Bo knows fun: Pelini shows new side
August, 20, 2014
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN.com
Beginning on Aug. 3, we're counting down the days until the college football season starts with a look at the 25 most interesting people in the sport. Today we look at Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Bo Pelini stood in the lobby of Nebraska's practice facility early Saturday afternoon, his khaki cargo shorts, white, long-sleeved base layer and gray T-shirt soaked minutes after quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and cornerback Josh Mitchell dumped a bucket of ice water on the coach in the latest execution of the viral craze to support awareness for Lou Gehrig's disease.
His players marched past Pelini to the locker room. Freshman receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El, among the few to glance over, examined Pelini from behind, smiled, raised his eyebrows and walked past in silence.
This isn't the Pelini whom Pierson-El saw last year from afar, the guy whom the college-football public came to recognize over his first six seasons at Nebraska as a mercurial figure.
By now, you likely know of how Pelini has flipped the script in the past nine months. How he's somehow morphed into a media darling -- this zany coach prone to jokes who strives to embrace social media.
Yes, Pelini's reshaped persona, whether on display with a cat in hand or through a creative uniform unveil, is viewed as fascinating.
Not to Bo, though.
"I find a lot more fascinating things out there than Bo Pelini," the 46-year-old coach said.
His words strike at the heart of this matter.
The offseason is winding to a close. Nebraska opens Aug. 30 against Florida Atlantic after a summer of aggressively pushing ticket sales to preserve the 51-year sellout streak at Memorial Stadium. The Huskers rank No. 22 in the Associated Press preseason poll, their lowest spot to start a season since 2009. More favorable schedules make Wisconsin and Iowa the popular picks over Nebraska to win the Big Ten West.
Pelini won the offseason, for sure, but that's about to matter as much as a touchdown pass in a spring scrimmage. The question, moving forward, is this: Has Nebraska set itself up for a big mess when hardship inevitably hits this fall?
All of the critics -- and Pelini had plenty last season -- figure to line up at the coach's door if Nebraska falls off track in September or October and warm, funny Bo reverts to snarly, irritable Bo.
These past several months have provided plenty of new fodder.
What are they running over there at Nebraska, a football program or a fun house? An unfair commentary, sure, but reality can be that way, especially when social media enters the mix.
It's silly that such discussion exists, but this is the climate that Pelini helped create by changing the narrative with his YouTube videos and Faux Pelini Twitter fun.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who grew up four houses from the Pelini family in Youngstown, Ohio, and has known Bo longer than anyone in Lincoln, said he often grew frustrated that people judged the coach solely from observations on game days.
Pelini needed this offseason, Beck said, to show outsiders a new side of the man players and staff have long known.
"Absolutely," Beck said, "I think it's been great for him. It's been great for our program. I'm happy. I'm proud of him. I think he's done the right thing. Unfortunately, a lot of people still don't see it -- the way he runs the program and the things he stands for.
"It's rare to have people like that in charge."
Evidence suggests that Pelini is ready to handle adversity with more grace.
His most notable setback last year -- the leak of an audio clip in which he was critical of Nebraska fans -- dated to 2011. And his November meltdown after the Huskers' regular-season-ending loss to Iowa came under odd circumstances, as speculation about his job security reached a new high.
Since then, he's turned the page.
He opened practices to the media. And when two injuries and a suspension knocked out nearly 30 percent of his starting defense in the first days of practice, Pelini responded with a steady hand.
"I've told myself and the staff that I want to have more fun," Pelini said last week. "Last year was a difficult year. At the end of the day, you can only do so much, but I believe in what we're doing. I believe in how we're doing it.
"Let's face it, it's always going to be hard. There are going to be ups and downs. It's a roller coaster of emotions sometimes, but you've got to channel it the right way. There are certain things that are in our control and things that aren't. You've got to control the things you can and keep it in perspective."
Pelini said he's no more image-conscious than in 2007, when he moved to Nebraska from his position as defensive coordinator at LSU. When asked if he enjoys the small moments more today than seven years ago, Pelini said no.
Still, his willingness to show a new side has helped the Huskers.
"People are talking about our program in a way they wouldn't if some of these things weren't out," said Jeff Jamrog, assistant athletic director for football operations.
Sophomore defensive end Greg McMullen said he's simply pleased to see his coach portrayed as something other than "an evil villain."
Whatever the impact during the season, this is just more fun.
"When you can have fun and get your job done at the same time," McMullen said, "it makes for a better environment."
And so goes the year of Nouveau Bo. Will he dazzle or crash hard? Time will tell, but Pelini, ever polarizing, has again given us reason to watch.