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Football 101 was its usual chart-buster last month, giving more than 900 predominantly women Nebraska football fans the opportunity to learn the basics of the game. They got to throw and kick the ball around the Hawks Championship Center and run through Memorial Stadium’s tunnel behind Bo Pelini. It was fun, and it was highly successful.
But Coach Pelini also had some advanced coursework in mind for another group of Big Red faithful.
Last Friday, he taught Football 202, the first-ever clinic to get truly inside Nebraska football – a chance for Joe and Jane Fan to sit down with the head coach and his staff for an entire day.
Nine days ahead of Bo’s first fall camp as Nebraska’s head football coach, he engaged and enlightened 134 participants who paid $249 apiece with an in-depth look at how Nebraska’s new staff thinks and develops schemes. The group gained a whole new appreciation for the preparation required of coaches and players in the Big 12 Conference.
The 134 participants represented 12 states – from Arizona, California and Oregon in the West to Florida and Virginia in the East. Fittingly, the highest percentage of participants represent an interesting slice of Middle America, from as far north as South Dakota to as far South as Texas. Most were the usual suspects from Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and, of course, Nebraska.
Nebraskans were there in full force, and all of them we talked to finished their “once in a lifetime” day with the same, basic conclusion – Bo Pelini is in coaching for all the right reasons.
As pumped as they were about their new baseline of football knowledge, they were even more pumped about getting to know Bo and all about him.
After nine hours of philosophy, insight and instruction, they were amazed to see how much their new head football coach mirrored the vision and values of Tom Osborne, their first-year athletic director.
After Football 202, He’s Ready for Football 303
“If I could imagine a perfect day for myself, it would be like the one I just spent inside Memorial Stadium and the Nebraska football offices,” said Terry Dolan, who has watched the women enjoy Football 101 for years. “I couldn’t wait for something like 202. Now I’m ready for 303.
“How often does an average fan like me get a chance to spend a day and see what’s inside a coach’s head?” asked Dolan. “You learn how Bo thinks, schemes and studies. And you appreciate his philosophy. He demands excellence and effort and holds everyone accountable.”
Arriving at Memorial Stadium before 7 a.m. and leaving shortly after 7 p.m., Dolan got “the full-meal deal” of Pelini’s priorities.
“Bo wants his athletes to prepare themselves socially, academically and then athletically,” Dolan said. “Just like Coach Osborne, Bo made a point to say that without trust, you don’t have anything. His top priority is to build trust among players, parents and coaches.”
In his first session of the day, Pelini was emphatic about the importance of trust. "If the players think you're in it for you, and not for them, you're going to lose them,” he said. “You have to love them up, but at the same time, you can't compromise what you're going to ask them to do the next four or five years. It's a fine line."
It’s a fine line that deserves a realistic timeline. “Bo’s not promising immediate victories,” Dolan pointed out. “He’s promising that we will do things the right way, and he’s reaching out to every corner of this state. I like the way he’s inviting everyone back in to the program they’ve supported so loyally for decades.”
Bottom line, Dolan said, “We might lose several games this year, but if we do, it won’t be from lack of effort.”
Dustin Young, a co-worker and friend of Dolan’s, said attending Football 202 was the chance of a lifetime.
“You could feel the confidence of the players and the coaches. It was unreal. It felt like ’97 again. You could see it in the way everyone carried himself,” Young said. “We got here before 7 – 90 minutes before registration – just so we could see the weight room, and the first thing we saw was Bo stretching outside and getting ready to run.”
Dolan and Young decided right then and there that the speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack, and what they saw and heard all day Friday only reinforced that early-morning impression.
Ex-players, Current Players and Coaches All Contribute
Butkus Award winner Trev Alberts helped 202 participants understand the inexact science of recruiting. Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch explained the signals for a “hot read.”
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and his staff took groups through different phases of play installation.
“It was a fun day,” Watson said. “What we wanted to do was show them what we had to do to prepare and how prepared we have to be as teachers and how much we put into our planning so that we make sure we always put our players in the best position possible. We took a simple thing in a compressed time frame to give them a taste of what our kids go through. It wasn’t even close to the scope of what those kids have to do. But we got after them. We wanted them to have the full 202 experience.”
In his presentation, offensive line coach Barney Cotton said, “We talked to people in there just like we do our players. It’s the exact presentation we give our players in an overview setting, and then we broke it up into small groups and had some people take a position.”
Men and women went with their position coaches, and then coaches detailed what Watson had explained in the big meeting. “They got a flavor of exactly what we do with our players,” Cotton said. “They got to see the first installs of what we’ll probably do with our players next week. They kept saying, ‘Boy, when I played it wasn’t anything like this.’ You try to explain to them the teaching progression which allows you to get people up to speed as quickly as possible. So I imagine there was some respect garnered for what players have to do to learn and get on the field.”
Four current players – Marlon Lucky and Niles Paul from the offense and Cody Glenn and Barry Turner from the defense – joined the group for the Tunnel Walk and an interesting Q&A session at day’s end.
“I was impressed when Bo talked about kids making mistakes,” Young said. “When that happens, Coach Pelini’s first thoughts are: ‘I want to teach him not to make that mistake again.’ It’s obvious to me that Bo’s in coaching for all the right reasons. He’s not in it for the wins and the money. He’s in it to teach kids and help them become young men.”
Ironically, Pelini learned some of his most important lessons about money and teaching in the NFL when he was a scouting coordinator and assistant secondary coach for the San Francisco 49ers. After winning the Super Bowl, two 49er assistants got head coaching jobs – Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos and Ray Rhodes with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Pelini Cared More About Learning Than the Money
Shanahan and Rhodes each offered Pelini twice the salary he was making, but he chose to heed Shanahan’s advice and stay with 49er Head Coach George Seifert so he could learn from defensive coordinator Pete Carroll. “The best move I made in my coaching career,” Pelini told Football 202 participants, “was the job I didn’t take.”
Pelini also learned how to relate to athletes on an even keel in the NFL.
“There’s never been a young man walk on the football field who’s wanted to make a mistake,” Pelini said, acknowledging that it’s the coach’s job to figure out what they were thinking and why they made the mistake.
“We’ve all seen it a million times – a corner or safety gets beat deep, and you know you’re going to be on ESPN,” Pelini said. “Everybody in the country sees it, and that kid is emotionally drained. I’ve seen a coach out on the hash, and he’s chewing him out. Now is that for the kid or is that for the coach?”
Pelini coaches college players the same way he coached NFL players – with total respect.
“I had a kid (Jessie Daniels) who got beat in great coverage on a wheel route against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl two years ago,” he recalled, remembering a letter he received for his support of Daniels coming off the field.
“He was in great position,” Pelini said. “The kid from Notre Dame made a phenomenal catch. Jessie was a senior. It was his last game at LSU. He came off the field and needed to understand he didn’t do anything wrong. He went on and played a great game (in a 41-14 LSU win).”
As long as Pelini is the head coach at Nebraska, you won’t see assistant coaches running down the sideline pointing an accusatory finger. You will see coaches pulling players aside and teaching them what to do next time.
It’s On the Coaches to Make Football Easier for Players
“It’s all on us as coaches,” Pelini said. "We want to teach them not only what to do, but more importantly, why. If you play 70 plays in a game, you have an enormous amount of decisions to make. Our job is to give them enough knowledge and teach them to make the right decision more often than not. To do that, you have to explain to them why they’re doing something."
Pelini admitted that he’s often been called “the mad doctor” because he’s always trying to come up with something new. “But if I take one of my ideas and a player can't execute it, it’s not in – it’s out,” he said. “At the end of the day, our job is to make sure there is no indecision out there."
In a given week of practice, Pelini said it’s impossible to show your players everything they’re going to see in a game. “There is no way. There’s not enough time. You couldn’t orchestrate it,” he said. “So when I design a work week for the players, I design cards for what plays to run against what defenses. If you play a number of different defenses the way we do, you’d do a great job of coaching that week if you show your team half of the plays they’re going to see. The best thing is having the ability to go back to a concept. That’s why we try to keep it simple.”
Football, like life in general, is frittered away by detail. That’s why Bo Pelini thinks like Henry David Thoreau, who said it’s always best to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
That was another theme of Football 202, and Dustin Young said the approach has helped him crystallize his own thinking as a fan. Seeing the grind that it takes to make the complicated simple and the perspective that coaches have to help players learn and grow should rub off on fans.
“There’s a good lesson in there for all of us who experienced 202,” Young said. “We need to have the same perspective about 18, 19 and 20-year-old kids that coaches have. Like Bo pointed out, there’s never been a young man who makes a mistake deliberately. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. There are 85,000 people in the stadium every Saturday – and lot more watching on TV and listening on radio – who expect these kids to be gods the minute they step on the field.”
Well, guess what? They’re not gods. “They’re kids, who are trying to get better everyday – just like the rest of us,” Young said. “They’re trying to become better football players and trying to become better men, and Bo and his entire staff certainly have them going in the right direction.”
‘These Kids Will Play Their Hearts Out for Their Coaches’
Dolan, his buddy and co-worker, came to a conclusion. “You don’t have to worry about these kids playing their hearts out for their coaches,” he said. “They will. That’s what Nebraska’s always been about, and this is what Nebraska will be again. What else do you expect when Tom Osborne’s the AD and Bo Pelini’s the head football coach?”
Elkhorn’s Kevin Beam, who brought his dad, Larry, to Football 202 as a Father’s Day present, said he thought the experience was “awesome.” His dad, a retired software engineer, went one better.
“After spending the day here, it’s beyond anything I could have expected,” he said. “Pelini’s down to earth, and I support him 200 percent. He knows his stuff. He’s dedicated.”
In Pelini, Beam sees the “fire and vim” that reminds him of Bob Devaney and the “smart, organized” approach that reminds him of Tom Osborne.
“I’m a longtime Husker fan, and I had real problems when we made the change from Frank Solich,” Beam said. “I withdrew from the whole situation. When (Nebraska Chancellor) Harvey Perlman came to the front and said: ‘Okay, we’re going to make a change,’ I came back on board the minute he named Coach Osborne AD. I think Pelini’s the real deal and Osborne’s the real deal. I support this whole thing to the hilt. I thought today was great stuff, real stuff, very meaningful and it just lights the fire for the support for these guys that I now want to give to the program.”
Bruce Bailey and Marsha Stork, who own Lincoln’s indoor football arena, were similarly moved by the 202 experience.
Stork enjoyed 101, but wanted more.
“Then sign up for 202,” Bailey challenged.
“I will if you go with me,” she said.
Football 202 Proved a Catalyst for Husker Fund-Raising
So they came together and used the experience to reinforce something they’d already been thinking about. Seeing how well Pelini aligns philosophically with Osborne more than helped the cause.
“Marsha and I don’t have children, but we like to help young people every way we can,” Bailey said. “We’ve decided to donate to the new academic center (Student Life Complex) because we believe in what Tom Osborne is doing. After today, we can say we also believe in what Bo Pelini is doing.”
Margie Hoffmaster and Janet Darst, both from Omaha, have been attending Husker games since they attended Nebraska in the early 1970s. They’re 101 graduates who wanted to see if they could absorb 202.
“It was really fun to get to work with the coaches and have them teach us the same way they teach the team,” Hoffmaster said. “We could actually see on the screen where we were supposed to go on offense, where we were going to slide over to and where the holes were going to be. It was great. You got it. You felt like you knew what you were supposed to do and where you were supposed to be.”
Darst’s husband long ago bought her prestige license plates that say HUSKRS. “I bleed Husker red, and I can’t even describe how much 202 psyched me up for this season,” she said.
“Not that I understood every single thing that went on in there about the offense and the defense. It psyched me up because of the coaches’ enthusiasm for the game, for the kids, for the university, for the state. It just made me feel good to be here.
“I don’t think Bo Pelini could be in coaching for any better reasons than he showed us today. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to get the best out of these kids and teach them lessons that are lessons for life.”
Darst was so enthused about her memorable day, she said, “Actually, I want to go home and write a check (to the Athletic Department). After today, I think I’m ready to do that.”
Respond to Randy
"I really enjoyed your article on Bo Pelini and Football 202. He is really a teacher first. I've been a Big Red fan since Bobby Reynolds was an All American. When I was a principal in Nebraska City in the early 1970's I would play the Nebraska Fight Song over the inter-com to signal the passing of one class to the other instead of ringing a bell. I'm glad Nebraska is on the right track and looking forward to watching as many games as I can." - Doug Dickerson