Meet Bo Pelini HC of the Huskers

nebflash2His answer wasn’t one of those homilies about hard work, dedication and commitment to execution.

“Obviously talent,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re not talented, but they have playmakers, they’re deep, there’s continuity in their program right now. They’ve been together awhile now, and that solves a lot of problems. The longer you’re together, the better you should get. Things don’t happen overnight.

“Am I happy with our first year? I think we accomplished some things. We made progress. But we’re not where I want to be.”

Just in case you thought he was one of those Gerry Faust, “luck, pluck and elbow grease” types – and sometimes he can be – you should know this: At the end of the football day, after his team has sold out, maximized effort and all that, Bo gets “it.” If this year has been an education for him – and of course it has, as it would be for anyone – it should have been an education for fans, too.

Pelini speaks of work in ways that would that grain hauler in Loup City grin, or that welder in Youngstown nod with approval. But he didn’t spend the last four years coordinating the fry line at Runza. You don’t get a taste of talent like LaRon Landry and Glenn Dorsey – not to mention Barrett Ruud and Demorrio Williams – and not be perfectly aware that championships are built on raw, unadulterated speed, size and skill.

Materiel matters. It always matters.

He still has recruit “it,” mind you. Acknowledging a talent gap isn’t the same as addressing it. That’s why the work Pelini does over the next two months – finishing this class by adding a couple true difference-makers to the ones he’s already got in Lincoln – is nearly as important as winning football games. Yes, winning draws recruits. Good recruiting can do the same even without the victories.

Ol Bill Callahan, the punchline to many a Nebraska football joke at this point – could get the kids here, all right. How good is Nebraska’s 2008 defense without Ndamukong Suh, who left Oregon to come to Lincoln? Or defensive end Pierre Allen, a Colorado kid who was suddenly thrust into action? How good is the offense if Callahan’s staff doesn’t uncover a gem in Joe Ganz? Or if Callahan wasn’t able to convince Roy Helu, Jr. to turn down nearby California and battle for playing time, which he has, at Nebraska?

FILE PHOTO

Pelini improved his sideline demeanor after a public display against Oklahoma.
We’ve got to be honest. Just a little. Callahan left enough treats in the cupboard – and enough brainpower with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson – to help Pelini get to eight wins this year.

But there’s a flip side to the coin: Where Callahan and his gruff staff couldn’t reach some of these recruits, Pelini and Co. did. Pelini took an effort-optional, overweight, sour-faced bunch and whipped them into shape. Last spring, he tried to run the stragglers off with killer conditioning drills. In the fall, he didn’t blithely reward the first-team defense with Blackshirts out of common tradition. He and Watson did not turn the offense into a coronation for Marlon Lucky – wethinks Callahan would have, failing to trust Ganz – and the end result was a breakout year for Helu. Nor did they doubt the “lesser” talent of guys like Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, who turned out to be a pretty damn good duo this year.

Pelini flipped Callahan’s corporate model – attract talent, throw them into the fire, and let them do what they do – on its head. He took the Huskers back to school. Out with the CEO. In with the teacher.

Nebraska Pelini FootballAre we overplaying this? Ultimately, no, we’re not. An assessment of Pelini in 2008 involves understanding Callahan in 2004-2007.

Callahan still gets defended by some, usually business types, who identified with his 70-hour work weeks built around efficient practices, peerless organization and endless multi-tasking. They jibe with Callahan’s motivation to make a Cotton Bowl trip to Dallas an opportunity to show off the program to Texas high school football players. Sell and play at the same time, right? They loved his attention to procedure and detail. NU football ran on a schedule that would make a UPS driver wince. Practices didn’t drag on.

Aside from Phil Elmassian, who stuck around midfield with one or two cornerbacks, Nebraska assistants bolted from the practice field like cats fleeing a hot tin roof. If disciplinary sessions took place, reporters never saw them. Callahan seemed uniquely and evenly immersed and detached at the same time. He was a more curious study. Flashes of humor, insight and introspection were like Cracker Jack prizes. Even as the ship sunk in 2007, Callahan the man stayed behind the mask of platitudes and bizarre word choices.

Now, routinely, NU’s practice hovers around that three-hour mark. Pelini takes his time. He’ll even watch scout-teamers do wind sprints or those awful 40-yard rolls across the field before he talks to reporters.

Consider for a moment: The man is watching the very bottom of his depth chart do the proverbial “Grapes of Wrath.” Why in the hell would he do that? Who in the hell would do that?

Another image: Bo, walking over to his brother, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, who’s jumped up to sit on the single unfurled bleacher on the west side of the Hawks Center. They talk for a minute. What are they watching? High school girls playing softball are the far end of the complex. Bo leans against the bleachers, watches, talks.

What millionaire football coach enjoys this? Pelini doesn’t view practice solely as a means to an end. He’s not, like Callahan, operating in a laboratory that’s more about getting in as many plays as possible. Pelini tried that approach for a month, you know, before losing to Missouri 52-17. The day after that game, he gathered his staff together to chart their practice efforts up to that point.

“We went back and looked at every single aspect of our preparation,” secondary coach Marvin Sanders said. “We had to make sure we didn’t let anything slip. We reassessed everything we did to make sure we were staying on tack with the process.”

Changes came from that meeting. The offense started working smarter, and not just harder. Play repetition became about quality, not quantity. Reps slowed down. Little things like false starts were recognized and punished as they happened instead of being glossed over. Play like you practice.

And it worked. NU declined its penalties. The offense looked better. Pelini started to trust his front four more to get the needed pass rush. After a meltdown at Oklahoma, the coach looked hard at his sideline demeanor – which, frankly, was just this side of profane – and began to improve it. He didn’t deny or rationalize it, like Callahan would with an occasional outburst.

He handled the media better than Callahan, too. Reporters at least don’t think he’s utterly full of it. Oh, Bo had his moments. Without any real cause, he laid into a reporter for asking whether Nebraska was an undisciplined football team. He made his team and assistants off-limits after the Oklahoma game, and, when challenged, said “You don’t like it? Tough…ask me the questions you’d ask them.” As Nebraska fans, you should be thankful someone didn’t ask at that moment, “Bo, why couldn’t you cover a kickoff to save your life?”

“He didn’t like talking to you guys then,” Sanders said, “and he doesn’t like it now.”

Sanders has known Pelini since 2003, when they met and Sanders became a part of Pelini’s defensive staff at Nebraska. He said Bo hasn’t changed. Same beliefs. Same honesty. Same genuine nature.

It’s true – the core has remained the same. And subtle, in-season changes only helped the Huskers’ cause. As A Portrait Of A Coach In His First Year…you’ll take it and ask for seconds.

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3 Responses to “Meet Bo Pelini HC of the Huskers”

  1. warpedmind24x7 Says:

    Nebraska should have hired Bo after he was the interim coach for the bowl game after Solich was removed. The Callahan hire even I was shocked at that. I like Bo and I think he will do a great job there.

  2. Dude. Does anyone else think Pelini looks just like Dabo Swinney, except with a much bigger nose? A little creepy.

    He’ll do a good job at Nebraska, and get them back to where they want to be.

  3. warpedmind24x7 Says:

    I think so too.

    No doubt about that. Give him a couple more recruiting classes under his belt, and it will be his team played the Nebraska way.

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