BATON ROUGE, La. — Bo Pelini is the last member of the LSU football team left in the school’s operations building. Across the street at Tiger Stadium, everyone else is feasting at the program’s annual pre-spring crawfish boil. That might appeal to some, but not Pelini, an Italian Midwesterner who much prefers red sauce over mud bugs. The crustaceans are too much work for too little payoff, he says.
Anyhow, he’s stuck in that office of his because an interview is running long, and he seems fine with it (whether that’s to avoid crawfish or not, who can say). The interview, in fact, is running so long that dusk approaches through the window over Pelini’s right shoulder, signaling the end of the final day before the reigning national champions begin spring practice. In an emblematic moment, the sun quite literally sets on the history-making 2019 Tigers, and it will rise hours later on a vastly different group (as it turns out, the coronavirus would shut down everything a week later). Three-fourths of LSU’s 2019 starters are gone, including 14 NFL draft picks; a handful of high-profile analysts left for full-time gigs; and two coordinators, Dave Aranda and Joe Brady, departed for big paydays.
There is a new but familiar face in these Cajun lands, and he’s sitting right here with a member of the media, a group that over the years, he feels, hasn’t treated him as kindly as he’d like—partially his own doing of course. From expletive-filled rants to explosive sideline exchanges, Pelini’s name for the vast majority of the college football public elicits an image of a snarling, red-faced man whose vocabulary is dependent on four-letter words. But there is no screaming during this interview. There is no yelling. There is no cussing. There is only Bo Pelini—misunderstood and mislabeled, he says—setting the record straight on the world’s perception of him and answering a couple of pointed questions: Why hasn’t a man with one of the best résumés of any fired college head coach gotten another big-time shot? And is he capable of doing it one day?
“I don’t think there’s any question I can,” Pelini says. “Everybody talks about wanting to win, but let’s face it, there are other things involved when these hires are made. I mean, there are always other agendas. I think sometimes people in college football are so concerned about the opening press conference that they forget: You better win football games.
“All the way back to when I was the defensive coordinator at Nebraska (in 2003), there was always an adjective in front of my name,” he continues. “The fiery Bo Pelini... the this Bo Pelini and that Bo Pelini. It got blown out of proportion. It was like every picture taken of me was me yelling at a ref. Most people never got to know what I stand for and who I really was.
“If somebody wants to win,” Pelini concludes, “they should call me.”
Back during Pelini’s first stint as LSU’s defensive coordinator, from 2005 through ’07, Gino Marino would encourage the coach to try something different when he ventured into Gino’s, a 54-year-old Italian restaurant in Baton Rouge. How about the veal parmigiana? What about the seafood cannelloni? But no, Pelini always said, he wanted his regular: Italian salad, spaghetti and meatballs with linked sausage and laurence bread.
Pelini dined at Gino’s a couple times a week back then. So naturally that’s where he ended up on his first night back in town this January. “He’s like a damn rock star now,” says Marino. “He comes in to eat and everybody comes and thanks him for coming back.”
Indeed, Bo is back on the bayou. As college football goes, Pelini has emerged from the shadows, stepping out of the FCS level and back onto one of football’s brightest stages—a place that originally launched his head coaching career 13 years ago, when his national championship-winning defense catapulted him to the gig at Nebraska.
This place, though, never really left him. He refers to Baton Rouge as his “second home,” likening its people to those in his native Ohio—blue-collar Catholics with a passion for football. He spent the last five years in Ohio as head coach at Youngstown State, a mission primarily to raise his children in his own hometown. His youngest daughter has just one more year of high school there, his son is in college at Notre Dame and his oldest daughter studies acting in Manhattan. He’s virtually an empty nester with his high school sweetheart, wife Mary Pat.
If Pelini’s coaching career were a game, this was the 52-year old’s halftime. Now, here’s the second act. The expectations are sky-high. “The LSU roster seems even better than the one he won the national championship with (in 2007),” says Joe Ganz, a longtime Pelini assistant who played for the coach and worked with him at Nebraska and Youngstown State. “Hopefully LSU continues to be as good as they’ve been, and he can get another crack at being a Power 5 head coach.”
The last time he sat in such a chair, Pelini coached Nebraska from 2008–2014, leading the program through an arduous transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten while winning nine games a year. In those seven seasons, the Cornhuskers were 66–27, had zero losing seasons and never finished worse than third in their division. In five seasons since Pelini’s firing, the Cornhuskers are 28–34, have had four losing seasons and never have finished better than third in their division. He never lost more than four games, never won less than nine and his winning percentage (70.9%) is one of the best in FBS history among fired head coaches. In fact, during Pelini's seven seasons, only three FBS programs won at least nine games over that stretch: Alabama, Oregon and Nebraska. “Hopefully now people have some sense of appreciation for what we did there,” Pelini says, “because it’s not easy.”
However, with Pelini, there is more to consider. He remains a polarizing figure at Nebraska. Few ride the fence. You like Bo or you don’t like Bo. The fan base is split on Pelini’s attitude—passionate vs. angry—and on his success—seven bowls vs. zero conference titles. In 2013, a rift began between the coach and fans when Deadspin published leaked audio—two years after it was recorded without the coach’s knowledge—that captured Pelini disparaging Cornhuskers fans for leaving a game early. One particular line stands out now given Nebraska’s position post-Pelini: “We’ll see what they can do when I’m f------ gone.”
Soon, a fissure developed too between Pelini and the Nebraska administration, led by new athletic director Shawn Eichorst. During a news conference in 2013, Pelini didn’t help matters when he challenged his own bosses to fire him. And then a year later, they did. After his firing, a second audio recording emerged, this one from Pelini’s private meeting with Nebraska players, where he was obscenely colorful in attacking Eichorst, who’d blocked him from saying farewell to his players on campus.
A column in the Lincoln Journal Star this spring suggested that Pelini was surreptitiously recorded behind closed doors by a rat, a plot at first to turn fans against him and then to smear him during his exit. “I’m not trying to go out of the way to defend him,” says Tom Osborne, the legendary Nebraska coach and athletic director who hired Pelini in 2007, “but those were two things where he didn’t openly come out in public and say things unseemly. Some people felt that they tried to make sure those (recordings) did not go unnoticed. For some people, it would have never gotten public.”
The leaked recordings, the sideline demeanor, the brash press conferences—they all helped to build an image of Pelini that Bleacher Report described thusly in a 2015 story: “He is a true rant specialist and one of the most bitter coaches around.” While Pelini is partially to blame for his own label, he contends that it is unfair. He vehemently defends his style, attributing it to a game-day passion that extends three decades back to his days as a free safety at Ohio State. He’s not the apologetic or regretful type. He stands firm on his approach, instead pointing the finger at a label based on a few sideline outbursts and a rocky final 18-month marriage with Nebraska. In short, “he’s not going to change,” says Ganz.
And maybe he doesn’t need to. Pelini has his own suggestion on his image: Get to know his players and you get to know the real Bo Pelini—the motivational coach and teacher, not the screaming, fire-spitting sideline stalker. A half-dozen of his players rave about him—his passion, his intensity, his drive. One of those includes Taylor Martinez, the former Nebraska quarterback who Pelini famously blistered in a finger-pointing sideline episode caught on ESPN cameras during a 2010 game at Texas A&M. Reached earlier this month, Martinez says he’s long past the incident and calls the coach a “fatherly figure.”
Osborne says Pelini’s episode with Martinez—rampant then on television and in newspapers—painted a bullseye on the coach. He became the target, always the focus of television cameras. His outbursts, reactions and rants stole headlines. “Perception can become reality,” Pelini says. “I always say that people… you’ve got to get to know them. I think you can say that in so many areas of life. Sometimes I think people write things, say things and do things and they don’t really think of the ramifications of it. In this world, if something is written or said, it creates this persona that doesn’t go away. It’s something that’s always out there.”
Greg Shelley sees this in coaches across the country—their intense passion materializing into an unfavorable label. Shelley, a sports psychology professor at Ithaca College in New York and a graduate of Nebraska, has worked with dozens of FBS athletic programs in a consulting role. “With that passion and drive and fiery attitude, there’s a line, and when you cross it, all the sudden it’s a negative,” Shelley says. “For a lot of coaches, that’s a hard line to walk. It’s a hard line for all of us to walk.”
There are plenty of examples of a coach’s game-day passion crossing the line. Think of Bob Knight’s infamous chair toss in 1985 or Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly grappling with his own assistant strength coach during a sideline episode in 2015. Even the great ones have these moments. Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once drop kicked a sideline chair. Nick Saban, for all of his championships, has compiled an even more lengthy list of expletive-filled sideline clips. In a somewhat fitting twist, Pelini is now working for a man who rebounded from his own firing and rebuilt a public perception not unlike Pelini’s own.
Ed Orgeron is now a title-winning, baby-kissing genius who’s transformed into a public relations pleasure, a far cry from the failed Ole Miss coach who’d launch into Red Bull-fueled rages. Orgeron’s makeover began away from the field. As interim coach in 2016, he stopped driving his black Hummer, instead adopting a more sleek SUV. He began catering to media members and flourished on a number of public platforms, appearing in commercials with key political figures, retaining an active Twitter account and, through fiery locker room speeches, endearing himself to a fan base that at first resented his hire.
The real makeover took place on the field: He won a national championship. And so poof went the memories and images of the crazed Ole Miss coach.
Some inside the industry believe the Pelini-Orgeron marriage has the potential to be explosive—two hot-tempered, loud personalities both with expertise on defense. Carrie Cecil, one of the nation’s leading consultants for coaches on reputation and brand management, sees otherwise. She believes Pelini went to the right place to start his climb to another major head coaching gig. The LSU community, she says, will rally around a man with fiery passion and defensive prowess. “We all love a comeback story and great coaches are hard to come by,” Cecil says. “I’m excited to see how Coach Pelini starts to shift and shake off the negative stereotypes from the past, but he has to be an active participant in his own brand rescue to be a head coach again. And I think Coach Pelini will do that.”
Maybe that started back in his hometown. In five seasons at Youngstown State, no serious public incident arose off the field. On the field, the Penguins went 33–28 and advanced to the FCS championship game during Pelini’s second season. Ganz believes time at the lower level made Pelini a better coach—a humbling experience for sure. Accustomed to commodities of major college football, Pelini coached a team with 20 fewer scholarship players than he had at Nebraska, was forced to share a training room with other sports and had to maneuver around a budget a fraction of those at the FBS level.
But for Pelini specifically, the path back to the top may involve scrubbing that perceived image of a scowling, fire-spitting man. In this internet-centric world, that’s not so easy. Google Bo Pelini and of the first two dozen generated photos, six of them show the coach berating an official. Two show him smiling. “Bo is intense. No question he was somewhat volatile at times,” Osborne says, “but there were people who saw a different side of him. He could be the nicest guy in the world. If he let people see that side, it would work out differently for him.”
There are other things to consider, too. Pelini’s mad-man image spawned a host of memes on social media, including a popular parody account. The @FauxPelini Twitter account, with its 664,000 followers, has become popular enough that The Athletic, a subscription-based digital sports platform, has started publishing written works from the account’s operator. During that interview in his office, Pelini airs his grievances about someone using his name to fill the college football masses with satirical humor. “I think it’s ridiculous. There’s an example of somebody who sits behind his computer every day. It just sticks in my craw,” Pelini says. “I don’t think the guy means it that way. It’s funny and some people find it to be funny and I thought it was funny for a while, but after a while, it’s like, you know, I don’t find it funny.”
Pelini isn’t necessarily searching for his next big gig. He’s quite happy being back in the SEC manning a defense loaded with five-stars. In fact, the coach says he turned down 11 job offers during his time at Youngstown, but most if not all of them were college assistant jobs and NFL staff positions. Meanwhile, more than 55 head coaching jobs at the Power 5 level came open during that stretch. Head coaching hires run in cycles, says Gene DeFilippo, a former college administrator and the executive director of Turnkey Sports and Entertainment, one of the most widely used coaching search firms. For the last several years, DeFilippo says, the popular hire in the industry has been the young, smart offensive guru, but he senses that changing.
Lately, more experienced, once-fired head coaches are landing Power 5 jobs. He cites hires this cycle of Karl Dorrell (Colorado) and Greg Schiano (Rutgers), along with a slew of similar men hired over the last two years: Les Miles (Kansas), Mike Locksley (Maryland), Mack Brown (North Carolina) and Herm Edwards (Arizona State). “Bo Pelini will get another chance,” DeFilippo says.
At LSU, Pelini is beginning the process of putting talented pieces in the right places. Ganz describes this as having 10 ferraris in your garage and “you don’t know which one to take out,” he laughs. Pelini, of course, has experience in choosing correctly. His three defenses at LSU never ranked worse than third in the country and led the SEC in two of those three seasons. He’s overhauling a unit this offseason from a 3–4 to a 4–3, a transition that Orgeron compares to the offensive transformation the Tigers experienced last offseason with quarterback Joe Burrow and Brady, the wunderkind guru who left LSU to take the offensive coordinator job with the Carolina Panthers.
This is a point of contention in Baton Rouge. Orgeron expected Brady to remain on staff. The 30-year-old had even signed a memorandum of agreement, a document binding him to a contract with the school. But it also included a clause allowing him to leave for a college head coaching job or the pro ranks. A day after the national championship win over Clemson, Orgeron learned of Brady’s departure while on the 90-minute bus ride from the championship site, New Orleans, to Baton Rouge. “I found out from somebody else that it was going on,” Orgeron says in an interview in his office in March.
Aranda left days later to be the head coach at Baylor, for which Orgeron had in place a plan. In fact, Orgeron reached out to Pelini in December when Aranda was a top candidate for another head job, Utah State. A month later, Pelini’s phone buzzed with a second message from Orgeron, among others. “I didn’t even know (Aranda) was looking at the Baylor job and next thing I know, my phone is blowing up from people down here,” Pelini recalls. “Coach O texted about having a conversation. I mentioned it to my wife and she said, ‘You’re going to listen, aren’t you?’”
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward, a longtime acquaintance of Pelini, believes the Tigers' new defensive coordinator will take pressure and stress off of Orgeron. For one, Pelini is more of a disciplinarian than his predecessor. He also specializes in the defensive backfield and linebackers, leaving the defensive line for the expert himself, Orgeron. “The sky's the limit for Bo,” Woodward says of Pelini’s future, “but I think he’s content right now at being the head defensive coach in Baton Rouge. He has a great record and memories here.”
Indeed, this is a special place for the Pelinis. After all, to this day, the program continues a tradition Pelini started in 2005. Once a week during the football season, the coaching staff dines on Gino’s takeout. After Pelini left for Nebraska following the 2007 season, the ritual took a brief hiatus before then-coach Les Miles, superstitious as ever, phoned Gino himself to re-establish the tradition. The Tigers needed the red sauce.
“We didn’t have the spaghetti last week!” Gino remembers Miles yelling over the phone. “We almost got our ass beat!”
The interview is winding down, finally. Pelini stares across his desk with that patented glare, the sun further dipping below his right shoulder and that crawfish boil across the street awaiting his entrance (they can wait). Talk of what he calls his unfair perception is over, replaced by a lighter topic: his basketball skills.
For years, Pelini led pickup games with staff members wherever he coached. These games got intense. That fiery Bo Pelini from the sideline appeared on the court. Those days are done. A back injury a few years ago sidelined him for good. He refuses to play, even though he acknowledges that he still could in a limited role. But that’s not Bo Pelini. He doesn’t present a limited version of himself—in coaching, in basketball and in life. Perception or not, you get the full Bo Pelini or you get nothing at all. “That,” Ganz says, “is just the way he’s wired.”