Despite negatives, Pelini will be missed

The news was a little hard to believe. A high-profile coach who had been successful leading one of the nation’s storied programs was coming to Youngstown State.

Bo Pelini, the intense and oft-criticized Nebraska coach who won more than 70 percent of his games with the Cornhuskers, decided to come home.

Not many saw it coming. Heck, days before he made the decision, back in December of 2014, a department head within YSU athletics laughed when I brought up the “rumor” that Pelini might come to YSU.

“Who else is coming, (Michigan State coach) Mark Dantonio?,” he quipped.

Days later, the coach who had been defensive coordinator at Oklahoma and LSU and an NFL assistant with a Super Bowl pedigree was hired. It was hard to fathom, but Pelini wanted to escape the spotlight and return to his roots.

Five years later, he’s gone, and while a lot of fans view his tenure as disappointing, I, for one, will miss Pelini.

His record of 33-28 wasn’t great, and the inconsistent play of his teams was baffling — even to him — at times, but Pelini was so very Youngstown. Tough, straight-up and no-nonsense, his blue-collar work ethic led to a meticulous approach toward the game game. He preached attention to details at every practice, and he wouldn’t accept anything but fundamentally sound in every facet. Any football purist would appreciate it.

No, he wasn’t always able to relay that attitude to his players as well as he wanted. There often seemed to be a discord when it came to the communication between him and his team. His intense, often intimidating ways weren’t meshing with a new generation of players. Finally, over the last few months of his tenure, he accepted that his volatile style may need tweaked.

It was refreshing to hear a man who had reached the pinnacle of the sport, both collegiately and professionally, admit he had some faults. It was at that time that my respect for Pelini rose dramatically.

Anyone in his position has a bit of an ego, and he was no different. He should be a little brash. That confidence and belief in himself often spills over to the players, so it’s needed from the head of the program. If it goes too far, however, a coach can start to feel like all the problems are the players’ fault, and his coaching had nothing to do with it.

Pelini was done pointing the finger at anyone but himself — something many other coaches refuse to do — and it almost seemed like a revelation for him and the team he was on the forefront. We’ll never know if that was a turning point for them, but it will serve Pelini well as he moves on.

And him moving on should not be celebrated by fans. It won’t be by me. Aside from his calculated coaching ways and being a defensive guru, he treated players harshly but fairly. In his five years at YSU, I never heard a single complaint from a player about him. I’m sure he wasn’t well liked by all (no coach ever is), but he had his players’ backs, and they respected him for it.

Nowadays, people immediately want to blame the coach when things don’t work out, and ultimately, he or she should shoulder the blame, but there is so much more to it. If people think Bo Pelini is the only coach struggling to adapt to a new generation of young adults, think again. Being able to connect with a wide-ranging group of individuals that is ever-changing is a task only a select few can accomplish. Pelini did his very best, and after a rough two years (2018 and 2019), he was willing to change.

The players must be held accountable as well. They, too, have to be willing to conform to the coach, his style and that of his staff. It’s all part of the deal when you sign up to be a Division I college football player, and if we’re being honest, they didn’t always hold up their end of the bargain.

I’ll never forget a home game against Indiana State in 2018. The Penguins were 3-4 and, despite some tough losses, they were still relevant in the playoff picture, but this was a must-win scenario at Stambaugh Stadium. I’ve never seen a team so flat in my entire life. They were completely lifeless from start to finish with their playoff lives on the line. One person was doing everything humanly possible to light a fire under that team: Bo Pelini.

They got whipped that day, 43-17, by a subpar team, and Pelini ripped them and himself like I’ve never heard a coach rip someone before, and it was well deserved. How a coach has more excitement to play the game than his team is something I’ll never understand, and it’s another reason I’ll miss Pelini’s fiery coaching tactics.

He wasn’t perfect, and he admitted it. He was overly passionate, and he didn’t apologize for it. He came home to a city that most high-profile people avoid like the plague, and all he did was take YSU to the national championship game for the first time since Jim Tressel was coach.

So, go ahead, delirious YSU fans, be excited that he’s gone and believe that whoever the new coach is will be a “better fit” and return YSU to a national power. But I’ve got a news flash for you: This isn’t the 1990s, and this isn’t North Dakota State. Youngstown lost a great coach and a good man in Bo Pelini. I hope we get another one just like him — and so should you.


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