Even in the dark moments, Bo Pelini never wavered, expressing full-throated confidence in his blueprint.
“I believe my vision that I have for this football team, that process is well under way. I can not proclaim that it has completely taken over yet. It is a process and it's not something that happens overnight. I understood that coming in. ...
“I've been through this before. I do not want by any means to make it look like I'm making an excuse. I believe we're good enough and we have the tools to win right now. I believe that in my heart and I know that. I don't believe it, I know it.”
That was October 2009, right after Nebraska had dropped home games to Texas Tech and Iowa State.
Back then, Pelini was hearing criticism from everywhere. That he was out of control on the sideline. That his team exhibited zero discipline. That his offense couldn't score against 11 folding chairs. It was ugly.
You know what he did? He won the next five games, then nearly upset Texas, then whupped Arizona.
Digging a hole and climbing out has been the rule under Pelini, not the exception.
In 2008, he got blown out by Bob Stoops and Oklahoma, making matters worse when he grabbed Terrence Moore by the face mask. How would he recover? Well, he won four straight.
In 2012, Urban Meyer smacked Bo around in his Ohio State homecoming. Pelini walked into the postgame press conference and stated his new goal — “We need to win out. ... We have six weeks. And we need to win the next six football games. Get to Indianapolis.”
This is Bo's history. Defy the odds. Endure the storm. Never let a season fall apart.
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That's how you get to nine wins every year. That's how you establish an ardent group of supporters at home.
Here we are again. It's November 2013 and Pelini finds himself in a familiar hole. Coming off a loss at Minnesota, the Huskers can't afford another, at least not Saturday against Northwestern.
He's fighting not just for conference title hopes and job security with his bosses. He's fighting for something deeper, something at the core of his appeal.
New coaches are never timid. But when Pelini arrived in December 2007, he wore the look of certitude. He'd been through the wars. With the 49ers and Patriots and Packers. With Frank Solich and Bob Stoops and Les Miles. He knew how to solve Nebraska's mess.
Something about his eyes — his intensity — became the perfect medication for a disillusioned fan base. Nebraska had experienced 40 years of joy and stability. When the bottom fell out in 2002, when it REALLY fell out in 2007, Husker fans didn't know which way was up.
Through the door stormed Pelini, a man's man, the guy you call for help when you stumble down the wrong dark alley.
Pelini wasn't a natural salesman. He didn't practice the art of the stump speech. He inspired more viscerally. He pumped his fist on the sideline and his fans felt something in their gut that said, “THIS is what it's supposed to look like. This is how it's supposed to feel.”
And even when his team played poorly early on, even when he lost his cool with officials, he sustained credibility. His self-belief never changed, nor did his team's belief in the man.
That's a key reason the Huskers dug out of those holes in '08, '09 and '12. Late-season rallies reinforced the idea that Bo knew what he was doing. That he saw the bright future before you did. If you just gave it time.
But something turned in Indy last December. The 2009 Huskers had Big 12 officials to blame. The '10 team had Taylor Martinez's injury to blame. The '11 team had a new conference to blame. How do you explain 70-31? Suddenly the '12 team looked like a fraud.
Another turning point came against UCLA — 38 unanswered points. Suddenly all the offseason progress was a mirage.
When the Gophers scored their final touchdown, I watched Pelini as he turned away from the goal line and took off his headset. I watched him search for answers at the postgame press conference.
Monday, I heard a man struggling to find suitable reasons why his sixth team looks like his worst. I heard a man trying to summon the inspiration for one more November surge.
The odds are even longer this time. His defense is young, his offense is beat up. His team hasn't beaten an FBS foe with a winning record.
But even with all the personnel questions, even with five respectable programs in the way, the biggest obstacle is intangible. For the first time, the guy who walked into that dark alley in 2007 and restored confidence is exuding doubt.
Bo Pelini's greatest gift is making you believe. If he loses that, what's left?
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after Thursday's practice