Thursday, August 30, 2007
Bo Pelini's defense didn't fare well at first, but now many consider the LSU coordinator the best in the country
August 19, 2007
By James Varney
BATON ROUGE -- LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini had barely finished his first game on the sideline in September 2005 before the angry growls erupted in Louisiana's purple-and-gold fever swamps.
Yes, the Tigers had beaten Arizona State 35-31 in a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback, but what does victory profit a team, the faithful bellowed, when it surrenders 560 yards? The questions mounted, and the headlines chronicled a beleaguered coach as he sought to reassure the mob that that LSU staple -- stingy defense -- was not a thing of the past.
The program seemed engulfed in chaos, operating in a city overrun with people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The unease only mounted when, in its next game, LSU blew a substantial lead against Tennessee in a game Katrina sent to Monday night at Tiger Stadium and lost 30-27 in overtime. The Times-Picayune intoned that, "questions remain about Bo Pelini's defense."
Consider the questions answered. Today, the short-lived furor over an allegedly porous LSU defense seems like complaints from some ancient regime. The early season alarm bells were quickly quieted as the Tigers reeled off nine consecutive victories and captured the Southeastern Conference Western Division crown.
By the end of that campaign, Pelini's boys had produced streaks of 16 and 10 quarters without allowing a touchdown and finished ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense. The Sun Devils' offensive fireworks proved an anomaly as the 242.8 yards per game the Tigers gave up was the program's lowest in 29 years.
Pelini, 39, insists the doubters never bothered him.
"We haven't changed much at all since I've been here; anybody who says we've made wholesale changes doesn't know what they're talking about," he said. "We've just done it better. There were a lot of circumstances surrounding that first game both on the field and off the field, and we just didn't play real good. I know the system works. I knew that what we were doing was the right way, and we just stayed with our plan."
Whatever minor tinkering Pelini did with LSU's defensive schemes, however, clearly is paying dividends. In 2006, the unit was even better. Once again the team ranked third nationally in total defense and ranked in the top five in three other defensive categories, leading the SEC in six.
Excitement is running high this year as eight starters return, and now the same fans who wondered if Coach Les Miles made a mistake luring Pelini to Baton Rouge from Oklahoma can be heard murmuring LSU may have the top defensive coordinator in the collegiate game.
On signing day in February when Miles introduced his staff to an appreciative crowd, the noticeably loudest roar came when it was Pelini's turn to take a bow. Despite the turnaround in opinions and the impressive results, Pelini said he feels unfulfilled.
"As a coach and as a competitor last year didn't come close to satisfying me, because I don't see the things we achieved. I see the things we left out there last year, and that will forever bother me," he said. "I've been blessed because I've always been around places with high expectations, and that's great. But the last two years in my mind, they're over. They mean nothing. Yeah, it's great to have established a foundation, but that ain't going to help us win any football games this year. We need to take it to that next level."
'A quality individual'
The high expectations and the granite foundation Pelini credits with his success were first laid in Youngstown, Ohio, a blue-collar town where steel production, church and football are the community's lodestars. A member of a devout Roman Catholic family, Pelini attended Cardinal Mooney High School where he met his future wife, Mary Pat, his senior year while she was sophomore.
"We've been dating ever since," he said.
Like most well-raised Buckeye sons, Pelini pursued his football dreams at Ohio State, where he was a free safety from 1987 to 1990 under coaches Earl Bruce and John Cooper and a co-captain his senior season. His coaching career began at Iowa the year after he graduated and then led to three stints in the NFL with the 49ers, Patriots and Packers. It's the kind of résumé that elicits Miles' highest praise, that of "a quality individual."
It was when he returned to the college ranks in 2003 that Pelini's reputation as a defensive guru began to blossom. At Nebraska that year, Pelini coached a defense that finished No. 1 in passing efficiency defense and No. 2 in scoring defense while tying a Cornhuskers record with 47 takeaways.
"It doesn't surprise me a bit Bo has had this kind of success, and I'm proud of him," Cooper, now retired, said from his home in Columbus, Ohio. "To be honest, he reminds me of myself, a guy that wasn't the greatest college football player but was always a student of the game and who made very few mental mistakes."
But the Nebraska program at that point was in turmoil since the departure of legendary coach Tom Osborne. His successor, Frank Solich, had gone 58-19 and was bowl bound, but the school fired him in November 2003 with officials fretting about a slip toward mediocrity. Pelini took over as interim head coach and guided the Cornhuskers to an Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State.
It soon became clear, however, Nebraska was interested in fresh blood, and the school hired former Raiders coach Bill Callahan, who promptly sacked Pelini and six other assistants.
In a move that had to rankle the Cornhuskers faithful, Pelini then headed to hated Oklahoma where his friend, Sooners Coach Bob Stoops, made him defensive co-coordinator. That gig lasted just one year, although it was a season in which the Sooners ranked sixth nationally in rushing defense and played Southern Cal for the national championship.
"I went there because Bob Stoops was a good friend of mine, and it was the right thing for that year, but I had no desire to be a co-coordinator for a long period of time," he said. "After what happened at Nebraska, I wanted to be around a good friend and a stable place and see where I wanted to go next. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do at that point."
What he wound up doing was fielding a call from Miles, whom Pelini had coached against but never met. Miles, recently hired for the head coaching job at LSU after three years at Oklahoma State, brought Pelini in for an interview, and Pelini liked what he saw.
"I thought it was an intriguing opportunity," Pelini said. "A good place, a great conference and a lot of talent, obviously."
Like many defensive coaches, Pelini has a reputation as something of a short-tempered martinet, but, in those segments of practice open to the media, the alleged hardcore mentality seems more the product of stereotype than fact. And while he maintains a professional demeanor, he's not averse to talking smack privately, even against his alma mater.
For example, on the night the Bowl Championship Series matchups were announced last year and LSU was celebrating its Sugar Bowl invitation, Pelini stood outside the football complex chatting with players.
"Hell, yes," he said, when asked if Florida had a chance in the national championship game against Ohio State. "I'm telling you, Ohio State's not that good. Who have they played anyway?"
His words proved prophetic in January when the Gators annihilated the Buckeyes 41-14. He smiles when asked if his bold prediction, a thing he would never make publicly, indicates some sort of split personality.
"When it's time to work, I work," he said. "But when I'm away from here, when I'm with the family, say, I'm not 'Bo Pelini: football coach.' Then I'm just 'Bo Pelini: father.'"
He can wear both paternal and boss hats during practice, a trait players say mirrors his talent at both the tactical and strategic level. At times, he will stand in the middle of the field, arms crossed, his gray LSU T-shirt with "BP" pressed in the middle, silently watching the linebackers or defensive backs. At other times during the searing heat of the recent camp, he would individually approach players who had finished a drill and speak with them one-on-one while simultaneously pouring cold water down their backs.
In one drill he seems to particularly favor, Pelini plays quarterback, slinging his wobbly, left-handed passes into a secondary committing its zones to memory.
"I think he knows when to sit back and let us do our thing and when to step in and get hands-on about it," defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey said. "I think he's great at the strategy, and the other thing is he gets people where they need to be. I look around, and I see a lot of people making plays on this defense, and that's because he has the strategy for getting people in the position to make those plays."
Players and Pelini invoke the same phrase when asked about the defensive goals at LSU: "relentless effort." The intricate sort of Xs and Os some people associate with tenacious defense are often less important, they claim.
"Multiple but simple," Pelini said when asked to define his philosophy. "Give a lot of looks and be able to do a lot in terms of confusing the offensive coordinator and the quarterback and the opposing offense. Keep it simple for the players, and keep the terminology consistent so the players always know what's going on."
Pelini's defenses excel at tackling. The first player to reach the ball carrier often makes the stop. The players say that stems from an understanding that stopping the run is job one, but they also are aware the Tigers' solidity up front allows for more creativity behind.
"We have a lot of packages -- four, five, six, even seven defensive backs," Pelini said. As a result, "because of all the things we do teams tend to play pretty conservatively against us."
Like any coach, he would like to see more takeaways ("we don't call 'em turnovers around here," Pelini snorted). While last year's interception total of 16 represented "our share," the five fumble recoveries was too meager a harvest.
"We haven't gotten as many fumbles as I would like for whatever reason," he said. "We've gotten the ball on the ground a lot, we just haven't done a good job of getting on the football. We want to have an attitude to get the football -- not to stop them and go three-and-out -- but to get the football."
Eye toward the future
What Pelini seems certain to get, in a move that will no doubt dismay his most vocal early critics, is a head coaching job somewhere else. That is the nature of the game, of course, especially for a coach who has performed repeatedly at a high level with several elite schools.
"You know Bo is going to be a head coach some day, there's not any doubt about that, and it could be as early as next year," Cooper said.
Pelini spoke with Michigan State last year about its head coach opening and some other schools he declined to identify. His one brush with head coaching -- leading Nebraska to that bowl win -- gave him some perspective on the top role.
"That's something I've been going through for the last couple of years," he said, barely disguising his bitterness at the experience with the Cornhuskers. "The only way I would have stayed at Nebraska, after the way it all went down, I wasn't staying there unless I was the head guy and even then that was a little iffy."
At present, he insisted his wife and children -- Kate, Caralyn and Patrick -- are happy with Baton Rouge, with their Catholic parish and their Catholic school. Consequently, he can devote himself wholeheartedly to the things that are expected to make LSU a defensive force and him an increasingly attractive candidate for departure.
"I figure good things will happen if I do my job the right way, and if they don't, they don't," he said, noting the Michigan State opening was wrong for a variety of reasons. "There are a lot of factors that go into something like that, and a lot of them are out of my control. And so I try to take the same attitude I try to instill in my players: Control what you can control.
"It's not just to get a job, it's to make sure you get the right job. And it's just that the right thing hasn't come up yet. I feel I'm fortunate now because I'm in a great place, and I can afford to be a little bit picky."