Nebraska Defensive Coordinator John Papuchis assumed most of Bo Pelini's roles Saturday.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Brown: Saturday’s ‘Firepower’ Honored Bo

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown and a couple dozen Husker players huddled at midfield Saturday immediately after Nebraska defeated Arkansas State, 42-13, before a national television audience. As always, Brown led the participation prayer, giving thanks for the opportunity to compete, but Saturday’s praise also included a prayer that kept Brown and players on their knees a little longer. They also prayed for their head coach, who was taken by ambulance to a Lincoln hospital at halftime and would not be in the locker room when they showered, dressed and met the media.

Before the game ended, Husker coaches, players and staff had heard that Bo Pelini was “okay” and might even return to work at Memorial Stadium on Sunday. “We prayed for Bo’s recovery, and we prayed that the experience he was going through would give him an even deeper understanding of how much God loves him,” Brown said, adding that Pelini’s players and coaches certainly “love” their fifth-year head coach.

Pelini spent a difficult week, leading the charge to resurrect a team that had struggled in a 36-30 loss at UCLA. Pelini faced other difficult hurdles, but to his credit, he dealt with every aspect of adversity with his characteristic candor, resolve and focus. He refused to let anything interfere with a turbo-charged week of practice that was accurately reflected in Saturday’s overall team performance.

Performance Exemplified the Team’s Character

“For our football team to play with the firepower we showed in the second half without Bo honored him and exemplified the character we have on this team,” Brown said. "I didn't know everything that was going on, but I know that Bo would have been proud of our spirit, our tenacity, our determination and the way we all rallied in his absence."

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis and offensive coordinator Tim Beck could not have agreed more with that assessment. Both pinch-hit for Bo in the postgame analysis after NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne updated the media about why Pelini was rushed to a hospital for precautionary tests.

Papuchis suspected something was wrong with his head coach early in the second quarter when he wasn’t as vocal as he usually is on the sideline. ESPN, in fact, showed clips of former Husker Scott Strasburger, one of the team’s orthopedic surgeons, taking Bo’s pulse. When Pelini did not return for the second half, Papuchis assumed the role of on-the-field head coach. He made the decisions about penalties and shared other aspects of game management with Beck, who spends  most of his game day in the press box.

“I don’t know that either one of us took over as head coach,” Papuchis said. “Bo’s obviously the head coach.”

Coordinators Fill In for Close Friend, Head Man

Papuchis and Beck immediately bonded as co-crisis management partners. Without a plan in place, they improvised and succeeded. Because Bo is “as close to me as anybody”, Papuchis realized he had to compose himself and become a business colleague more than a close friend. Players, in turn, responded in a business-like mode. “They love Bo,” Papuchis said. “There is no question in our locker room who the leader of this football team is … more than anything, Bo would want them to go and play their tails off in the second half, and I think that became the focus of the football team.

“Bo is the emotional leader of this football team,” Papuchis added. “The players feed off of his energy and his determination. I do believe that leaders reflect the leadership of their coaches. When you’re excited and confident, they’re excited and confident. That was the time to show that, and I thought our guys responded well.”

According to Papuchis, “There were many life lessons that I think our guys can take from this,” he said. ”It’s been a very trying and emotional week. I’m glad to see the way our team fought today.”

Papuchis: Pelini ‘One of Toughest People I Know’

Speaking of fighters, Bo Pelini “is one of the toughest people I know,” Papuchis said, “so if he’s able to come back by tomorrow, he’ll be back tomorrow. If it’s Monday, it’s Monday, but there’s not much quitting in Bo.”

Like Papuchis, Beck addressed the team in the postgame locker room, expressing his appreciation for the way the Huskers responded to the challenge. “I’ve known Bo my whole life,” an emotional Beck said, praising the players for handling the situation “really well”  while admitting that he probably didn’t handle it as well as he should have. Because football is such an emotional game, Beck found it difficult hearing how Pelini needed to leave the stadium on top of everything else that had happened over the past week.

“Bo’s a fighter,” Beck said. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up watching film tonight.”

Equally unsurprising was Bo’s communication to the media and Husker fans. It was quick and to the point. Pelini said he was “fine” and told everyone how proud he was of his coaching staff and the team in his absence.

Husker Nation Wishes Pelini a Speedy Recovery

The communique was a nice touch, a vote of confidence for everyone and a poignant reminder for all of us. As tough as Bo Pelini is every day, Saturday marked that rare time when even he was forced to hit the pause button at the very peak of one of the planet's fast-moving professions. And when something like that happens, we all tend to hit our own pause buttons, so we can keep football in proper perspective with life. Speaking for countless Big Red fans, we join Nebraska coaches, players and the entire Husker football staff in wishing Pelini a speedy recovery and a healthy return to his customary place on the sideline and in the lockerroom.

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