In his first interview since resigning from his position as Florida Atlantic's head football coach last October amid allegations of marijuana and cocaine use, Carl Pelini emphatically denied that he used drugs and made clear that he was not fired for that reason. He said that a former member of his staff made those allegations after he confronted him when Pelini suspected he was engaged in an inappropriate relationship.
"This is embarrassing for me personally and professionally," Pelini said. "There is a perception of me out there that's not me. It's such a 180-degree perception of who I am as a person."
Pelini's ouster began with an affidavit, signed by then-defensive line and special teams coach Matt Edwards, in which Edwards stated that he saw Pelini and then-Florida Atlantic defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis use marijuana and cocaine. Edwards alleged Pelini's drug use occurred during a mid-October trip to Key West. (Rekstis resigned at the end of last year.)
Allison Stewart, a real estate agent who was on the trip, also provided an affidavit in which she said she saw Pelini smoke marijuana. She said that Pelini admitted in a text message to her that he "uses drugs on occasion." Pelini said Edwards and Stewart lied because he confronted them when he suspected they were having an affair, and his account of what occurred during the Key West trip differs from the version offered by Edwards and Stewart.
Pelini says that during Florida Atlantic's bye week in October, he took Rekstis, Rekstis' wife and the couple's children to Key West for a 36-hour trip. "It was a family trip," Pelini said. He said Edwards, who is married, and Stewart traveled to Key West separately, and it was through interactions with them on the trip that Pelini suspected they were in an inappropriate relationship.
Pelini said he confronted both Edwards and Stewart about his suspicions and that neither denied it.
"I was worried about how it would reflect on our program," Pelini said.
When contacted by SI.com, Edwards repeatedly declined to comment about the alleged relationship and later asked why it was relevant to the story. In two phone calls, Stewart would not comment when asked repeatedly if she had engaged in a relationship with Edwards, but reiterated her claim that she had witnessed Pelini using drugs. Later, in a text message, Stewart denied having an affair with Edwards.
Three days after Pelini returned from that trip, Florida Atlantic athletic director Pat Chun visited him after a practice and took the coach to a meeting with a campus police officer. Pelini says he was ordered to hand over his university-issued cellphone. An hour later, Pelini says Chun told him he was being dismissed from his responsibilities as coach.
In an interview with SI.com, Chun said Pelini offered to resign immediately and declined to take a drug test. Pelini said he told Chun that he was unaware of any drug use, denied using drugs and offered to take a drug test.
Pelini said Chun told him the results of a drug test didn't matter and that he was being asked to step down for failure to supervise. Pelini said Chun then told him that if he signed a letter of resignation Chun would make it clear that the circumstances were outside of Pelini's control and that he would provide Pelini with good recommendation for employment elsewhere. In a statement about Pelini and Rekstis' resignations delivered to the media, Chun cited "reports relating to their use of illegal drugs."
After negotiations between Pelini's attorneys and Florida Atlantic's legal counsel, Florida Atlantic ultimately gave Pelini a letter in late November. It stated that his resignation was withdrawn and that he was terminated because he "failed to timely report certain conduct of a member of your staff, as required under your contract."
"It was an unfortunate situation, but we've moved on," Chun told SI.com.
Pelini said he has essentially been blacklisted in coaching. He provided SI.com with the results of a hair follicle drug test he took in mid-January that shows he tested negative for five drugs, including cocaine and marijuana.
He has been living in the Fort Lauderdale area, but is in the process of moving to Nebraska, where his brother, Bo, is the head football coach of the Cornhuskers. He has been spending time with his children, including his oldest daughter, Nicole, who is a theater major at Florida Atlantic.
Pelini said he hasn't had any job offers, but has been invited by several schools to visit spring practice and critique their defenses. He also plans to visit several NFL teams this summer.
"I just want the truth out there," Pelini said. "This story created an image of me that I have this extravagant social life, but in reality I have a pretty Spartan life."