Pelini Shares His Thoughts about Philosophy and Change
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It's the day before Nebraska's annual Red-White Spring Game, and after a long fall, a grueling winter and an inspiring spring that brought major change, renewed spirit and greater chemistry to his team, Nebraska Head Football Coach Bo Pelini shared a little bit about a lot of things with the N-Sider. Please join our conversation:
Q: To a man, your players love to play for you. Can you explain the key elements of your coaching style and why everyone seems to buy in to what you're selling?
A: Part of my philosophy is, I think, you gotta be black-and-white all the time. You gotta be honest. You gotta be the same all the time. I hear people say that some guys are players' coaches, but at the end of the day, your kids have to believe in and trust in you having their best interests at heart - on the field and off the field - in everything you do. Being a players' coach doesn't mean telling a player what he wants to hear all the time. You have to be honest with them, hard on them, push them and try to get the best out of them in a lot of different ways, but at the same time, players have to understand that what you are asking them to do is in their own best interests. When you do that, you walk a fine line, and as a coach, you have to understand that fine line. Your players have to believe you have a good heart. You can't keep asking them to do things that are to your best benefit. It has to be to their best benefit, too. They have to know that you're there to discipline them, and if you're hard on them, you also have to know when to put your arm around them.
Q: Where did you develop that style of being brutally honest and showing your players the tough love you think they need to have?
A: Part of it comes from your own background growing up. That plays a part in your philosophy. So does having coached in the NFL. That's a get-it-done or get-out league, and at the time, I was young and I was coaching guys who were a lot older than I was or there wasn't much difference in age. You develop a player-coach relationship with them, but at the same time, you can still have a relationship outside of football, but once again, there's always that fine line in how you do that. So much of it was how I was coached growing up and how I was raised. The situation I wanted in my coaching career was to figure out how you get the most out of the guys playing for you. I always felt that X's and O's only go so far. It's more about building relationships and developing trust. That plays a huge part in everyone's development, and that's why you try to push their buttons and get them to persevere and perform beyond their perceived limitations.
Q: Don't you feel that right now the trust between the coaches and the players is at an all-time high in your four years here? Is there a renewed vigor this spring?
A: I think that happens over time. You're looking now at 90 to 95 percent of this team being guys you've recruited. I've gone into their homes, and I haven't made any promises to anybody. All I've told them is we will give them an opportunity, and it's up to them what they do with that opportunity. I've always felt it's important to set the stage for that right up front, so they know what kind of coach and what kind of system they're getting themselves into. There are no surprises. When that happens, you're all on the same page from the start. They're not coming in here with any false sense of reality about what they're being asked to do on a daily and weekly basis. I think that helps and once again, it's about being honest from the start and building on that trust when they're here. At least you have a little bit of base because you've recruited them, you've been in their home and everyone is on the same page. As time goes on, those kids, slowly but surely become the leaders of your football team.
Q: One of your major accomplishments that rarely gets discussed publicly is your ability to come here and quickly minimize the off-the-field issues. Part of what you just described has allowed you to do that, but can you dig even deeper to explain why the results have been so positive?
A: Well, first of all, I showed early on that I'm not afraid to release kids from the football team. They know this is a program where there's not a lot of tolerance that allows exceptions for any one guy. At the end of the day, you're going to do it our way in every area of your life or we're going to show you where the door is. I'm not trying to be a bad guy. That's just the way it is. It's an honor and a privilege to be a part of this program, and with that comes the responsibility to represent yourself, your family and the program in a positive way. When you take good players, and they do not represent the football team the way we all agreed, you have to let them go, even if they're on your two-deep because it's in the long-term interest of your football team. When something happens, the other players understand that these are the standards we live by and this is what we're being asked to do. If you're not going to do it, you're not going to be part of the program. Our players understand that, and it becomes a culture where the off-the-field issues are dealt with by the players every bit as much as the coaches. We deal with our own issues, and you don't see many guys around here that are multiple offenders. I don't know if we've had a guy make a bad decision or the same mistake twice because they all know the standards. Slowly but surely, that becomes the culture and the expectations in the locker room. It gets to a point where you don't have to police them because they police themselves. That's when you get really strong.
Q: You're not a would-a, could-a, should-a guy. Still, over the last two seasons, your teams have literally come within a whisker of back-to-back Big 12 championships. How do you use the disappointment of those two extraordinary efforts to keep everyone as motivated as they are now?
A: I look at losses as learning experiences. There are reasons why you lose. At the end of the day, we didn't win those Big 12 championships because we failed. It's on us. It wasn't anything Texas did or Oklahoma did. I don't want to take anything away from them because those were two good football teams. We had our opportunities, and it's real black-and-white as to why we didn't finish those games. We needed to make changes, and we weren't able to finish. Going to that next level is all about pushing and finishing. When you look at it in a very black-and-white manner as to why it didn't happen, you don't point the finger, you point the thumb. Everything was on me and on us. We weren't where we needed to be to get better.
Q: What do you think about your next big challenge - going into a conference that you once played in? How excited are you about coaching in the Big Ten?
A: Honestly, I grew up watching Big Ten football. I played in the conference (at Ohio State), so I have a lot of respect for the conference as a whole - the football teams and the coaches. You have to look at how far you can take your team game-by-game. We're going to play 12 games, and I just look at is as though we're going to play a different 12 now. I hope we end up playing 14 with a conference championship game and a bowl game. That's our goal. It's going to take us a little more time to get familiar with the opponents. That'll continue right up to August. If we do our work right in the off-season, we'll be just fine because we're going to hit the ground running.
Q: Your willingness to change seems to be a byproduct of your resurgent spirit. I don't want to dwell on that Holiday Bowl loss to Washington, but how difficult was that experience and how did you find the resolve to re-channel the disappointment of that defeat to come back stronger than ever mentally and psychologically?
A: You do what you have to do. When you get hit in the mouth, you have to stand up and fight, and we are. I think there were a lot of reasons why we weren't at our best, but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is we got beat. We didn't perform like we could have and should have. The issues were some of the same ones why we didn't win the Big 12 titles. We needed to progress, and that's why I felt like we needed to make some changes. Now that we've made those changes, I think we'll be stronger in the long run.
Q: Is your role changing this year? You seem to be involved in a lot more offensive team meetings. Give us an update on how you think the changes are going and how much more you might be involved in building a new foundation on the other side of the ball.
A: You know what? I'm trying to spend my time about 50-50 on both sides of the ball. I think I've done that throughout the spring. I had to do the same things with the offense that I do with the defense. I try to give my opinion. Very seldom do I ever say, "I want it done exactly like this." I start discussions, and I help facilitate discussions. I'm always looking for better ways to do things, so I'm providing opinions and using my philosophy to get people talking and thinking outside the box on both sides. That's just my nature and how I go about things. Now that I'm spending more time on both sides of the football, I think it's working out well.
Q: There's new blood on the coaching staff. The coaches, the players and the support staff all seem to agree that new relationships are building and chemistry is developing. Is that an accurate description?
A: I think so. I hired guys that I am very familiar with and have a lot of respect for, both personally and professionally. I think all of us have been on the same page right from the start. Even though these guys (receiver coach Rich Fisher and offensive line/tight end coach John Garrison on offense and secondary coach Corey Raymond and linebacker coach Ross Els on defense) are all new, they're all guys I know and am very comfortable with. I knew what I was looking for when I was hiring, and I knew what I was getting when they accepted their offers. I had certain things in mind, and it worked out exactly the way I wanted. I spent a lot of time thinking about everything, so it doesn't surprise me that our players really like these guys.
Q: With the infusion of these new coaches on this team, what do you like most about them as a group?
A: They're all good coaches, obviously, but they're also good people. When you bring a lot of good people together and you mesh real well and there's not any egos in the room, everybody gets along and everybody's willing to learn and listen to each other without butting heads. That's a great thing to have at the end of the day. I think our players feel that, and that's why there's a sense of cohesion throughout the team.
Q: When you prepare to make pivotal decisions, do you consult with your athletic director? Do you draw on the experiences he had sitting in the same chair you're sitting in now?
A: Coach (Tom) Osborne knew a little bit about the structure I was putting together, but you'd be surprised how much I run by him. I ask for his opinion on a lot of different things, and it's very helpful having him around. I'd be crazy not to talk with him. He's been through it. I can't tell how helpful it is to have someone with his background to run things by. He does a great job of giving his opinion but understands that I have to do it my way. He's receptive to it and does a great job of helping without interfering. The way he follows up on things is so thorough, and it saves a lot of discussion, too.
Q: Coach Osborne is big on total-person development, and you believe in it as well. You've said more than once if you can't trust a player academically, it's hard to trust him athletically. What's behind that approach and why is it so important to you as a head football coach?
A: Well, I just believe that's the truth. When I was hired, my job is to prepare these kids for the next step of their life, not just football games. If you really want to have success and I've been around a lot of great players, great coaches and great people, and my experience has been if you want to have success, you gotta be willing to compete. Nothing in this world is going to be given to you. I look at it that you either have to learn that now or learn it the hard way later on and by that time, it may be over. If I've done my job right, when people leave this program, they understand the commitment it takes to have great success in whatever field they choose. What I ask our guys to do, and what the team asks itself to do is work hard and compete every day because if they do that, they're going to have the foundation to succeed in whatever they choose to do after they leave this place.
Q: You've been around great coaches. Bob Stoops just came to Lincoln to speak at your coaching clinic. How has he influenced your approach and how much easier will it be to share more now that two of you are in different leagues?
A: I've worked with Bob Stoops (at Oklahoma as co-defensive coordinator). We grew up in the same place (Youngstown, Ohio). We played for the same high school (Cardinal Mooney). He played with all my brothers, and we all have similar backgrounds, so we look at things in a similar fashion. Let's face it. He's a lot more experienced in this position as a head coach than I am. I've watched him coach over the years, and I've learned a lot from him. We've shared a lot of things, and I feel real comfortable picking up the phone and calling him with any question or concern I might have. I truly know that whenever I call him, he will have my best interests at heart and give me an honest opinion. He's a great coach, and he's a great person.
Q: You coached in the NFL with Pete Carroll. What all have you gleaned from him?
A: My relationship with Pete Carroll is very similar to the one I have with Bob Stoops. I worked for Pete for a number of years, and we're close friends. Because we share similar philosophies and are friends, he's willing to share time, so I've learned a lot from him. At the end of the day, you take bits and pieces from all of the great coaches you know and trust. I look at my experience with George Seifert, Ray Rhodes and Mike Shanahan in the NFL and with Frank Solich in the college ranks. I've taken something from all of those guys. You have to do it within your own framework and your own philosophy, but hopefully you learn each and every day from all the people you're around because let's face it, none of us have all the answers. You gotta check your ego at the door when you walk in or I wouldn't get the staff I have now. Each one of them has strengths and has had different experiences. You hope to be able to use all of their strengths and not be so set in your ways that you're not willing to look at what they bring to the table. If you do that, you're only going to get better.
Q: What's the greatest coaching lesson you've ever learned?
A: Somebody once told me something years ago when I was in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, and we were getting ready to play in the Super Bowl. I'm not going to say who said this to me, but we were sitting there one night and he said; "You're a young coach. Just remember this: 'Whenever you start thinking it's about you, then it's time to re-evaluate. You always have to remember it's about your players, not you. It's real easy to get caught up in things and make decisions based on you, but you always have to think about what's in the best interests of the guys playing for you. In this world, you can't make decisions based on fans, the media or anything else. You have to make decisions about your football team and your kids. If you always keep that in mind, I believe it's going to keep you grounded and keep you headed in the right direction where you'll make the right decisions for the right reasons.
Q: You let the players draft the teams for Saturday's Spring Game. More than anything, what do you want to see in this glorified scrimmage?
A: We're going to be really basic. I want our kids to go out and play with fundamentals and technique. I just want all of them to play hard and have some fun.
Q: What have you accomplished this spring that you feel the best about?
A: I feel good about our progress in a lot of areas. We've installed a lot offensively and come a long ways with a new system on that side of the ball. Defensively, we've experimented and evolved. We've seen some things we like and some things we don't like, and that's going to make us better in the long run. Fundamentally and technique-wise, we are not where we want to be, but I think we've taken some big strides.
Q: You're big on chemistry and big on trust. Are you feeling both right now?
A: I think so. I think our team, our players and our coaches are in a good place right now. Everyone is working hard. They've been asked to work hard. I like to think we're able to walk in and out of our facility with a smile on our face every day, and I think that's the case. We're almost done with spring practice, and then we'll go into that next state. We'll finish up finals, give them some time off and then this summer, it will be a whole new group of freshmen coming in. We'll infuse them into our culture. That's going to be first and foremost the job for the guys who have been around here for awhile.
Q: You're a husband, a father and a head football coach. I know you believe in balance because you take your kids to school. It's been a long, grueling year. Are you planning a getaway vacation any time soon?
A: I'm probably going to take a little time off after spring practice. I normally don't this time of year. Our family usually gets away during spring break, but we didn't this year because of the way spring practice was set up. My kids are in school, so around Easter we're going to get away for a little bit. After camps, we take some time in the summer, too. I haven't really taken much time off here, so I'm looking forward to getting some in the upcoming weeks. We like to get away and go to the beach. I like hanging out at home with the kids, too. I'm not a guy that goes a lot of places. I just like spending time with the family. I like to play a little golf, and it's about that time of year to get out on the course. Other than that, my kids are involved in activities, and my wife and I enjoy going to those activities, spending time with other families doing the same thing and just being regular parents. We all like to be there for our kids, so when we have some time, we don't do much. We just kick back, relax, enjoy what we're doing and are happy just to be able to be together.
Voices from Husker Nation
I wish every fan in America that thinks they know you would read this column and see why you have such fire. You remind me of Bob Devaney, who was respected by every player that was privileged enough to play for him. Don't ever change, Bo. The championships will come. Don Larson, Omaha, Nebraska
I took the time to read the info linked to Stoops, Carroll, Seifert, Rhodes and Shanahan. I must say you've pulled and culled from some great ones, and I was happy to see that you included (Frank) Solich among those providing lessons learned. (Tom) Osborne knew what he was doing when he picked you to resurrect Nebraska football. He knew it would take passion and heart, and I'm glad that you don't mind wearing some of that on the sleeve of your sweatshirt. From where we were to where we are now, we need every bit of it! Tim Anderson, Denver, Colorado
Congratulations on a great season and good luck in the Big Ten. You are a great coach and a fun one to watch. You are also a great role model! Alex Thomson, Sandusky, Ohio
I think it speaks volumes that almost every time anyone interviews (Ndamukong) Suh, he almost always mentions how Bo (Pelini) and Carl (Pelini) lit the fire that led to his amazing senior season. Anyone can recruit great talent, but it takes great teachers to coach and to motivate great talent. Susan Sanders, Lee's Summit, Missouri
Bo, you have restored the Nebraska definition for the word commitment. Somehow, that word flew out the window when we started counting stars instead of character points in recruiting classes. For Devaney and Osborne-coached teams, dedicated, over-achieving walk-ons could set the tone for practice and influence game-day commitment from the most gifted of players. You've helped us re-embrace those roots, and this column explains why with every answer to every question. Thanks for taking the time to share your philosophy and explain why you do what you do. John Stover, Scottsdale, Arizona
Thank you for providing us "Husker Fans" with interviews from the coaches, etc.... Bo, I have the greatest respect for you as a coach and as a person. We are so thrilled that you were chosen by Dr. Tom to be our head coach. Your heart and soul for the young men on your team is evident, and your head is in the right direction too. Thank you for your hard work, dedication and commitment to coaching at Nebraska. Yes, coaching is teaching, and we all need great "teacher" role models like you. I wish you the best this season. Thank you for building the character of these young men and for being a great leader for them and your staff. We look forward to seeing you at some of the away games and on TV. Our best for the 2011 football season! Ginny May in Santa Fe (New Mexico)