CHICAGO – The cat's name is Anya. She is a 4-year-old Siberian, and she is hypoallergenic. Anya belongs to a Nebraska marketing department employee named Ethan Rowley.
Anya is not Bo Pelini's cat.
And yet there was Anya, nestled in the arms of Nebraska's head coach in the tunnel before the spring game, just as he prepared to lead a team of football players to the field. And there was Pelini emerging into daylight and thrusting this cat over his head, holding Anya aloft like he was reenacting a scene from The Lion King. This was all a wink at a fake Bo Pelini Twitter account featuring an avatar of Pelini's head photoshopped onto someone wearing a terrible sweater and holding a cat. Rowley and a member of the program's social media team came up with the idea. It was amazing, and it was about the last thing anyone would have expected from Pelini.
This week at Big Ten media days, someone asked Pelini how his cat was. He said it was upstairs at the Hilton Chicago, napping.
“It just kind of happened -- I was just having some fun, being myself,” Pelini said of the spring-game cat walk Tuesday, as he left a ballroom for autograph duty. “For whatever reason, I just made a decision to let people in a little bit and see that other side of me. It wasn't something where I just woke up one morning and said, 'Hey, I need to do this.' It just happened. It just makes things a little bit lighter, gives people an understanding of who I am and how it mirrors our program.”
It's one of the measures aimed at making the face of Nebraska football more approachable than a spit-spewing scowl. It's part of earning back goodwill after Pelini was heard cussing out fans
in an infamous audio recording leaked last September. The other part of the overhaul will revolve around the loss column: Each season of his tenure has included four defeats. Nebraska has won plenty but lost just enough to land on the fringes of relevance, and waiting for a breakthrough has become no laughing matter.
So Pelini will try to ride stars at tailback and receiver and an experienced defensive front to win the Big Ten West and maybe a league title this fall.
“Who doesn't want to win championships?” said Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska's returning All-Big Ten running back. “The last time we won a conference championship was 1999 [as part of the Big 12]. So I'm sure (fans) are pretty eager.”
Pelini also stated it plainly this week, saying his team was “looking for a championship.” To that end, he has re-imagined his team's football workload for the season. Nebraska practices will be shorter and more efficient, according to Pelini. For example: A standard walkthrough before practice was not physically taxing, but the hours spent on the field piled up nevertheless. So that part of the daily routine will be eliminated or shortened.
“No pre-practice practice,” receiver Kenny Bell said, smiling wide at the prospect. “It's nice.”
Nebraska won five of six to start 2013 and slid to 3-3 in the second half. More economical work starting in training camp in theory permits veterans to keep their legs throughout the season and allows underclassmen to devote more energy to mental gains instead of focusing on surviving the week. “We always start off strong, really strong,” Abdullah said. “But we get mentally fatigued as the season goes on. We can't do that. Our conference is too good across the board for us to get mentally fatigued. We have to be consistent in our mental preparation. Just across the board.”
Abdullah ran for 1,690 yards last year. Bell hauled in 52 catches in 2013 and could be among the nation's best if the Cornhuskers find adequate quarterback play from sophomore Tommy Armstrong or whoever wins the job. Defensive end Randy Gregory registered 10.5 sacks among his 19 tackles-for-loss and anchors a defense that returns its top five tacklers and 12 players with starting experience. The talent should be enough in the relatively forgiving Big Ten West, even if the schedule includes road trips to Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
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If Pelini's tinkering with his team's habits enhances some key players' production, it will be as important a transformation as any other.
“It's a combination of things, putting it all together at the right time,” Pelini said. “It's not easy to do. But I can also say the level of consistency we've had in winning – that isn't easy to do, either. I don't sit there and apologize for what we've done and how we go about things. Are we always looking to make it that much better? Yeah.”
He's also applying that philosophy to himself. It was Tuesday morning that Pelini punctuated a discussion about the SEC and conference strength with what might as well have been a personal mission statement: "The difference between perception and reality in sports," he said, "is so great."
“People just see me on the sideline, they see me in competition, they think that's who I am all the time,” Pelini said. “They think that's who I am at home, with my kids, whatever. Even when I played it was like that. I was pretty intense as a player, all the way back to when I was little. When you went out to compete, you competed. But that's not who you are 24 hours a day.”
Like in August of last year, when Bo Pelini smashed 290-pound defensive tackle Thad Randle's cell phone.
During a team meeting, Randle's phone rang. Phones are not permitted in meetings. Pelini walked out of the room and returned with a hammer in hand. He asked Randle for his phone, placed it on the floor and smashed it.
Randle jumped from his seat and stormed out. Pelini followed him, the door closed, and the ensuing pounding on the walls suggested to the Cornhuskers that their head coach was fighting one of his players. "It was a terrifying moment, actually," Bell said.
Then the banging stopped. And the projector screen in the room read, "GOT YA!"
Then Pelini and Randle walked back into the room laughing at hundreds of exquisitely pranked faces. And instead of practicing that night, the team went to a movie. “It can be such a grind, the season, camp, whatever it may be,” Pelini said. “You have to get guys laughing. You have to have fun with that stuff.”
Said Bell: “For so long, the cameras have been on him when he's angry. Any time you show a person at their most competitive, upset moments, it's going to look bad to the public. Bo Pelini is not some angry old guy that's always yelling. He's such a great guy.”
As Big Ten media days crawled to an end on Tuesday, Pelini mused about the camp movie hit Sharknado (“I promise you I won't be seeing that movie”), which super hero he would be (“I am a super hero”), the sideline comportment of basketball coaches (“If I acted like some of them, I'd get thrown out of every game”) and the term “going Veronica.”
“Going Veronica” apparently means plunging into red-faced rage at someone else. Nebraska's coach insisted upon it – “It's a term” – even if not one person at his table had heard of it before.
Which gave him another idea.
“Let's see if we can make it a national thing,” Pelini said. “You've gotta keep saying it. Pretty soon the whole state will be saying it, then it'll go national. This will happen. It's going to happen.”
Bo Pelini had a vision. As with the one he has for Nebraska football, the pertinent questions were if and when it would come to be.