Pelini Set To Coach Against His Alma Mater

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelni remembers his days at Ohio State fondly, but he has remained focused on worrying about his Cornhuskers. Though he may not admit it, inviting Ohio State into Lincoln may be a reminder of just how far Pelini has come since 1990.

Having just watched his team fall to Wisconsin in its first marquee game as a member of the Big Ten, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini had an even bigger reason to downplay the Cornhuskers next game against Ohio State, his alma mater.

Not known for wearing the pride of a Buckeye on his sleeve – he played in Ohio State's secondary as a free safety from 1987-90 — Pelini instead prefers to focus on the only thing that currently matters to him.

"(The game against Ohio State) isn't more or less meaningful. It's about doing a job," Pelini said in his weekly press conference. "I want our team to be better and to walk off the field Saturday night a better football team than we were when we started this week."

Pelini didn't mind admitting he hasn't paid close attention to details concerning subtle changes around the Ohio State football program in the over 20 years since he was a Buckeye.

Pelini isn't even well educated on the current situation the Buckeyes face with the NCAA, which eventually led to the suspension of numerous prominent players and the resignation of Jim Tressel.

There was one observation Pelini felt just begged to be pointed out, saying "they don't have as good of a free safety as when I played."

Though Pelini was clearly kidding when he made the comment, the way he played the game was part of what his former head coach John Cooper remembered most about him. And it had nothing to do with physical prowess on the field.

"I will tell you the main thing I remember about him," Cooper told BSB. "He was tough, very smart, very intelligent and he always knew his assignments.

"Like most of us coaches, he was a pretty good football player but not a great player," continued Cooper, who was a team captain at Iowa State during his college playing days. "He is probably a better coach than he was player, but like the rest of us, if we were better players we would have never coached."

The Nebraska faithful are probably quite pleased with the course Pelini decided to take after it became certain that a long, illustrious career as a standout player in the NFL wasn't in the cards.

More personally important than the physical gains Pelini made on the field during his time at Ohio State was the full grasping of the game, which spawned a long course of coaching through the ranks of high school, college, and professional football before eventually winding up as the head of one of the most prestigious college programs in the country.

Now leading Nebraska, Pelini joins the conference's coaching ranks of former defensive players that includes Ohio State's Luke Fickell, Michigan's Brady Hoke, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema.

"Luke was a good player and Brady was an All-American at Ball State." Bielema said. "I was not. I started a few years (at Iowa), but I really relied a lot on the mental aspect of the game. I knew I had to understand reads, keys, and reactions. I think some of your better coaches are people who weren't necessarily great players."

It would be hard to argue with Bielema's premise, particularly because both he and Pelini lead teams widely regarded as favorites to win the Big Ten in the first year the conference sports two divisions and stages a title game.

Pelini's job at Nebraska has been extra remarkable, particularly because when he was hired to take over the storied program in 2008 his top task was to help the Cornhuskers return to the glory they had enjoyed throughout their celebrated past.

Former head coaches Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney – both members of the College Football Hall of Fame – won 21 conference titles in 36 years, the standard to which the Big Red Nation has continued to hold the program.

However, Frank Solich and Bill Callahan combined for only one conference title while leading the program from 1998-2007, and though Pelini, who replaced Callahan, seems on track to lead the program back to its old winning ways, the patience of the fans is understandably thin.

"There is consternation around here if you don't win 50-0 every week," Pelini told reporters Sept. 12, two days after his Cornhuskers beat Fresno State by a 42-29 final, far less than the expected margin of victory over the Bulldogs. "That's just the way it is."

But there's no question the fans have seen plenty of encouraging things under Pelini that would indicate a return to prominence, particularly because the Cornhuskers have been a staple in the weekly top-25 polls since he took over and made trips to the Big 12 championship game in each of the last two seasons.

In the conference championship games, Nebraska lost to Texas and Oklahoma, respectively, by narrow margins.

"He has done a great job," Cooper said. "For years and years, Nebraska had what I called the best program in college football. It wasn't always necessarily the best team, but they did the best job recruiting, they had a great redshirt and walk-on program, a great strength and conditioning program and good academic support.

"They were sort of the model for a lot of those other schools to copy, including us. Bo has brought them back. For more than 10 years, they weren't very good, but now they're a very solid football team."

Nebraska's return to elite status in college football is likely because Pelini's expertise on the defensive side of the ball has been well-received in Lincoln. In 2009, his second season there, Nebraska led the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 10.4 points per game.

Pelini, who was hired away from LSU where he served as the Tigers' defensive coordinator from 2005-07 – which included helping them defeat Ohio State in the 2007 national title game in New Orleans – instilled an attitude in the program that led to Nebraska holding eight of its 14 opponents to 10 or fewer points in 2009.

Aiding in that kind of performance is Pelini's ability to recruit potential defensive stars. He had one of the best defenders in the nation in 2009 – defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, who was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy that season, and he boasts a dominant entity on the defensive front this season in Jared Crick.

"Having good players is the secret," Cooper said. "You have to bring in good players. You don't have to coach many people. The team that has the best players is usually the team that wins. He is getting some good talent out there. The better players you get, the better coach you are."

With Nebraska back on the upswing under Pelini – who played his high school football at Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney – it's not hard to imagine why his name was one of the most mentioned when news broke in late May that Ohio State had accepted Tressel's letter of resignation.

Though Ohio State immediately named Luke Fickell the head coach for the upcoming season, the school said it planned to conduct a national coaching search at the conclusion of the year.

In April, however, Osborne – who is now Nebraska's athletic director – signed Pelini to a new five-year contract that boosted the coach's salary to $2.775 million in 2011. That made Pelini the second-highest paid coach in the conference behind only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

Regardless of the deal, most coaching contracts feature a buyout clause Pelini could exercise, and Cooper has an easy understanding as to why the coach would be perfect at Ohio State if Fickell isn't retained.

"They look at him being an ex-player, an ex-Buckeye and somebody that has paid his dues," Cooper said. "He's somebody who has come up through the ranks and coached at a lot of different places and has been very successful as an assistant coach and now has been pretty successful as a head coach. I am sure he would be a coaching candidate for not only here, but a lot of jobs."

Now in the conference with his alma mater, Pelini looks to challenge the Buckeyes as the class of the Big Ten. Ohio State, of course, has won at least a share of the last six conference crowns. Nebraska, however, could be in position to break that streak, which would be only one more step toward solidifying Pelini as one of the best coaches in the country.

Ohio State plays in Lincoln on Oct. 8, and Cooper doesn't doubt Pelini's past as a Buckeye will have a vast impact on him for that game. At the very least, it will only help him understand just how far he's come.

"I knew he was a dedicated person who loved the game," Cooper said, "but the thing I really admire and respect about him was that he left here and did a lot of this on his own."

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