LINCOLN — Bo Pelini said he made them no false promises.
It was January 2008, weeks after he'd won a national title coordinating LSU's defense and taken his first head coaching job — at any level — for Nebraska. Pelini saw the roster numbers crunch that his predecessor, the fired Bill Callahan, had left for him.
And instead of playing with a more spartan crew for one year, Pelini decided right then to recruit the rock upon which he'd build his program. Guys who'd committed to Callahan. Other guys his new staff knew could play a little. Walk-ons who might have been ignored under the previous regime.
“It was such a whirlwind,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.
Pelini certainly couldn't sell kids on the games the Huskers hadn't won in recent years. So he sold them on NU's tradition, the school, the people.
“Something to me that goes way beyond football and well beyond wins and losses,” Pelini said.
A few from that recruiting class didn't even make it to camp. More left. The gem of the class, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, played right away and finished his career last season. But many of them redshirted by design. Pelini has always said he wanted to create a culture, and that class of redshirts — 11 are starters, including kicker/punter Brett Maher — was his guinea pig.
And, as Senior Day is here, Pelini approves of their development.
“One thing you can't argue: There is tremendous discipline in this program, and our kids represent this program with class, with character,” Pelini said. “And I'm proud of who they are and what they are becoming.”
Overall, it's a senior class — mostly fifth-year players mixed with a handful of fourth-year stars — that Pelini won't soon forget. As he sends off 29 of them Saturday before the 2:30 p.m. kickoff versus Minnesota, he'll know that he recruited every one of them, that each got the same message from a coach who was learning from them as they were learning from him.
Among them, there's defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, the quiet giant who's part of a family legacy, the five-star recruit who's started for three years while compiling more than 100 tackles.
There's linebacker Alonzo Whaley, one of the late finds in the 2008 recruiting class, whose career of peaks and valleys — mistakes made and redemption found — mirrors that of his team.
There's left guard Seung Hoon Choi, a Korean immigrant who barely knew the game of football in high school, yet used his weight room prowess to become a two-year starter.
There's Tim Marlowe, the small, quick receiver from Pelini's alma mater, Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney, so well-versed in NU's offense that his position coach, Rich Fisher, would “hire him in a heartbeat.”
There's safety Daimion Stafford, a junior-college transfer, a fast, furious, fun-loving safety from a hardscrabble past.
And there's running back Rex Burkhead, one of the few fourth-year seniors, the hard-running, always-churning Texan who's seen much of his final season — though not his folk-hero status — derailed by injuries.
Together they've compiled a 37-14 record overall and an 8-9 mark against ranked teams. They've played in three bowl games and won one. They've played — and lost late leads — in two conference title games and are in the driver's seat for a third berth. They've played in the Big 12 and Big Ten. They've seen Boulder and Madison, Manhattan and Columbus, Ann Arbor and College Station. They've been on the wrong end of a late comeback at Virginia Tech and engineered six double-digit comebacks of their own.
They've played through deflating home losses to Iowa State in 2009 and Texas in 2010, and played before electric crowds versus Oklahoma in 2009 and Wisconsin in 2012. Their offense was maligned, then praised. Their defense was praised, then maligned. About the only constant through all of those games has been a field-goal kicker with range beyond 50 yards.
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They've been pushed, prodded, poked by the press and pleaded with by coaches. They've fought and hugged.
“It's a brotherhood,” linebacker Will Compton said. “We all really are close. Very close. We all get along. We're all usually on the same page, and at times there's a bunch of bickering and stuff. Like brothers would.”
Said safety P.J. Smith: “I love these guys on this team. We are all maturing and getting better.”
Compton and Smith, frustrated with some of the coverage Pelini had been receiving for a sideline argument with Stafford during the Penn State game, defended the coach's style Tuesday. Called him their captain and leader. They have his back, they said.
This unified stump speech stems, in some part, from a tightening of the Huskers' bond after a 30-13 loss to South Carolina in the 2012 Capital One Bowl. Even on the bus ride back to their Orlando hotel, soon-to-be seniors were plotting a different course from the ones who came before them, and Pelini was plotting one for them.
Back in Lincoln, Compton and Burkhead met with Pelini. The coach then sat in on team meetings. After years of being the white-hot center of the program, Pelini wanted to transfer more of the accountability and ownership to the players. And he received their comments more in stride.
“He's learned to take the feedback from his players and be able to adjust his ways of coaching and how he goes about things in the offseason, throughout the summer, during the season, and learn from it,” Burkhead said. “The best thing he does is learn from what hasn't been working well and what we can do to improve upon that.”
Said Compton: “It was never a player takeover type of deal, but he wanted our feedback on things, and he always wants to get better. I think he has gotten better each and every year. I think he's matured, especially on the sideline. I know some people might not see that, but he really has.”
Yes, Pelini agreed, he's grown with these seniors. Learned from them.
“They have had to put up with me for four and five years, and we are not easy on them,” Pelini said. “We are demanding. Hold them to high standards every single day. Just the way they have grown as football players, I've learned a lot. I've made a lot of mistakes along the way as head coach with their time here.
“I think I've grown a lot as a head coach. Same way they are still in progress of trying to be the best football player they can be, I'm still learning as a head coach and trying to be the best coach I can be. We've done that together. I think we have a pretty strong relationship. We believe in each other. And it's been an honor to coach these kids. Because I love each and every one of them.”
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