Sports

Bo Pelini and Nebraska: Match Made in Heaven

| by Alex Groberman

With his perpetual scowl and fiery demeanor, Bo Pelini doesn’t inspire the picture of warmth or thoughtful inspiration that some may expect out of their school’s college football coach.

He’s not the type to pat you on the head and ask you to please not repeat your mistakes (e.g. using a cell phone in the lockerroom) if you’re a player, nor is he the type to chalk a referee’s mistake up to human error and let it slide. He’s tough, gritty and believes in calling people out when he feels the situation calls for it.

In short, he’s the perfect coach for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Pelini’s original stint with the Huskers began in 2003 when he was brought on as a defensive coordinator for then head coach, Frank Solich. Prior to his arrival, Nebraska ranked 55th in the nation defensively and the unit was a mess. But in just one year on the job, Pelini was pushed them to No. 11. In a move that signified the Nebraska football program's high standards, Solich would be fired after a 9-3 campaign, and Pelini was named interim head coach.

As he has shown a propensity for doing, taking full advantage of the opportunity presented to him, Pelini led his Huskers to a 17-3 victory over the Michigan Spartans in the 2003 Alamo Bowl.

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Despite his strong showing at season’s end and notable ability to improve the squad’s defense, Nebraska would not give Pelini the head coaching job the following season. Instead, the honor was given to Bill Callahan, who went on to watch his rudderless defense dip back down to ranking No. 56 in the country.

From 2005-2008, Pelini would work with the likes of the Oklahoma Sooners and LSU Tigers while Nebraska waddled in mediocrity (aside from 2006, obviously). A very similar underlying theme of valuing defense could be found engrained in every player that Pelini coached, an effect that Nebraska would soon realize they hadn’t seen had in their players ever since his departure.

Pelini would be brought back into the Nebraska fold -- this time as a head coach -- in 2008, and gauging by the way he just jumped right back into the swing of things, it felt as though the hard-edged coach never left.

The Cornhuskers opened up their 2008 campaign strong with three consecutive victories, clearly motivated and eager to prove that the prior year’s embarrassing showings were an aberration in the history of an otherwise prominent football program. Yet, despite the renewed sense of optimism and interest that had clearly declined in the year before, something just wasn’t right. The Huskers would lose a game in painfully close fashion to Virginia Tech, only to subsequently completely go down in flames to the Missouri Tigers by a glaring 52-17 final tally –  sparking memories of failures past. A similarly epic collapse could be seen later in the year versus Oklahoma when Nebraska fell 62-28.

Despite the year’s trials and tribulations, the Huskers finished 9-4 and put the cherry on top with a 26-21 victory over the Clemson Tigers in the Gator Bowl. Yet, even though he had put up a win total that bested any other Division IA team with a new coach, Pelini knew he could do better. And so did Nebraska, as the school opted to boost Pelini’s salary from $1.1 million to $1.8 million.

In 2009, the Huskers saw themselves ranked on the preseason AP top-25 poll for the first time since 2007 (No. 24), and expectations were similarly high inside the locker room. Under Pelini’s regime, there was no excuse for the defense to do anything but thrive, and it would just be a question of whether the offense could keep up. Behind powerhouse defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and an undeniable dedication to playing ball the “right” way, the Nebraska reached the Big 12 Championship Game where they would they would fall to the Texas Longhorns despite a particularly monstrous effort from Suh.  

Pelini’s group ended the year right, though, shutting out the Arizona Wildcats in the Holiday Bowl and finishing 14th in the coaches and AP polls.

Continuing on their upward trend in the Pelini era, Nebraska kicked off the 2010 season ranking No. 8 in the preseason AP top-25. This would be the squad’s final year in the Big 12, and given the way Pelini had guided his group to improvement season after season, most expected yet another strong campaign. What the national analysts opted to ignore, however, was all of the uncertainty on offense – something that comes naturally when your starting quarterback is a freshman.

Predictably, the Huskers didn’t live up to expectations in 2010. The season had its peaks and valleys, but given the hopes and dreams levied upon the team, their losses to Texas and Texas A&M were particularly damaging to a run to the top of the charts. Nebraska would be out of the running for the National Championship before the year even concluded, and not even a victory over Colorado to end the regular season could salvage things.

In a microcosm of the way things felt all season long, the Huskers fell to Oklahoma in a painfully close Big 12 Championship game after committing four turnovers. They would ultimately also lose to the Washington Huskies in the Holiday Bowl. A 10-4 mark would have been something to celebrate in most other programs, but not for Nebraska, and not for Pelini.

In 2011, the Huskers officially made their move to the Big Ten, a conference that Pelini can be expected to thrive in. His defensive, SEC-bred mentality should experience a rebirth, of sorts, as he adjusts to his “new” surroundings. And, of course, the prospect of going up against and beating his alma mater Ohio State is no doubt an enthusiasm-booster. Above all else, though, Pelini realizes that after a full season of maturation, his quarterback will no longer have the deer-in-headlights look that he came accustomed to seeing last year. This time around, the offense and defense will balance each other out, not compensate for the other’s notable flaws.

Nebraska was ranked No. 10 in the recently released AP top-25 poll, but unlike last year, this time around the ranking wasn’t based off of excess, misplaced expectations. Both Pelini and the Nebraska elite know just how good this team has the potential of being, and as such, an improvement is not just something that would be welcomed, it is expected.

The Big Ten is a conference for teams with competent, knowledgeable head coaches who can lead their teams through the ebbs and flows of a given college football year. And although Pelini’s style may not fit the typical motivational figure protocol, it’s his own, it’s honest, and it’s been proven to work time after time.

Players come and go, but the right coaches find a way to stay. And whether you’re a fan of his demeanor or not, expect Pelini to stick around for a very long time.