said. “I guess I’ve always chosen not to. I guess I’m I private person. When I’m away from the office I’m to myself. I spend 99 percent of my time away from football with my kids. I haven’t really let a lot of people in.”
That’s starting to change, especially compared to where he was near the end of last season.
Pelini wrapped up his sixth regular season in defiant fashion, telling reporters that Nebraska could “go ahead” and fire him if the administration wanted. The frustration of another four-loss season had boiled over.
Nebraska didn’t fire Pelini and instead extended his contract. At the least, it’s a vote of confidence that Pelini is the coach who will keep Nebraska nationally prominent. At this stage, though, the program has been stagnant. Pelini has lost exactly four games every season at Nebraska. He’s also won nine or 10 games each season and reached a conference championship game three times.
But Pelini’s record isn’t an outlier in recent Nebraska history. The Cornhuskers haven’t lost fewer than four games since 2003 and haven’t finished in the top 10 since a national title game appearance in 2001.
If Nebraska is going to struggle again, Pelini seems determined to make sure he isn’t the one contributing to the “negativity” he says played a role in the Huskers’ inconsistency in 2013.
Pelini’s public persona may have done little favors for Nebraska’s season, but it’s been a part of him since he played safety at Ohio State.
“They see this part of you, and they think that’s you all the time,” Pelini said. “But that was the case when I was playing. They see that side of me and then they get to know me and it’s night and day. That’s the case with a lot of people."
Which brings us to the cat.
Younger Nebraska fans, good luck explaining to your parents or grandparents why Bo Pelini hoisting a cat into the air at a spring game is a meaningful gesture.
First, explain the parody Twitter account @FauxPelini, a caricature of Pelini’s explosive temper. And in that parody, an image of Pelini holds a cat in a cheesy Olan Mills pose.
Then, on the night of the national championship game, Pelini (the real one) does this:
Nebraska went all-in on Pelini’s spontaneous interaction with his Twitter parody, posting an image of a cat in Pelini’s office and an image of an assistant leaving for a recruiting trip with a cat carrier.
Then came this:
So, this is a long way to explain show that Pelini and Nebraska is going to great lengths to shed the coach’s stern exterior. Pelini seems conscious his image could use a makeover, if for no other reason than to do his part to keep "negativity" from harming his team.
After Nebraska lost 41-21 to UCLA on Sept. 14, a tipster leaked to Deadspin an audio recording from 2011 of Pelini’s profane comments regarding fans and local media. (Warning: Bad words) “We'll see what they can do when I'm (expletive) gone,” Pelini says in the recording.
Was it unfair for a tipster to release audio from two years earlier? Perhaps. But Pelini didn’t really help his case at the end of the year after wrapping up another four-loss season with a 38-17 loss at home to Iowa.
“They want to fire me, go ahead,” Pelini told reporters. “I believe in what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for what I’ve done. I don’t apologize to you. I don’t apologize to anybody."
The question now is if 9-4 or 10-4 should be considered a success with this season’s group. Gone is Nebraska career passing leader Taylor Martinez, who played only four games last season.
On the plus side, Nebraska returns Tommy Armstrong, who went 7-1 as a starter after Martinez was lost to injury. Abdullah returns after rushing for 1,690 yards, the fourth-highest total in school history. The Huskers also have an Athlon second-team All-America pass-rusher in Randy Gregory. But the offensive line returns only one starter, and only five starters return to the defense.
The schedule may be more manageable with a home game against Miami replacing the series with UCLA. The Big Ten West figures to be easier to navigate than the East, but Nebraska must visit division contenders Wisconsin and Iowa while facing Michigan State on the road.
So the next question is if Pelini will have as much fun with the on-field performance as he is with his players.
“He’s a very passionate guy. He loves football,” Abdullah said. “You don’t want to play for anyone who isn’t passionate about football.”