I watched Bo Pelini's coaching career go up in flames last season.
It was November 29. Nebraska just finished an uninspired 38-17 home loss to Iowa in the regular-season finale. This wasn't what did it, though. Well, not exactly. It served as a catalyst for the events to follow—as did Pelini's umpteenth encounter with an official on the sideline, this time nearly clocking an unassuming referee with hat clenched in hand.
The moment came a short while after the game, when Pelini had just a few moments to process the events of the day. In front of a room full of people anticipating—better yet, hoping for—an explosion, the coach did not disappoint.
"If they want to fire me," Pelini said, lighting the match himself, "then go ahead."
That was it. The tension of it all—the Deadspin audio of Pelini blasting Nebraska fans, the cartoonish sideline eruptions and the inability to live up to unrealistic expectations—culminated in a moment that was, in many ways, inevitable.
There was no coming back from this, not when the marriage was already torn asunder.
We waited for word that Pelini would be relieved of his duties. The silence was eventually broken the following day with a surprising (and cryptic) vote of confidence from athletic director Shawn Eichorst. It was open to interpretation, so we interpreted. Despite throwing a bucket of cold water on the flames, the fire didn't abate.
And then something strange happened. The narrative changed. The pitchforks were tucked away.
Nebraska beat an SEC team in the Gator Bowl on January 1—albeit a dilapidated Georgia squad—but the result was an exact reversal of fortune from the previous year. This helped soothe the souls that required soothing.
Pelini took his image overhaul one step further during the BCS National Championship broadcast. Out of nowhere, with a crystal football ready to be handed out, Pelini tweeted at his own parody account. It was harmless, playful and out of character. It also involved a cat, but you're well aware of this by now.
@FauxPelini ok enough is enough... I want my cat back. You've had her long enough!— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) January 7, 2014
You're also well aware that Pelini one-upped himself by holding a live cat up to the sky at the Nebraska spring game. (For the record, this was not Pelini's cat. Her name is Anya, and she belongs to someone in the marketing department.)
In a matter of one week, a reputation was resuscitated. It's not perfect—and perhaps it never will be in his current situation—but he made it past a point few coaches in this position rarely come back from.
We assume that the man simply changed. Or that the PR department finally sat down with its coach and outlined a plan to smooth out the rough edges, and the entire project worked brilliantly.
The reality, however, is that college football's most complex personality runs far deeper than the competitive machine you see on camera. There are standards, and then there are Pelini standards.
As it turns out, this packaged "new and improved" Pelini—the one we didn't know existed—has been there all along.
A Hammer and a Family Room Table
Let's go back one full year, to the first day of Nebraska practice in 2013.
An angry and distraught Pelini had just re-entered a football meeting holding a hammer and wearing a face you've seen before. It's the one Big Ten officials know and dread.
Without a break in sequence, Pelini—still irate that his first post-practice meeting of the fall was interrupted—lifted the destructive device overhead and drove it downward at a cellphone that had rung moments earlier. To ensure it was in ruins, he hit it once more.
The cellphone scattered in pieces throughout the room.
No one moved, except for then-senior Thad Randle. Randle studied the remains of the device—his device—scattered throughout. He then stormed out. Pelini followed.
The team, still trying to assess what had just happened, listened and waited.
Outside there was yelling. The distant sounds of a scrum echoed through the Nebraska football facility hallways. Players, including star tailback Ameer Abdullah, made an attempt to intervene. All efforts to leave the room were halted.
"I thought this was it," Abdullah said. "I thought this was the breaking point of Nebraska football."
A flustered Pelini returned to the room, solo and sweaty. He confronted his team, and as he did, he pointed to the wall. The message was written clear as day.
It was at that moment that the Nebraska Cornhuskers realized the fray was a setup—the latest in a line of pranks from their head coach.
As the team tried to find solid footing, it discovered the next piece of the message. Instead of practicing for the second time on the first day of camp, the Huskers were headed to a movie.
"He's a good actor," Abdullah laughed, recalling the situation. "He could go to Hollywood, for real."
Abdullah has seen just about every side of Pelini during his time at the school. A senior and one of the nation's premier tailbacks, Abdullah ran for nearly 1,700 yards in 2013.
Before he was an All-America candidate and a fashionable dark-horse Heisman choice, Abdullah was a 4-star recruit according to 247 Sports. The Alabama product was a hot commodity in the SEC: South Carolina, Arkansas and an intrigued coordinator at Auburn named Gus Malzahn pursued him actively. Many of these schools saw Abdullah as a cornerback, including the Tigers, the team he grew up rooting for. He felt differently.
"It kind of ate me up," Abdullah told Paul Myerberg of USA Today about the recruiting process. "It really hurt my feelings. At a young age, my dream was to play running back. For your dream school to tell you that, it really hurt."
Enter: Bo Pelini. Literally.
The coach, looking to add a spark on offense, visited the running back—and that's what he wanted him as—in his home. He made himself comfortable the moment he walked through the door.
"When Bo came and sat in my living room, he was the guy holding up the cat," Abdullah said. "He kicked off his shoes like he had been living there for seven years and put his feet up on my table.
"I'm like, 'Look at this guy.' That's who Bo is, though."
On that same visit, after the sock etiquette settled in, Pelini made another impression. He didn't send out the full-court press and usher in a parade, but rather, he did the exact opposite.
"He didn't promise me a thing, which was really odd," Abdullah said. "He came to my house and offered me a free education and an opportunity to potentially play on this football team. He left it at that, and that really sat with me."
It was different. Better yet, it was real. As Abdullah processed extravagant pitches and promises from some of the most established minds and programs in the country, Pelini's honest pitch stood out. It wasn't orthodox, but it hit home. So Abdullah left his.
"That's really what attracted me to Nebraska," Abdullah added.
Training Rooms and Random Phone Calls
Let's go back a bit further.
Before Pelini was kicking his feet up on the Abdullahs' family room table, he was one of the hottest defensive coordinators in the country.
In his three years with LSU between 2005 and 2007, Pelini's defenses produced six first-team All-American selections and dominated almost every defensive statistic imaginable. When LSU beat Tennessee in the 2007 SEC Championship Game, Nebraska offered Pelini its head coaching job the next day. He happily accepted, although he did so with a caveat.
Pelini was introduced at Nebraska with a press conference and hit the recruiting road shortly thereafter. But instead of abandoning LSU—which has become protocol—he returned to coach the defense for the BCS National Championship.
"I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for these guys," Pelini told Cory McCartney of Sports Illustrated at the time. "We're close and we started something together and we're aiming to finish it together. I owe it to them. I would never have felt right. It would have felt like I was walking out on them."
Yes, it was the national championship—a game LSU won. But for an occupation that has seemingly jettisoned the concept of loyalty, this meant something. It meant something to the players he promised. Specifically, it meant something to former LSU defensive end Kirston Pittman.
"You have a lot of respect when a man looks you in the eyes, tells you something and then lives up to what he told," Pittman said. "That's something I've taken with me. It was a great life lesson."
Pittman's college football career featured both highs and lows. In 25 starts, Pittman had 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss. His eight sacks in 2007 led the Tigers in that category. He could play, there was no arguing that. It came down to being able to play.
Before his breakout senior season, he battled a foot injury in 2005 and then tore his Achilles in offseason workouts. Pittman missed back-to-back seasons. He spent countless hours in the training room, trying to get healthy and back on the field. It was a long journey, but thankfully, Pittman had company.
Pelini would log sessions with his defensive tackle as he rehabbed. He would motivate him or make him laugh; it all depended on the day. One day, Pelini asked Pittman a simple (but honest) question.
How good do you want to be? You have the potential; we have the scheme.
"I can't say I've been around a much better coach that expected so much of you and was able to get it out of you at the same time," Pittman said. "He was one of the most down-to-earth coaches I ever played for. He was outspoken and would definitely speak his mind. At the same time, he was a players' coach.
"Every Saturday, we went to bat for Coach Bo."
Long after Pittman left LSU, just a few short years ago, his cellphone rang. There were no hammers in the vicinity.
On the other end of this call was his former coach, Bo Pelini, a voice he hadn't heard in some time. The two—now on very different football paths—talked. They talked football, life and everything in between. There was no particular reason for the call; Pelini simply wanted to check on a player—better yet, a person—he cared deeply about.
"It was a beautiful thing. It was very genuine," Pittman said. "You can talk with Bo about anything. He's a fun guy, a warm guy. I just think he gets a bad rap."
Onward and Upward: The Next Chapter of the Image Overhaul
By his own admission, Pelini can do better. Not necessarily as a coach, but as a representative for the university he works for.
"You just got to look for opportunities to kind of show people that isn't who you are all the time," Pelini said. "And hopefully I can do a better job of showing that side of me, even during competitions."
In a sport fueled by violence, four-letter words and tidal waves of masculinity, it shouldn't have to come to this. It should be assumed that coach and person are two vastly different entities. Trying to judge character based on six-second video clips and facial expressions can be a dangerous business.
Unfair or not, it's part of coaching.
"People see me on the sideline in competition and they think that's who I am all the time. They think that's who I am at home, with my kids," Pelini said. "I was pretty intense as a player, going all the way back to when I was little. When it was your job to compete, you competed. That's not who you are 24 hours a day."
Slowly, this mentality is being celebrated and appreciated by the people who truly matter when it comes to the assessment. Since firing off his cryptic defense of his head coach last December, Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst has upped his efforts when offering support.
Somewhat quietly, an extra year and $100,000 were tacked on to Pelini's contract this offseason. While coaching contracts are only as good as the guaranteed dollars attached, Eichorst has been much more open about the situation.
"I really enjoy what he brings to the table," Eichorst told The Associated Press recently (via ESPN.com). "He's the first to admit he's kind of walked that line a little bit. Everybody is different. You've got calm and collected, high-strung and everything in between. I try not to make judgments about that."
While cat encounters and elaborate pranks will erase some of the angst that still lingers, the next chapter of Pelini's PR battle is set to begin.
A Big Ten championship could go a long way in beefing up a 58-24 mark at the school, which still stands pretty comfortably by its lonesome. It's also worth highlighting the four schools that have won at least nine games each of the past four seasons: Alabama, Oregon, LSU and, you guessed it, Nebraska.
It's that next echelon of success that still remains unexplored. And in a results-oriented business, it will continue to hover until Nebraska is able to add hardware to its robust archives.
For the first time in a while, however, the support system is stable. The administration is openly backing its coach, which is a drastically different message than the one delivered last November.
The fans, slowly but surely, have learned to embrace—and better yet, understand—the man tasked with leading the football team. This remains a work in progress, but progress has been made.
And, most importantly, the players—current, former and future—are ready to run through a wall for "Coach Bo" when necessary. This is all that truly matters—no matter what anyone else tries to tell you—and this isn't anything new.
We simply haven't looked hard enough.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.