LINCOLN — That Bo Pelini. He can bring a tear to your eye.
Of course, it was the image of little Jack Hoffman, running down the field at Memorial Stadium, that had grown men sobbing and a nation cheering.
Nation? Why, yes. In a world of video access, the Jack Video made the rounds nationally. It's on its way to being the No. 1 highlight of the year on ESPN. A legion of tweeters and self-styled social commentators, some with celebrity status, could not stop showering love on Nebraska football.
It was the most positive pub, the biggest national spotlight, that the program has had in more than 10 years.
And let's face it, that was such a Nebraska moment, such a Husker thing to do.
The man who did Nebraska proud was none other than the head football coach.
As Pelini told it the other day, he and the staff were sitting around coming up with ideas to spice up the spring game. Receivers coach Rich Fisher said, “How about a 'make-a-wish' deal?”
Pelini said, “What about Jack?”
This is not about credit. What matters here is that the culture that Pelini created spawned this incredible moment and source of pride for Nebraska football.
He is that guy. He's the guy who makes faces on the sideline, occasionally shows the veins in his neck. But he's the guy who invited Tom Osborne to run out of the tunnel with him last November. The guy who brought a teenage girl — a job shadow for the day — to the spring game press conference last weekend.
You think Pelini's defense is complicated? (he doesn't.) Nothing compared with the man.
“The people that know me well kind of laugh at some of the things they read about and the perception of me out there,” Pelini said.
He's the guy who showed up at former Husker Alfonzo Dennard's sentencing last week, when Dennard hadn't played for him in more than a year and got into trouble after he had left the program.
“I owe it to him,” Pelini said. “He's always going to be one of my players. I wasn't there to try and do anything; it wasn't going to make a difference with the judge. But it made a difference to Alfonzo, having somebody show up for him.”
Pelini is the guy who likes to brag about his team's GPA, the highest in program history, he says. The guy who likes to point out that the Dennard altercation was a rarity, that few of his kids get into trouble.
The guy who says he will not compromise any of that to win one football game. Or 12.
“I believe in what we're doing here,” Pelini said. “I believe in how we do it, what we're doing academically, how we hold our players accountable socially. I believe in our mission statement, in how we prepare the young men for success, not only for the next four years but the rest of their lives.”
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Entering his sixth year, there is a lot to like about Pelini the head coach, a lot of the Nebraska Way in what he's doing.
Now, if he could only hold Wisconsin under 30 points.
Six years later, Pelini is at an interesting — and unexpected — place. He's grown into a head coach who does it the right way off the field. He's built a ferocious offense, with a lot of ways to beat you. But the coach who was once one of the top defensive minds in college football seems to have lost his grip.
Once was? When you give up 63 and 70 points in the biggest games of the year — and 48 and 45 the previous year — you forfeit the title of defensive genius.
Of course, Pelini says he's the same guy. Certainly, that's true. He's forgotten more defense than most of us will ever know. But suddenly, his defenses have forgotten how to cover and tackle in the games that matter most.
When it comes to his system, Pelini is still confident, still that guy. Did the big losses shake his confidence in his system? Never. Next question.
I asked him the question about whether his defense is too complicated. It's a legit topic. Pelini's defense is an intricate scheme, a collection of concepts that 11 starters must master so when they see a formation or a play develop, they know instinctively where to go. The current young group of defenders is still figuring out where to go when the ball is snapped.
Does that make it too complicated? Pelini says no. He says the defense has actually been pared back. He says it's more about discipline. And then he added something I hadn't thought of. Pelini said today's college players don't come to play with the same gym-rat mentality of yesteryear. Too many video games, not enough time watching football or actually playing it.
An interesting take. But I would suppose Pelini is not the only coach with that challenge.
I never heard Charlie McBride talk about playbooks or concepts. But Uncle Charlie wasn't a legend until he coached great players, playmakers. And that's what I think is holding back Pelini's defense lately, though he won't say it.
The coach did talk about Ohio State and Wisconsin. In each case, Pelini said one breakdown opened the floodgates. Against Ohio State, a Husker defender (whom Pelini wouldn't name) was supposed to stay with quarterback Braxton Miller during a certain play. OSU coach Urban Meyer disguised the play with a formation wrinkle, and the Husker defender followed the wrinkle, not the quarterback. Braxton went to town.
In the Big Ten championship game, the Badgers got credit for outsmarting Pelini. But the NU coach said his team's inability to tackle on the “fly sweep” was the story, over and over. Pelini said NU saw the fly sweep 12 times in the first game against Wisconsin, and held it to 21 yards.
“Those things may not hurt you for six weeks,” Pelini said. “But when it hurts you, it hurts you. Like I said, I take responsibility.”
This is the same Pelini defense that was mastered in less than a year by the 2003 Blackshirts, who wreaked turnover havoc. The same system that Ndamukong Suh and friends dominated in 2009, their second year of Bo. But I don't see Suh or Jared Crick or Barrett Ruud around anymore.
Don't get too historical with Pelini. He cringes when experts talk about the '90s defense. You want to send the rush ends upfield every play in today's spread world? The scoreboard may not have enough digits.
He's right: It's a dangerous world now for defensive gurus to live in. But one thing hasn't changed and will not change: It's still about tackling. Fundamentals. If nothing else, you thought Pelini could always coach that.
“Last year, we got exposed in space a lot,” Pelini said. “We just whiffed.”
How do you get better? Pelini said there was more live tackling in spring practice. And, of course, there's a whole new stable of would-be tacklers who will play next season.
What we know is that they'll go to class and likely keep their noses clean. Will they show the same discipline on the field? Here in 2013, with a fan base restless for championships — or more competitive efforts in big games — that's the question.
“It rips me apart,” Pelini said. “You know how bad I want to win. But I'm never going to compromise my values, the values of this institution. And I don't believe you have to.
“There's going to be criticism. I think the priorities in our society are a little screwed up, and it becomes easy to compromise values in order to appease the masses. I can say this: That will not happen here. I'd rather lose my job than go down that road, just for the sake of appeasing people.”
They're not asking for much. Just to be as proud in December as they are in April.
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