March 4, 2008

Huskers hope Pelini can turn things around

An extended drought, a plague of locusts or anything else that could damage the corn crop may be viewed as greater disasters in Nebraska than the 2007 college football season.


Among the lowlights and pratfalls of '07 were a 5-7 record, the most points and most yards allowed since 1948, the most points ever allowed in one game, the fewest takeaways ever and the worst loss in Lincoln (to Oklahoma State, no less) in 49 years.

Compared to that, a swarm of locusts may not seem so bad. Not in a state where Huskers football is as important as

"Breathing," said Tom Ruud, a former Nebraska linebacker whose sons Barrett and Bo also played for the Huskers. "Well, not breathing, but it's close to it."

Most Nebraskans probably would agree. They also would agree they got a breath of fresh air when legendary former coach/current athletic director Tom Osborne announced in December that the Huskers' coaching job would be filled by Bo Pelini, viewed as a better fit than predecessor Bill Callahan and already being hailed as the best thing for Nebraska since ethanol.

"We need a head coach with strong defensive credentials and great leadership," Osborne said the day Pelini was hired. "We were also looking for someone who can inspire confidence and get players to play with great effort. And, of course, we also wanted our new head coach to understand our traditions, including the importance of our walk-on program and the importance of football in this state."

Within days of Pelini's hiring, stores around the state were selling T-shirts reading: "Bo Knows Defense," "Bo Knows Nebraska," "Bo! Bo! Bo! Merry Christmas," "Got Bo?" and "Bo Big Red."

In making his first address to the team, Pelini brought a direct, no-nonsense message of great expectations and demands.

"I told them everybody is going to be held to extremely high standards," Pelini said by phone last week. "They're expected to do things right on and off the field and develop a sense of accountability. That's not up for debate."

Neither is that Nebraska's once-proud "Black Shirts" defense hit bottom in '07 by allowing at least 40 points six times, including an all-time high 76 points in a loss to Kansas.

Nebraska's defense allowed at least 40 points 11 times in four seasons under Callahan. Before Callahan, the Huskers had allowed at least 40 points just 11 times in 45 seasons from 1959-2003.

But Pelini is a master architect of powerful defenses, having coached top-20 ranked defenses in each season as coordinator at Nebraska (2003), Oklahoma (2004) and LSU (2005-07). Restoring some teeth to the once-ferocious "Black Shirts" is the first step in leading Nebraska back to national prominence.

Still, every farmer from Scottsbluff to Broken Bow knows plowing and planting comes before harvesting and reaping, so Pelini's task may take some time.

Six starters return from last season's defense and none have All-Big 12 credentials, so a talent upgrade is needed. But Pelini said defenses aren't built on talent alone.

"It's just like building a team," he said. "It takes a heck of a lot more than talent. It takes the attitude, the culture you set up, the accountability and the discipline of it. The work ethic and the effort all those things go into being successful.

"It's not just the 'what.' It's also the 'how' how you do things and why you do things. There are so many things that go into being successful. It's the culture of how you go about doing things and your work that sets you apart."

Here's a look at how Pelini's defenses fared when he was a coordinator. The numbers show average yardage or points allowed, and national rankings are in parenthesis.
Team (season)Run defensePass defenseTotal defenseScoring defense
Nebraska ('03) 119.3 (24th) 177.85 (11th) 297.15 (11th) 14.5 (2nd)
Oklahoma ('04) 94.6 (6th) 204.38 (48th) 299.00 (13th) 16.8 (11th)
LSU ('05) 91.5 (6th) 175.31 (11th) 266.85 (3rd) 14.2 (3rd)
LSU ('06) 97.1 (14th) 145.69 (3rd) 242.77 (3rd) 12.6 (4th)
LSU ('07) 106.1 (12th) 182.71 (9th) 288.79 (3rd) 19.9 (17th)
Pelini should know. In five years as a college assistant, every team he was a part of posted at least 10 victories.

Pelini can draw from the experiences of coaching under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Les Miles at LSU, and he said there will be subtle but significant differences in how he operates the Nebraska program, though he declines to get into details.

Trade secrets aren't open to discussion.

"There are huge differences, but not to the naked eye," Pelini said. "Everybody does things differently and has things that separate you from each other. It's little things that separate people. Look how Bob Stoops turned around Oklahoma. Obviously, he did some things differently than they had in the past. They had a recipe to separate themselves. That's one example, but it happens all over the place.

"It's a matter of personality, beliefs and mind-set. I've developed my beliefs over a long period of time, and I have been preparing myself for this opportunity."

Many Nebraskans felt Pelini should have received the opportunity five years ago after Frank Solich was dismissed. Pelini directed the Huskers to a 17-3 Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State as an interim coach, but then-athletic director Steve Pederson chose Callahan, who had coached the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl in the 2002 season.

But Callahan fractured the Nebraska fan base, reportedly disrespected Osborne who may be the most beloved public figure in the state and alienated many former players.

Pelini, on the other hand, has embraced Nebraska's tradition and history. Hard-working Nebraskans can relate to his upbringing.

"I think Bo is a players' coach and I think he understands the mentality of the Nebraska program and the Nebraska people going back to his growing up in a blue-collar environment in Youngstown, Ohio, and playing ball at Ohio State," Ruud said. "He understands it's a real, real important part of the lifestyle in this area.

"Bill Callahan is an awfully good football coach and I don't want to be derogatory toward him, but Bo has embraced the state and former players in a different way."

Perhaps just as important, Pelini hasn't tried to be different.

"I don't try to be somebody I'm not," he said. "It's a kind of what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude I take. The people of this state are blue-collar and family values-type people. They seem to relate to somebody who's just going to be who he is. So there's been a connection there.

"I'm excited about being here."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at

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