It started with a turnover...
For the third time that day, Quarterback Jamal Lord gave the ball away, this time putting the ball on the ground. By this point, it was a meaningless possession anyways - a way to try and save face against a vicious Kansas State defense led by the legendary Bill Snyder - but to the Husker faithful still in the stands, it was another groan-inducing moment. In his long career Coach Snyder had not beaten the Huskers in Lincoln, but with only 2:30 minutes left in the game up 31-9, it was obvious that was all about to change.
On the Husker sideline stood a defeated coaching staff. This would mark the third loss of a disappointing season that had seen Nebraska crack the Top Ten, only to plummet towards the bottom of the polls within a brutal six week stretch that saw them drop games to Missouri, Texas, and now Kansas State. The still fairly new Athletic Director Steve Pederson stood waiting in the wings, itchy to make moves that would shake the football landscape and certainly move the needles of antsy boosters. All he needed was a reason.
Among the coaches that had been brought in that year to help the soon-to-be-let-go Frank Solich was a young Defensive Coordinator named Bo Pelini. He had worked his way up to this moment, and he poured himself into this team. Fans all around Husker Nation spoke of him as the second coming of Charlie McBride. A man who could scheme and a man who would light a fire when need be. He excited people, and the praise coming from NFL front offices down to the media brass excited everyone. However, to this point, fans were unaware of how hot Bo's fire could burn.
With the formalities of running out the clock more or less all that was left for the Wildcats, Snyder made a decision to exorcise all the demons he had fought for so long in Lincoln. In a rare moment of complete self-indulgence, Snyder sent out the starters. Quarterback Ell Roberson and Running Back Darren Sproles had picked apart the Blackshirts piece by piece that half to inflate a close game into a blowout, and Snyder asked them to work their magic one time more. On second down, Sproles broke up the sideline for 42 yards setting up an easy jaunt into the endzone by another Wildcat back. Snyder had rubbed salt in an open wound, and despite the joy coming from Manhattan, Angry Bo was about to show his face.
Immediately following the game, Bo Pelini rushed towards the K-State sideline to give the Coaching Legend a piece of his mind. In the post game press conference, Snyder would go on to laugh off the incident and put the young coordinator in his place. "I cant repeat what was said on the field," he laughed with that Snyder-esque grin. Nebraska had been embarrassed on the field and off of it. This would be an all-too-familiar picture.
In the following week, the Huskers would go on to beat Colorado, only to find out that Pederson would not allow the Huskers to slip into mediocrity. The Head Coach was gone and Pelini - that same fiery guy who had the gumption to disrupt the status quo - was asked to hold down the fort against a feisty Michigan State team. In theory this was his audition, but it was never his job to be had. He would lead the Huskers to victory against the Spartans and get his gatorade bath, but his journey in Lincoln had ended for now. He would leave Nebraska for Oklahoma and LSU before Osborne hired him back to exorcise his own demons - even if he didn't realize that was the case.
So who is Bo Pelini?
In five seasons, Pelini has led the Huskers to a 48-20 record which averages out to a shade over nine wins per season. Of course it's the loss column that bothers most people, and the now very apt adage that you can't spell Pellllini without four 'l's. Nine win seasons are not what they used to be, or some other argument as one might like to put forth, but the bottom line is that wins and losses aren't the whole story - at least they aren't the part of the story most of us like to tell.
Pelini has zero conference championships, is 2-3 in bowls - for the record, he is 3-3 if you include his interim stint, but that has debatable relevancy in the discussion at hand - and obviously there have been no chances at the real national stage. The closest thing he has done to championship relevancy is lose to Texas in the most heartbreaking of ways - with time being put on the clock to seal your fate - as his brother screamed at the officials from the tunnel. That moment was another picture of Angry Bo and his culture of recklessness. Needless to say, the lack of hardware does not give him a lot of leeway with Husker Nation.
And honestly, that does seem to be the issue. If he was the stoic philosopher that is Tom Osborne, or the jovial old lut that would banter with the media like the old Basketball Coach - Doc Sadler - maybe the records overall would be okay and the move towards a championship would be expected. The process would be deemed a necessity, and his credentials as a defensive genius and master motivator would be enough to satiate the masses. The character, "Bo," however, has not afforded him such leverage.
No, people remember the guy who yells and generally looks like a lunatic on the sideline. They remember the man who cannot take a loss in stride in the press room. How many times have you seen a picture of the Texas A&M game? You know, the one where Coach Pelini is chewing out the young Taylor Martinez. As it was happening, all you could do was cringe as national analysts jumped to their laptops to build on that narrative. Fast forward to the bowl game and all you see is spittle flying from his mouth in another loss. Now, the cameras are quick to lock on the coach every time a bad call is made - just baiting him to make a scene. It's easy. It's convenient. It leaves little room for mistake.
Last year, ESPN decided that they had seen enough and out of the blue started writing articles that chided the coach for his antics - even during the downtime between the season and the bowls. Again, it was convenient and it didn't help that he had been short with sideline reporters and found the entire press corp more of a hassle than a help. Pelini did not make friends with these guys and they did not intend to help him out. He was an easy bad guy in a sea of bad guys, but especially so because his team wasn't winning. Lose to UCLA? Pelini's temper bled over to Taylor Martinez and his team and they completely broke down when it mattered most. Lose to Ohio State? His team is obviously not mentally strong because their coach is crazy. Lose to Wisconsin? He has lost control of his team and it shows their lack of focus. Lose to Georgia? We told you that Pelini's rage cannot be contained to the sideline and is a detriment to his team.
Obviously it was a simple correlation, but as any good economist would tell you - correlation and causation are a completely different beast. See, the other side of the coin in the mental fortitude it took the Huskers to bunker down and win their division despite having no room for error. Lucky bounces aside, that team never gave up and provided a glimpse of the process. Pelini believed in his players, and that trust was given back to him. His players would often run through a wall for him, and when they wouldn't, it was time for them to go. He had a culture vision and that vision would be seen through.
But there is another side to him. Erin Sorensen had an excellent article over at Hail Varsity earlier this Spring on the changing demeanor of Bo Pelini. In it, she talked about the reality of his softer side in light of Jack Hoffman sprinting to the endzone in what would soon be an ESPY winning highlight. I've often gone back to that article to remind myself of the duality that is Coach Pelini. For a man who is known as the definitive hardass, and one who will have all the attention focused solely on him, how is it that he could be so passionate to help a young man who has dealt with most of us could ever understand? This was after Rex. This was after he had to. This was solely because he wanted to make a young kid's day.
I still tear up when I see him running with Martinez. The other night I was laughing as I started to cry at the ESPY award ceremony because it was absurd to have such emotions over one silly run, but it was a show that football could mean something. The CEO of the operation was a silent partner in all of the circus that has really made #TeamJack blow up, but we would be remiss to forget that it was his brainchild. He made it happen. He has a heart.
So where do you go from here?
It's year six, and if Coach Pelini hasn't heard it from the pundits yet, he is about to hear it loud and clear. Recruiting is slipping, and despite some great narratives being spun, it seems to be coming time to put up or shut up. The reality is that his loyalties continue to be his strength and weakness and the black and white truth is that Nebraska has been a training ground for what works for Coach Bo and what doesn't. Does that mean he is getting fired for anything less than a championship this year? No, that's absurd.
His team had a collective 3.0 GPA last year with many players enrolling in pre-med and other more difficult workloads. He has increased and maintained the Nebraska Football APR score. His teams generally do not have altercations with the law, and when they do, he is swift with punishment and decisive actions. He gives his players his loyalty, but if that is breached, he disciplines accordingly. On top of that, he still is averaging over nine wins. With a new AD on board, he is no more on the hot seat than any coach in the conference. You do not want to be the man who has to replace good with great, and Shawn Eichorst will be quick to tell you he is fully behind his coach.
With all that in mind, there will eventually be a crossroads. Is Pelini at the point where he can get no better? Is he closer than we understand? Will he win a championship here? Can he win a championship here? All of these questions are fair and honestly, I couldn't begin to tell you the answer even if I wanted to.
That same guy who had the passion to defend the honor of the Nebraska way back in 2003, who had a gatorade bath that season by his team, who defended Solich, who defended each and every one of his assistants, who will chew out a player on national television, who will scream at an official in front of the world, who will make sure to get to all of his kid's sporting events, who impresses recruits and their parents, who will help a young kid battling cancer have the thrill of his life, is the same guy he ever was and probably ever will be. Is he the smartest man in the room? I suppose we'll just have to sit back and find out.