He has an office in Lincoln, Neb., one floor below a coaching-legend-turned-congressman-turned-athletic director, with a nameplate reading "
Pelini is charged with restoring a proud program that's coming off a season in which it seemingly hit historic lows on a weekly basis. At the same time, he is preparing a defense to battle Ohio State for the national championship. He could land himself a spot on
"If you set out and know what you have to accomplish and what time frames you have, it's not that difficult," Pelini said. "It's not like [getting the Nebraska job] was a surprise. I was able to plan for it and get prepared and I feel good about it."
The day after LSU beat Tennessee for the SEC championship, Pelini was on Nebraska's campus, standing at a podium in front of a banner with a massive red "N" behind him as he was announced as the Cornhuskers next coach. He spent the next two weeks putting together his staff and on the recruiting trail. But the day after the NCAA's mandated "dead period" in recruiting that runs from Dec. 17 to Jan. 1 began, he returned to LSU with the blessing of Nebraska athletic director
For a guy who preaches character, it was the right thing to do.
"I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for these guys," Pelini said. "We're close and we started something together and we're aiming to finish it together. "I owe it to them. I would never have felt right [if I left them before the game]. It would have felt like I was walking out on them."
He is back to finish the job and two-time All-America defensive end
It's that ability to build a defense that made Pelini the logical pick to take over a Nebraska team that was 112th in total defense in 2007 and gave up 37.9 points per game, including 76 to Kansas, the most points the Cornhuskers have allowed in their 117-year history. The performance was so uncharacteristic of Nebraska that players and coaches made a joint decision to strip the Blackshirts off their iconic practice jerseys. The first thing Pelini will try and do is rekindle the unit's fire.
"There's a lot of things that goes into it, but the first thing is about the attitude and the effort that is necessary to have success on defense and when we build that we'll be able to move on," he said.
Pelini's staff will look familiar to Cornhuskers fans. The coach who led Nebraska to a 17-3 win over Michigan State in the '03 Alamo Bowl after
Pelini is retaining two members from the staff of
The return of Watson, who will take over play-calling duties, means the Cornhuskers may be sticking with Callahan's West Coast offense, at least for now. The complicated, oft-criticized scheme had shown improvement in Callahan's last three seasons, going from 96th in total offense in '05 to 14th in '06 to 11th in '07. Pelini says scrapping the current system isn't necessary, though he could add some new wrinkles.
"I think there will be some elements that will stay in place and there will be some things that will change," he said. "Obviously you don't need to trash everything, they had some success on offense and I understand that and I'm smart enough to know there's some good things they did."
Consider Pelini well-schooled in all things Nebraska. Credit his time as defensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2003 -- along with the influence of Osborne. The legendary coach who led the Huskers to three national titles in his 25 years was named interim athletic director after the firing of
"It's unbelievable," Pelini said. "You have a guy who's a legend in the coaching business. He's right in the office right above me and he's there for me to bounce things off, to ask for advice."
On Pelini's second day on the job, he and Osborne hit the recruiting trail together. Osborne, who was named interim head coach before Pelini's hiring, was demoted to interim assistant coach to allow him to continue recruiting under NCAA regulations.
"We went out one or two whole days and that was a fun thing," Pelini said. "It's been fun just having him around and having him be a part of things and just getting his perspective and advice. There's no man that knows more about the University of Nebraska and its traditions and what makes it special."
Amid those recruiting trips, hiring his staff and finding some time to watch every play the Ohio State offense has run this season it wasn't all easy. Pelini spent his 40th birthday away from his wife and three children.
Now back in Baton Rouge his attention is squarely on LSU -- most of the time. "We're ready to go and my focus right now, about 95 percent of the time, is on playing a good team in the national championship game," Pelini said.
But after that, it's right back to that desk in Lincoln.