Back Where He Least Expected

Pelini returns to Nebraska, charged with changing culture in Lincoln

March 14, 2008

By Adam Caparell


Caparell is's football editor and national football writer.

When it was time for Bo Pelini to leave the Nebraska football offices for the last time five years ago, he figured he'd seen the last of Lincoln. 


"The day I walked out of here I would have bet a lot of money I wouldn't have come back," Pelini said.


But here he is, back in Lincoln, this time around with a very different title and job responsibility.


Named Nebraska's head coach back on Dec. 2, Pelini, who served as the Nebraska's defensive coordinator for one very successful season, is now in charge of rebuilding the once proud program back into a national power after the Bill Callahan experiment produced not enough wins and many more alienated fans. He is, for all intents and purposes, viewed as the savior of the sporting entity of the football-mad state.


"I knew the people here. They're passionate about their football," Pelini said.


And they were passionate about making changes last fall.


Having never endeared himself to the tradition-rich culture that is Nebraska football, Callahan's job-status was tenuous at best entering the 2007 season. Then a week into the season he was given a contract extension by then athletic director Steve Pederson, a decision that proved to be nothing short of comical.


Just a few weeks after the surprising move, Nebraska began its tailspin, losing seven of their final 10 games in embarrassing fashion. Pederson was soon out of a job, the venerable Tom Osborne was brought in to replace him and with a resume that featured four years of disappointing results, an open aversion to the celebrated walk-on program and the disaster that was Nebraska's switch from a traditional run-oriented offense to the West Coast Offense, the writing was clearly on the wall. Callahan's time had run its course.


Nebraska needed a new coach and arguably the most celebrated man in the state's history began searching, this time for someone who knew Nebraska and would embrace it, rather than try to reform it.  


It didn't take long for Pelini to emerge as the leading candidate. Considered one of the top defensive minds in college football, Pelini had impressed the Cornhuskers in 2003 by leading the defense that finished in the top 11 nationally of six statistical categories.


That Nebraska team is nothing but a distant memory. The Cornhuskers of 2007 were one of the nation's worst defensive teams and the lopsided losses they suffered put a big dent in the program's psyche. The hard times left fans similarly disenchanted. How can a team be successful when the fans can't stand to watch you play? Thousands of them headed for the exits in the second quarter of Nebraska's worst home loss in nearly 50 years against Oklahoma State. The program needed a new direction, needed a culture change.


"I can't put my finger on it, but there's some mending that has to happen, that had to happen," Pelini said.


Pelini knows the stories from the Callahan era well. He's heard more than he probably cares to remember. And he knows what kind of changes need to be made, not only from a football standpoint, but from a public relations one as well, even if he won't get into the specifics.


"I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what's been going on and what has gone on the last however many years," Pelini said. "Everybody's different and there's a lot of different ways to skin a cat."


He may not have a goal for next season, let alone next week - he says he's literally taking it day-by-day - but you can count on seeing a renewed emphasis on the running game, for starters, and you can bet the defense will be improved after finishing as the eighth worst unit in the country last fall. After all, you didn't think the man who spent the past three seasons as LSU's defensive coordinator wasn't going to overhaul the defense? 


"I do know this, you have to play great defense to win championships," Pelini said.


And pretty soon he will have the ring to prove it after having helped guide the Tigers to the national championship in January. And the philosophies that made him one of the most highly regarded coordinators in the country won't change one bit now that he's a head coach.


The only problem is, heading into the start of spring practice later this month, Pelini would love to tell you what kind of team he'll be sporting.


"I don't know this team well enough, I don't know that talent well enough to say `This is what we're going to be,'" Pelini said. "I think part of coaching is finding a system and an ability to feature what your guys do best. And I'm not sure what that is."


So he'll use the 15 spring practices he's allotted as diligently as he can. There's a lot of excitement surrounding Pelini's arrival, but he doesn't want the fans to get unnecessarily hyped for what figures to be a rebuilding year.


"To a certain extent you need to temper expectations," he said.


On the field it begins with the defense. Off the field it begins with the Cornhuskers embracing Pelini's edicts: teamwork, accountability and commitment to the team, to name just a few. Those qualities are the bricks that will make up the foundation of Pelini's new culture in Lincoln.


"When you establish a culture, it's a team culture and a program's culture and to do that you have to have a foundation that goes throughout your whole building," Pelini said. "We're on our way to doing that, but we have a long way to go."


Pelini certainly never thought he'd see Nebraska fall on such hard times, but then again he never thought he'd find himself back in Lincoln. Just goes to shows you how quickly things can change in only a handful of years.

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