CHICAGO — "Walk with me.''
Bo Pelini and I first spoke back in February. He wanted to come to Omaha, get together for dinner. Talk about "things." Perceptions. Misconceptions. Lay some things on the table.
Winter became spring and then summer. Two fathers busy with kids and their jobs never got schedules to match. Now it's August. Time for a football diet.
Maybe we can sneak in a coffee break.
On Friday, after a laid-back and completely-in-control Pelini spent two hours answering questions at Big Ten media days, Nebraska's football coach got up and announced that he needed a Starbucks fix before going to the banquet.
One last question: "Can we talk?" I asked.
Pelini invited me to tag along on his quest for corporate caffeine.
So off we went, coach and columnist, in the maze that is the McCormick Place Convention Center, which is the size of Holdrege.
Pelini had entered the interview ballroom through the back door. So we went back that way and immediately walked into some sort of work area, where it looked like caterers were preparing to cart in the food for the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon.
"Let's go this way,'' Pelini said. And we hit a dead end, where someone who looked like they worked there said, "No, Starbucks is on the other side of the building. Go back that way.'' This might take an hour.
So back we went. Pelini said, "What's up?" And, finally, it was time to ask him something that had been on my mind for months.
The coach says he's done talking about the Texas A&M game. But this inquiring mind had one last request.
I'd been on a late, tight deadline that wild and crazy Saturday night when Pelini cemented his image as a raging volcano. There were 16 penalties against Nebraska. I ripped Pelini rather than the officials. I thought that he brought the chaos on himself. But I had heard plenty of stories since. I needed to ask a question I wished I'd had the opportunity to ask after that game.
"Did any of those officials tell you during the game you were going to get jobbed?'' I asked.
"Yes,'' Pelini said.
What did they tell you?
"I won't say,'' he said. "But it was highway robbery. An absolute joke. I've moved on.''
So while you were yelling all night, were you sticking up for your players?
"No doubt,'' Pelini said. "I have their back. I always will. But if I had to do it over again, I would have done it different.''
Now we're walking through an area of a workers' lounge. Some woman taking her break asks where we're going. Starbucks? Through that door down there.
There are some things I wish I'd written differently that night. But I'd rather hear about what Pelini would go back and change.
"For one thing, well, I don't know,'' Pelini said. "I wouldn't have gotten so upset. I mean, I would have gotten upset. But I wouldn't have shown it. I mean, obviously, you're going to be upset when that's going on. It was ridiculous.''
This isn't exactly Lo Sole Mio, Pelini's favorite Italian joint. But in this crazy maze through the back rooms of a convention hall, Pelini is offering a window into his psyche.
People say he's a simple guy. Basic. Straightforward. What you see is what you get. I think he's more complicated than we know.
There are two Bos, who make up the same Bo.
Chicago got a glimpse of the charming Bo. For two days, he conformed (wearing a tie and jacket) and answered the same mundane questions at least 20 times from various reporters around the Big Ten. He kicked back and told some stories. He talked about how an equipment guy at Ohio State didn't know his real name was Mark.
Pelini is very much a regular guy, and he played that role, too. On Thursday, a trio of fans walked up to him and introduced themselves as part of the Wisconsin Fan Club, and welcomed him to the league. They kibitzed for a good five minutes. Silly small talk. Yes, Bo doing small talk and doing it well.
On Friday, the man who is allegedly trying to kill Fan Day stopped and posed for numerous photos with Husker fans before the banquet. He sat and did the autograph line for 10 minutes until the Big Ten Network summoned. One woman wearing a Michigan outfit handed him something to sign. He looked up and feigned disgust, then smiled and signed away.
Now, all the while, he was wishing he were somewhere else. Like a football field. Then again, so was every coach in the Big Ten.
Bottom line, Pelini can play nice in public when he wants to. And that's the key phrase when trying to figure out Bo Pelini.
Back at home, Pelini is taking some arrows from fans. Moving Fan Day to Friday? I'll defend him there. It was moved to Friday to accommodate the first day of practices on Saturday. But then, who cares when it is? Many schools don't have one, period.
Pelini isn't always eager to drive to booster events, including breakfast. There are reports out there that Nebraska football is going to take over the Big Red Breakfasts, run for 30 years by Omaha attorney Dean Kratz. There will be some feathers ruffled there. Pelini's image with the boosters likely will take another hit.
Meanwhile, some fans — some — wish he would be more forthright with the media, give thoughtful and insightful answers and not brush them off. (Note: He was thoughtful and insightful in Chicago — when he wanted to be.).
Guess what? He doesn't care. He's not here to entertain the media. He's not here to hang out with the fans. He's here to lead their favorite team to glory.
We've found Starbucks, finally. Pelini has his latte or whatever they call it. And now seems a good time to ask about those fans, the ones who want more of a piece of him, the ones who want him to shape up on the sideline.
"When have I ever not wanted to be around the fans?" Pelini said. "I probably make myself available to the fans more than anybody. What I've learned is, no matter what you do, you can't please everybody. I could have fan day 10 hours on a Saturday, and half the people aren't going to be happy.''
I blamed it on Tom Osborne. The legend set the standard on and off the field. He did a lot of interviews and public appearances that he disdained, but he did them for the good of the program. He carried himself with class on the sideline, though he could bend an official's ear when necessary.
What Pelini said to that may be misinterpreted by some. But the reality is, there's only one Tom Osborne.
"I don't want to be like (Osborne),'' Pelini said. "I'm not going to be like him. We're different people. If that's what they want, then they need to go get him.
"I ain't changing. I can't change who I am. That doesn't mean I can't fix, or make a better decision. But I can't change who I am. I don't want to change. That's why I've had success.''
That's Pelini. He said he would have done some things differently at A&M. But then he also told me that if Taylor Martinez uses a cellphone again at halftime, he'll get the same earful of Pelini again.
If you think Pelini is trying to rehab his image, or if you think the charming Bo of Chicago is some sort of new Bo, think again. There's a lot of fire left in this dragon. You're going to see it, if not feel it.
But what about yelling? For Pelini, it's a coaching tool. Like he said, nothing personal. The players back that up. It's a cultural thing, one that an older generation — the Lombardi generation — understands. Can Pelini make this generation respond to it? That's the story in progress here.
The thing is, this is the guy Nebraska signed up for. He's not perfect. He's not Tom. If this is what works for him, why would you want to change him?
Then again, would it kill a guy to attend some breakfasts, answer questions in some detail, make himself more accessible? Isn't that what he's getting paid for?
Pelini's answer: No. He said he's getting paid to win. Period. No matter how many friends he makes or doesn't make, Bo said, if he doesn't win, those "friends'' are going to want him outta here.
Of course, he's absolutely right about that.
Pelini doesn't owe Nebraskans anything but winning, and to do it the right way, with class.
Well, there is one more thing.
He still owes me dinner.
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