Perhaps you’ve heard Bo Pelini described as a man’s man – a head coach who’s filled with so much passion that his mind is always focused on “the process”. Well, sometimes, like every 123 years, something happens that is so mind-boggling even a passion-driven head football coach has to stop in his tracks and smell the roses before heading to the locker room. That was the case last Saturday after the Huskers completed their first-ever Hail Mary pass that ended a football game. Until someone unearths another Hail Mary in Nebraska’s first six decades of football, we’ll continue to say that Ron Kellogg III’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Westerkamp is a buzzer-beating first in Nebraska’s rich football history.
So what does Bo do when even he can hardly believe what he just saw? Like every Nebraska football fan I know, Pelini looked and listened so he could measure the impact of something so extraordinary you had to be there to see it unfold in full panoramic view. While his players were soaking it all in, Bo tried to comprehend the odds. His mental recorder was a sound of silence because he zeroed in on his players and their on-the-field response. Amazement is a word that comes to mind, but shock dilutes definition, especially when a program that has won five national championships exudes the same kind of jubilation. Bo may view the world in mostly black and white, but after a tough personal week, this was a full-color gift and it was not an illusion.
For Pelini, the fun part was watching the reaction of his players. “If you ever get a chance to watch that (last play), watch Ameer Abdullah and his reaction,” Pelini said at Monday’s weekly press conference. “He dropped his helmet and was almost running in a circle. He didn’t know what to do. From my standpoint, that’s what it’s all about. That kid had given it up for his teammates, and he wasn’t alone. You saw the way those kids reacted. That’s what college sports is all about ... the student-athlete experience.”
Abdullah Embodies Nebraska’s Program, Culture
Pelini says Abdullah embodies the spirit of Nebraska’s program and its culture. “That play Ameer made on fourth down (of the winning drive) was special,” he said. “That’s just a guy willing it to get to that first down marker and shows the type of competitor he is ... that (Hail Mary) throw doesn’t ever happen without that. It was a phenomenal effort ... I wouldn’t trade Ameer for anybody in the country, not only as a player but as a person, as a leader and what he brings. He steps up. He wants to do everything he can to win a football game. He’s a warrior. He really is. I just love the kid.”
Pelini has coached most of his adult life, and he plans to keep coaching. But as he watched his players’ react on the field Saturday, he realized “you only get one opportunity at this thing, and it’s just a great thing to see. From my standpoint, to be honest with you, I walked over and was trying to talk to as many of those Northwestern kids as I could. I understood what they were going through on the other side.”
Pelini knows he was one remarkable completion away from being on the other side of that emotional teeter-totter. He has great respect for Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald, one of the smartest and most respected coaches in college football. Can You Feel It? is a linchpin Husker psych up song, and Saturday’s historic moment was one time when Pelini genuinely felt for the vanquished visitors. “They played their tails off,” Pelini said. “That’s a tough way to lose one.”
Players Will Remember Finish for Rest of Their Lives
On the winners’ flip side, Pelini moves on to the next challenge quickly, even though this experience qualified as a rare exception to his rule because he wants all his players to know that they experienced something that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. “I’ve been around long enough to know that I’ve got to go to the next thing,” Pelini said. “I spent most of Saturday night thinking about what the next step is for this football team to finish out this season the way we want to finish it out. Believe me, I know we are going to have some serious challenges over the next four weeks.”
After Pelini finished his weekly TV show Saturday night, he asked the producers if he could see the game’s dramatic ending. He watched it once and didn’t see it again until he and his staff started their film study. Pelini will wait until the season is over before he looks back on Saturday’s Miracle in Memorial Stadium. By that time, maybe he’ll be driving himself at a 70 MPH speed limit instead of gunning his life at 100 MPH. Don’t, however, think that Pelini didn’t enjoy Saturday night like the rest of us. “Believe me,” he said, “it made my Saturday night a lot more pleasant than it would’ve been.”
Yes, Bo Had a Flashback to a Big 12 Championship
On the Hail Mary, Pelini saw the ball bounce in the air. He saw Westerkamp flash by. He also remembers hearing five scary words a few days after Halloween: “This play is under review.” At that point, Pelini had to switch mental gears and force himself into a mindset at the same time the stadium was roaring and the bedlam had only just begun.
Since he had not seen exactly what had happened, Pelini knew his role – “Let’s wait here a minute,” he told himself. One reporter asked Pelini if he had a flashback to a certain Big 12 Championship Game where referees reversed a last-play decision inside Cowboys Stadium. “I absolutely did, and that’s the honest answer,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. There’s going to be a riot if this thing gets called back.’”
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Voices from Husker Nation
You nailed it! I can’t imagine the pressure that this past week must have brought to Coach Bo – the shocking loss to the Gophers, the continued injuries to his star quarterback who didn’t even get in uniform for the game and all the other distractions he had to deal with. God bless the coach and the team! Ernie Bonistall,Suwanee, Georgia