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LINCOLN — Bo Pelini opened his 30-minute, post-firing speech to Nebraska football players by taking dead aim at the character of his former boss, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. He called Eichorst two vulgar names to consenting laughter from players after the first expletive and relative silence after the second one.
This is the hat-swiping, jaw-jutting Pelini who’d occasionally flash across your TV during Saturday afternoons. On tape, Pelini appeared to be setting the stage for a half-hour of that persona, which is not — and has never really been — of great use to anyone, including Pelini himself, outside of a pregame pep talk. That Bo is capable of a meltdown so voracious that he may never have lived it down.
Instead, Pelini settled into rhetoric and tone that was measured, instructive, persuasive. This is Pelini the wronged populist, the sacked revolutionary thinker, the player-first guy framed by an administration that, according to Pelini, forced out a legendary statesman for an athletic director — Eichorst — who was contracted to execute the inevitable. This Pelini has acolytes, including members of the media, but most notably his players.
This is the honest Pelini, supporters say. Straight talk, right from the hip, told in convincing tones. This is the truth.
Not quite. Pelini preached one side. His side. Honesty isn’t the same as the truth. The truth is universally true, neutral in its status, unbiased. Further, being “honest” doesn’t give you free rein to be biased in your own favor to the exclusion of any world view that doesn’t fit.
How Pelini feels reflects his perception of reality. It doesn’t inform all of reality, and it’s time for his former players to understand that. And it’s going to be the tall task of new coach Mike Riley to teach it.
Riley could catch a break. Some brave player could — in the media or simply among players — stand up and reject the stringent aspects of Pelini’s world view. That player could love the coach — and many of his lessons — but hate specific parts of this message. But admitting Pelini might have been wrong — that he’s capable of mistakes — seems a bridge too far for many of his current or former players to tweet or say publicly.
So it’ll likely fall to Riley. There are probably more, but here are three takeaways from Pelini’s speech that are worth examining deeper, especially as Riley moves forward to mend fences and tries to win a championship.
» Pelini’s prevailing contention that Nebraska is not only a hard job, but perhaps hardest of all, and ultimately so unfair it caused the team to lose its biggest game of the year.
“You can’t let this place eat you up, because if you let it, it’ll eat you up,” Pelini tells the players. “Because I’ve been at LSU, I’ve been at Oklahoma, I’ve been to these other places, and it ain’t quite — the scrutiny, the negativity, it ain’t like that everywhere.”
Pelini spent one year at OU and three at LSU as defensive coordinator. He coached on teams that won an average of 11.5 games per season and played for two national titles, winning one. He didn’t bear the brunt of any criticism in either job; the head coach bore that. He was regarded in both places as an up-and-coming defensive coordinator, the nation’s hottest assistant, coaching national championship-caliber talent that, in some cases, he hadn’t recruited.
Ask Bob Stoops and Les Miles about the scrutiny they face on a daily basis. The boosters, the local high schools looking for their prospects to be recruited, the hot-blooded rivalries both programs have. Ask Stoops about the current dissatisfaction of his fan base. These are not easy jobs, or even easier jobs.
The big jobs are all hard jobs. And social media make it so any fan, whether down the street or in London, can reach out to a player. The Internet flattens fandom in a way that makes the scrutiny constant and often relentless. You think every major coach hasn’t been reamed in every corner of the Internet for his coaching style after a loss? They are. Read around.
It’s not the worst at Nebraska. Even if it’s hard. Even when it’s hard in some areas, it’s so much easier in other areas.
And even when it is hard, a coach’s task shouldn’t be to constantly remind players of that. Players shouldn’t be toiling under the impression that anyone who didn’t play for Bo Pelini is aligned against them and fans who have packed Memorial Stadium for 50 years don’t appreciate them because they may not like Pelini.
Then there’s Pelini’s argument that Nebraska lost 59-24 to Wisconsin because of the negativity surrounding the program.
“And I saw it on you guys,” he said. “I saw it. It was never more evident than the Wisconsin game. I thought you guys were more mentally beat in that game than we got physically beat. It’s a culmination of the negativity.”
Nebraska was 8-1 heading into that game and leading 17-3 in the second quarter. One bad run fit — which led to a long Melvin Gordon touchdown — and suddenly the previously dormant negativity gene sprung into action? This is excuse-making of some distinction.
» Pelini’s insinuation that the new coaching staff won’t respect his work and may not be a fit for the leftover players.
“My advice is, fellas, is, it’ll be different, but if you choose to stay here, you give the new guy a chance,” Pelini told players. “Because I went through that, fellas. I went from an old-school coach in Earle Bruce when I was at Ohio State to somebody who came in, and he was totally different. Totally different. It was a big-time adjustment. Whoever it is will probably come in here and talk bad about what we’ve done or sit there and say, ‘We gotta upgrade this, we gotta upgrade that.’ ”
Here’s the tension between Pelini’s desire to set things up for the new coach and protect his own work at Nebraska. In interviews he’s given so far, Riley appears to have no interest in critiquing the Pelini era or even much referring to it. Players still may be on the lookout, though, since Pelini laid the groundwork for it.
» Pelini’s modeled behavior that the leader of Nebraska athletics — Eichorst — isn’t worthy of respect because he has no integrity and does nothing, and the people Eichorst surrounds himself with aren’t worthy of respect, either.
“But a guy like him, who has no integrity, he doesn’t even understand what a core value is,” Pelini said of Eichorst. “He hasn’t understood it from the day he got here. I saw it when I first met with the guy. To have core values means you have to be about something, you have to represent something that is important to you. He’s a f------ lawyer who makes policies. That’s all he’s done since he’s been here: Hire people and make policies to cover his own ass.”
Later, Pelini says: “Look at his team of people. C’mon, man. I’d rather f------ work at McDonald’s than work with some of those guys.”
Eichorst’s hands-off style — which Pelini rips as if he would prefer a micro-manager — actually works in Eichorst’s favor to some extent, since he’s probably not going to try to forge relationships with players who don’t want to forge them.
But Pelini’s blatant culture of disrespect for any leader he deemed unworthy of his time has to be expunged from North Stadium.
Now, here are some good things that can come from the tape’s release.
» Pelini never has to speak of Nebraska in negative terms again. There needs to be no sit-down interview six months from now — with some sympathetic media outlet looking to expose the “real Nebraska” — full of veiled comments like the one he made during his introductory press conference at Youngstown State.
» Players don’t have to be weighed down by it. There are no secrets between them and Nebraska’s administration as it pertains to this tape and Pelini’s side of the story.
» Fans now know that Pelini’s firing was about more than winning and losing big games.
» Riley has a 30-minute window into the former coach’s world view. And perhaps what he sees is that Pelini struggled to be a steward of the state’s chief cultural export, Nebraska football.
Nebraska does not need a revolutionary to run its football team. The program already has so many advantages — the fans, the facilities, the excellent support staff, the statewide rooting interest — that it doesn’t need that kind of redefinition anymore. Pelini may have thought it did; if so, he wore himself out trying to remake it.
Oregon State did need redefinition after 28 straight losing seasons, and Riley, who had way more life and blood invested in Corvallis than Pelini did here, is probably the main reason that the Beavers aren’t a running joke in the Pac-12. He consistently took less money to stay at Oregon State, consistently turned down better jobs, consistently did all the recruiting legwork to coax players to a school that has a fraction of the history and success of Nebraska. This was dogged work. Yes, he was paid handsomely — but not as handsomely as he could have been.
Riley is one of the two or three most important figures in Oregon State football history. And yet, according to every person I’ve talked to about him, he wore that distinction lightly — almost breezily. He appears to get that stewardship isn’t the same as ownership; that he’s a shepherd, not the savior.
“I tend to be one of those guys that looks at the bright side,” Riley said at his introductory press conference. “So what you have you enhance, and what you don’t have you try to make better.”
Those aren’t epic, revolutionary words. But they might come in pretty handy.
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Pelini's speech in final meeting with Husker players (WARNING: Explicit language):
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