By David Ford
Throughout his coaching career, Bo Pelini has coached several elite football programs, at both the collegiate and professional level, including here at Youngstown State University.
During his professional career, Pelini won Super Bowl XXIX as part of the San Francisco 49ers staff, where he served as the team’s defensive backs coach. From 1997 until 1999, Pelini served as the New England Patriots linebackers coach. He would fill the same role from 2000 to 2002 with the Green Bay Packers.
Before accepting the head coaching opportunity at the University of Nebraska in 2008, Pelini helped guide the Louisiana State University Tigers to the 2007 National Championship over the Ohio State Buckeyes, his alma mater. His record as an assistant speaks for itself.
Pelini, however, never thrived as a head coach.
For several decades, the Nebraska Cornhuskers solidified themselves as a college football powerhouse. Through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the Cornhuskers claimed five national championships and 17 conference championships.
In addition, the school produced three Heisman Trophy Winners throughout its history (Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch). Due to the school’s popularity, Crouch graced the cover of the video game “NCAA College Football 2K3.” Despite the individual recognition, Nebraska built a team-oriented dynasty.
When Pelini took the Nebraska job in 2008, the dynasty was a distant memory. Pelini had his work cut out.
During his tenure at Nebraska (2008-2014), the team won 67 games; the Cornhuskers never failed to reach nine wins in a season. He even became a pop culture icon at the school.
While at Nebraska, social media took notice of Pelini’s popularity. In 2014, “Faux Pelini,” the Twitter account that parodied the coach, contributed to the inception of the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy, the prize between the winner of Nebraska and Minnesota (the extended story is quite funny).
Each school disavowed the trophy in 2016, but it was announced last season a new trophy would be constructed and given to the winner of each going forward. The trophy now stands as the focal point for charitable, fundraising efforts for each school.
While the Nebraska-Minnesota rivalry took a unique turn thanks to his parody account, Pelini himself never really participated in it.
Pelini failed to win a conference championship, and every season the Cornhuskers achieved either a 9-3, 9-4 or 10-4 record. While his season-by-season record proved serviceable, it was far removed from the school’s expectations. In 2014, Pelini was fired. He hadn’t won the games that mattered.
Since his dismissal from the school, Nebraska went from Big 10 Conference title competitor to one of college football’s most inefficient programs.
Mike Riley (2015-2017) flopped as Cornhuskers head coach; Scott Frost is left to deal with the mess. Without Pelini, Nebraska has a school-record nine straight losses, with their last victory coming against Purdue University on Oct. 28, 2017.
Nebraska football is just 19-25 since Pelini was fired. In the end, Pelini got the last laugh, right?
In December 2015, Pelini announced his return to Youngstown as the Penguins next head football coach. The move reignited the Penguin fans, which had only seen one playoff appearance since current university president Jim Tressel left after the 2000 season.
Both coaches Jon Heacock (2001-2009) and Eric Wolford (2010-2014) never developed the talent, nor won when it mattered.
In 2012, under coach Wolford, the Penguins entered the heart of their conference schedule undefeated, ranked third in the FCS. They lost all four games in October; the Penguins failed to qualify for the postseason.
Much like Nebraska, the Penguins have a rich tradition of championship football at the FCS level. The team won national titles (’91, ’93, ’94, ’97) and have made the playoffs 12 times before Pelini arrived. Much like Nebraska again, the Penguins put a ton of pressure on Pelini to return the team to its championship days. Pelini hasn’t delivered.
During the 2016 season, Pelini’s second at YSU, the team reached the FCS National Championship after a miraculous playoff run; however, their luck fizzled out.
As Pelini began to recruit his own players, the record got worse. Since the championship run, YSU is just 8-8 (2-3 this season). Pelini has recruited tons of talent to the Penguins football program, but the talent continues to be squandered by one-dimensional coaching.
Last week, the Penguins managed to defeat Southern Illinois University, 17-14, despite a lousy offensive performance. The victory put the Penguins at 2-3, but with games against South Dakota State, North Dakota State and the University of Northern Iowa on the schedule, the team isn’t likely to flirt with a playoff appearance, let alone a winning record.
When Pelini took the position, it showed his willingness to coach his hometown team, despite the salary decrease. Pelini wanted the position; the university wanted Pelini. Now, it’s time for YSU to move on.
In a 2015 article published in The Vindicator, Pelini signed a four year, $213,894 per year contract; the contract will expire on Feb.28, 2019, as the article states. In his last season at Nebraska, Pelini earned nearly $3.1 million.
Since his contract doesn’t reach next season, it’s probably best if YSU simply lets it expire. Even if both sides expressed interest in an extension, the school likely can’t meet salary demands. The 2018 season should be his last with the Penguins.
Despite an underwhelming 2017, the 2018 season began with high expectations; however, the 23-21 loss to Butler University on opening day set the team back. YSU entered the Butler game as a 37-point favorite; the season hasn’t improved since. The season only looks to get worse from today until Nov. 17.
In the end, the Pelini hire proved smart by both him and the athletic department. Nobody will question why the Penguins chose him as their head coach. It just hasn’t worked out.