Ten years ago, we met Bo. Remember him?
He was anointed before he called a single defense. He arrived in Lincoln like a super hero. Super Bo.
This was fascinating, because Bo Pelini had never called a defense, never been a coordinator, never coached in college football, save for one season as a graduate assistant at Iowa.
But back in 2003 Nebraska was ready for a super hero. The Big Red machine looked tired, and the Huskers took some serious lumps in the 2002 season. Frank Solich turned over his staff, brought in a new cast of characters. The rock star was Bo.
I'll never forget the first time I interviewed Pelini, in the sports information office at the old South Stadium. He was confident, defiant and unapologetic. He came off as a pretty tough customer. He was unlike any other Nebraska assistant I'd ever met.
Pelini pushed a lot of the right buttons that season. He had some NFL talent and got the Blackshirts to play hard and disciplined. They produced 32 turnovers in 2003. When Pelini won the Alamo Bowl as interim coach, hair on fire, his rock star status in this state was solid gold.
Ten years ago. Remember that Bo?
“I've been through a lot in 10 years,” Pelini said.
The biggest change is that he became a head coach. Unless they're winning national titles, head coaches aren't super heroes. They're no longer specialists. They're responsible for everything. When things go right, they get the credit.
When they lose a championship game 70-31, they're not the defensive guru or super hero anymore.
But in the fickle game of college football, hero status is never far away.
That brings us to the 2013 Nebraska football season. For me, this is the Season of Bo.
This is his program now. He's got his senior quarterback. His offensive coordinator, and the offense Bo picked, are in their third season.
The defense is full of promising new kids on the block, and these are players the defensive guru picked for his way of defense.
The transition into the Big Ten is over. There's no more rookie head coach. The goal is clear. The bar is set.
This is a season when Pelini could set himself up at Nebraska or bring unwanted attention to himself from an athletic director who didn't hire him.
He has become more polished, more patient. Not great with public relations but better. He's got captains this year, he wants to get more young guys on the field. You think you know Pelini? There's a hysterical video online that shows him pranking the team.
He's also humbled. Getting beat by 39 on the big stage will do that.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Pelini said after a practice last week. “I was sick to my stomach. I remember thinking after that game, 'What do I have to do now?' When we got home from that game, I went right to the office and watched the film. I wanted to look at it right away and figure out what went wrong.
“There wasn't a lot I would do different. Other than we execute.”
There you go. If you're expecting a new Pelini this year, a guy on a mission to wipe away the stench of that game, forget it. If you're expecting an apology, think again.
In many ways, Pelini is the same guy he was 10 years ago. It's the guy he has to be, the guy who will take him where he and Nebraska want to go.
“I can't bring that game back,” Pelini said. “It's just a different group, a different time, a different place. I don't even think about it anymore. I saw what happened in that game. What you have to do is put it in your head to never let that happen again.
“Am I going to say it will never happen again? I hope not. But I don't have anything to prove to anybody. I said it before, and I'll say it again: I don't apologize for my first five years here. I don't feel a need to apologize for that game. You know what? If you're in this sport long enough, you're going to have games like that. Unfortunately.”
It's an attitude Pelini learned as a young coach in the NFL, with San Francisco, New England and Green Bay. The NFL attitude wasn't greeted well here during the Bill Callahan days. But Pelini is unabashed that the approach is the right way to enter the 2013 season. Don't obsess. Let go.
“This is a humbling game,” Pelini said. “It's a game where you can't be too reactive. It's the same thing we teach our players. You're going to have bad plays. Learn and go to the next play.
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“I learned that in the NFL, because in the NFL, no matter how good you are, you're going to get humbled.”
Pelini specifically pointed to his first year with the Niners as a defensive assistant. San Francisco would win the Super Bowl that season. But you never would have guessed it after a 40-8 loss to Philly in week five.
“We just got our tails kicked,” Pelini said. “At that point, it was like the season was over. The media was going to fire George (Seifert, head coach). All this stuff is going on. George never changed. He stayed the course, as calm as he could be. That made an impact on me.
“Later that year, we were on a team cruise at the Super Bowl (in Miami). We were sitting on the deck, me and Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak. And Mike said to me, 'You're a young coach. Just remember this: When you have success, if you ever start thinking it's about you, you have to take a step back because it's about your players.' I've always remembered that.”
And then there was his three-year stint as defensive coordinator at LSU, which culminated in a national title. That helped Pelini get the job at Nebraska. But Tiger fans weren't initially impressed.
“The first year, we opened against Arizona State and Tennessee,” Pelini said. “We gave up a bunch of yards and people down there were like, “What's going on?' They're ready to burn crosses in my yard.
“I've just learned over the years, things like that are going to happen. You're going to have games like that — you just don't play well enough for whatever reason. You have to stay with what you believe in, what you believe works.”
When Pelini says it's about execution, it comes off like he's blaming his players. But that's the black-and-white Pelini saying it plainly. On Friday, former safety P.J. Smith was on the “Sharp and Benning” radio show and said the Wisconsin game was on the defensive players, not the coaches. Fair enough.
But ultimately the performance is on Pelini. It's his job to get them to execute. The coach knows that. That's really the big riddle to coaching, at any level. You gotta get the players. But then you gotta get them to play.
And that's the thing about Pelini. He hasn't forgotten how to coach defense. We've seen what the man has done with players like Glenn Dorsey, Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick and Prince Amukamara. He produced.
That's the intriguing part about 2013. If the new kids are as talented as you hear, then this should be a better defense. How good? How soon?
It's up to the coach to teach them, put the pieces together, get them experience, work the chemistry. Pelini trusts his coordinator, John Papuchis. But the offense is set, and Pelini says, “I can put more attention to the defense.”
He might get his defensive mojo back this year. But that reputation doesn't matter anymore. There's a bigger picture now. There's special teams, penalties, turnovers, leadership, development, vision, the whole dinner.
That's what the Season of Bo is really about. He was a difference-maker coordinator. Can he be a difference-maker head coach?
“I do a pretty good job of soul-searching,” Pelini said. “It's not about me. It's what do I have to do to give our players the best chance to win? You can't just take the square peg and pound it into the round hole. You have to do what your players do best and play to that.”
Some believe he'll become that guy and some believe he'll always be that coordinator. The thing about football is, the scoreboard is always the growth chart. That hasn't changed in 10 years.
“I'm a better coach than I was 10 years ago,” Pelini said. “If you ask me 10 years from now — I'm still coaching, God willing — I'd probably say the same thing. I learn something every single night I walk in there to watch film. If you aren't hungry to learn and improve each day, you're going to get passed by.
“I don't have all the answers. Anybody who thinks they do is crazy.”
Ten years later, Pelini doesn't need all the answers. Just more than he had a year ago.