YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Bo Pelini was sans accessories on Monday — no cat in his arms like the one he held up in jest before Nebraska’s spring game, and not even a whistle — as he worked the annual football camp held at his high school alma mater, Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.
He wore a Nebraska logo on his chest, but not a very big one. He was just one of the guys helping a bunch of kids, and he seemed to be having fun doing it.
"It’s always nice to get home, not just to see a lot of people but to do what I can to support the school, support the people and support what they have going on here," Pelini said. "I feel fortunate to have come through here and have had the opportunities I’ve had as far as a foundation that was built here. This is a place where football means an awful lot, and it’s a place where for a long time discipline and dedication have been hallmarks."
More than anything, Pelini looked relaxed. An up-and down 2013 season is now well in the past, and Pelini signed a one-year extension last March to keep him under contract as Nebraska’s head coach through 2018.
He didn’t much want to talk about anything but 2014.
"I feel good about our team," Pelini said. "I think we have a chance to be pretty good but at this time of year, a lot of people feel that way. I tell our guys that if they’re dedicated to getting better every day, we’ll eventually have an opportunity to do some good things. But a lot of things have to happen and come together if you’re going to win a championship, and we have a lot of work to do."
Pelini is entering his seventh season at Nebraska. His Huskers have won at least nine games six times, played in three straight New Year’s Day bowl games and won a Big Ten division title in 2012 but have not won a league crown or played in a BCS bowl game.
Last September, Pelini came under fire after someone leaked audio — and it was plenty colorful audio — of Pelini going after Nebraska fans for their criticism of then-Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. The audio was from 2011, suggesting the release of it was a deliberate and personal attack at Pelini.
It made headlines, and Nebraska’s struggles last season included three home losses. But the Huskers still made the Gator Bowl, and they beat Georgia when they got there, and this offseason Pelini’s made headlines for responding to the Faux (and funny) Bo Pelini Twitter account, including holding up the cat before this year’s spring game.
He already knew that lots of people are watching a man in his position. All the time.
Read about Pelini and his relationship with the fake Bo Pelini twitter account
"People are going to make of a situation what they want to make of it," Pelini said. "Are things good for me and good for Nebraska football right now? I think so. At the end of the day I’m excited to go to work and try to win with this team. I like what we have going on.
"However it’s analyzed or portrayed or whatever, I don’t know. I know we’ve won a lot of football games and I look forward to the work being done to continue to win a lot more."
Despite losing three starters in the secondary, Pelini’s defense returns its top five tacklers and has a potential top-10 NFL draft pick on the defensive line in Randy Gregory. Among the talented new faces expected to vie for playing time amongst the veteran returnees is linebacker Courtney Love, a graduate of Youngstown Mooney.
Offensively, Nebraska will have a new quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line, but senior running Ameer Abdullah returns after earning third-team All-American honors and rushing for 1,690 yards, the most for a Nebraska running back since 1997.
In a month, Pelini will be back in camp working on the chase for Nebraska’s first Big Ten title. For now, though, — as it does almost every summer — his summer vacation includes a trip to Mooney’s camp.
"It’s not about recruiting," he said. "I’ve always come back here. I try not to miss a year. It’s great to give back and come back. It’s a great reunion."
Last season, Pelini was one of four Mooney graduates — two named Pelini, two named Stoops — serving as head coaches of Div. I FBS football programs. Nebraska opens this season against Florida Atlantic, which fired Carl Pelini last season. Bo Pelini said he’s just focused on working with his players on writing their own chapter.
"Winning the Gator Bowl was great for our program, but I don’t know about momentum one way or the other," he said. "As we go forward here this will be a different team with different dynamics. We have to develop chemistry and leadership. But I do like the ingredients we have.
"If our team comes together and embodies the true sense of being a team, we’ll probably be pretty good. If that happens, a lot of other stuff seems to take care of itself."