To say last Thanksgiving was an awkward time for Bo Pelini would be an understatement. It seemed that hardly a day would go by without somebody talking about Pelini being on the hot seat. The weird thing is that when you pinned them down on it, nobody really seemed to believe that it was actually going to happen, yet it kept being brought up daily.
Well, one person started to believe it might happen. Pelini himself seemed to be more concerned than just about everybody else that week, as it turned out. Against Iowa, he ran a desperation fake punt, got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, and swore in the post-game press conference. Some people even concluded he was actually begging to be fired. By the morning after, the local media seemed on alert, waiting for the dismissal news conference with athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
Which never came. Instead, Eichorst released a statement rejecting the "unfounded speculation" and endorsed Pelini as coach moving forward. This spring, the signs are there that Pelini is feeling much more comfortable with his situation at Nebraska. He's opened up practices to the media. Perhaps that's one way to nip unfounded speculation in the bud; let the media see for themselves rather than presume. Or guess. Or just make it up.
I do wonder, though, if Pelini got the reassurances he seemed to be begging for during the annual review process. I can almost imagine Eichorst telling Pelini something along the lines of this: "I can't believe that you fell for that crap in the World-Herald! C'mon, Bo. Just look at that mess. I mean, they actually believe Dirk Chatelain is some sort of Nate Silver stat guru."
Let's think back to October 2012. Nebraska had just lost badly at Ohio State, and Pelini laid down the ultimatum to "win out." At the time, it sounded more like motivation to drive Nebraska to a Big Ten championship game appearance. But maybe it was Pelini recognizing the changing environment at Nebraska. Tom Osborne, the man who had hired him, had announced his retirement. He wasn't sure who would be his boss after the season, and he likely remembered how things ended in his first tour of duty at Nebraska when a new athletic director felt like making changes.
Nebraska did go on to win out, though subsequent losses to Wisconsin and Georgia seemed to embolden his critics. As did losses to UCLA and Minnesota, not to mention the release of that two year old audio criticizing the World-Herald and fans who left a game early. Tom Osborne gave him his performance review after the 2012 season, and now a new boss was in charge.
While the memory of Steve Pederson no doubt influenced Pelini's perspective, it's also clear that Shawn Eichorst is the anti-Pederson. Pederson sought out the spotlight, Eichorst clearly avoids it. But that silence from Eichorst worked against him in this situation. Into the resulting vacuum came all sorts of rumors and "so called" insider information. And without any rebuttal, the rumors became accepted by many. Did Pelini himself start to believe them? Without any private assurances to the contrary from his bos, it's easy to see how that could happen.
If Pelini now feels he's earned the confidence of his athletic director, that goes a long way towards relaxing the environment. We've all worked for good and bad bosses. With a bad boss, you always are on edge to avoid any screwup, while with a good boss, you might feel empowered to try more.
Add in Pelini's comfort level with how his program has developed the last couple of seasons, and that sense of confidence no doubt increases. Last year, we started to see what Pelini has been building the last few years. The young defensive line and linebacker corps that redshirted in 2012 were awfully raw at the start of 2013. By November, though, they started to flash signs of being a Pelini defense. Most of those newcomers are back - and more experienced than they were in 2013.
Pelini certainly has felt confident enough to dabble in a little online tomfoolery, starting with engaging his doppelganger, @FauxPelini. During the Huskers first round game in the NCAA mens' basketball tournament, Pelini chimed in with a thought about Karl Hess and his whistle-blowing friends.
Can I get fined if I comment about basketball officiating?— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) March 21, 2014
Maybe the online team at the University has given Pelini a few hints on how to be more engaging online. Or maybe it was Tim Miles himself, showing the football coach how to use Twitter. (Perhaps in exchange for Pelini providing a few tips on dealing with referees, as Miles won an early dismissal from the game.)
Seriously, though, it's not just me noticing that Pelini seems more relaxed this spring. Tom Shatel noted it. So did Steve Sipple. A national guy, Gregg Doyel from CBS, came to Lincoln looking for a dragon and found a softie.
A softie in a hoodie.