BATON ROUGE, La. – On the morning of the biggest game of his career, college football's top assistant coach is standing on a grass field, watching a bunch of 8-year-olds play soccer.
Across town, many of the 92,000 fans who will attend LSU's showdown against defending national champion Florida are already stirring gumbo and guzzling Miller Lite in the parking lot at Tiger Stadium.
But to Bo Pelini, that game is no more important than the one he's at now – mainly because his son, Patrick, is among the players trying to kick the ball into the net.
"It's fun watching your kids grow up," Pelini, who also has two daughters, says later. "Baseball, t-ball, gymnastics, ballet. I try not to miss anything."
LSU's defensive coordinator pauses for a moment and grins.
"But," Pelini says, "I do think a few people get freaked out when they see me standing on the soccer field the morning of such a big game."
Those people obviously underestimated Pelini, who helped LSU maintain its spot atop the Associated Press poll with a 28-24 win over Florida.
Trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Tigers surrendered just one touchdown after Pelini and his staff tweaked their game plan at intermission. When time expired and LSU's comeback was complete, Pelini was spotted zig-zagging about the field, sweat and spittle flying from his face as he jumped into the arms of 300-pound lineman Glenn Dorsey.
"You guys did it!" shouted Pelini, 40. "You (freakin') did it!"
Yes, four years after being passed up for the head coaching job at Nebraska, things couldn't be going any better for Pelini in Baton Rouge.
The 6-0 Tigers are in the hunt for the national title thanks to a defense that allows a national-low 197 yards per game. Analysts have said the unit is one of the best college football has seen in years, which basically means Pelini is deified wherever he goes in Cajun country.
Still, exciting as the ride might be, fans realize Pelini's time as a Tiger might be short-lived. No assistant in football seems as poised to make the jump to the head coaching ranks as Pelini, who will be on the short lists of schools looking to fill a vacancy this offseason.
"Oh, he'll be a head coach someday," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Barrett Ruud, one of Pelini's top protégés. "I'm actually surprised that it hasn't happened already."
Frustrating as his final days at Nebraska might have been, Pelini will probably never forget the chants of "We Want Bo! We Want Bo!" that rang throughout the stadium during his one and only game as a college head coach.
It was only four years ago, you might remember, when Cornhuskers fans were pulling for Pelini to replace Frank Solich, who was fired after a 9-3 season in 2003.
Pelini – despite being on staff for less than a year – was named interim head coach for Nebraska's bowl game. For the next month, the team would be all his.
Not bad for a guy in his first college season after spending the previous eight years in the NFL.
"I think that's when the light bulb went off," said Pelini's wife, Mary Pat. "That's when he realized that college coaching was something he wanted to do for a long, long time."
That sounded good to Nebraska's players, who had come to respect Pelini through the course of the season. Under Pelini’s guidance, the Blackshirts finished second in the nation in takeaways while moving from 55th to 11th in total defense.
Pelini used a fiery persona to inspire the Cornhuskers and win over fans. After Kansas State defeated Nebraska 38-9 in Lincoln, Pelini chased down Wildcats coach Bill Snyder at midfield and lashed out at him for running up the score. Months later, during Nebraska's bowl game, Pelini drew a 15-yard penalty for leaving the sidelines to argue a call.
"Guys were ready to run through a wall for him," said Ruud, a junior on that Nebraska team. "He was such a great motivator. He'd print out cards with different quotes and leave them in our locker to fire us up before games, and when it came to X's and O's, he definitely had the 'it' factor.
"He was the total package."
With Pelini leading the way, Nebraska annihilated Michigan State 17-3 in the Alamo Bowl, prompting fans to chant his name as he left the field. In just a few short months, Pelini's blue-collar approach had won the support of a rabid fan base that didn't even know his name a year earlier.
In the end, it didn't matter.
Pelini said Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson "stopped talking" to him in the days leading up to the bowl game and, following the victory, Pederson didn't fly back to Lincoln with the team.
Pederson eventually spoke with Pelini about the opening, but Pelini said it was clear he had no chance of landing the job.
"It was just a token interview," Pelini said. " (Pederson) brought me in because he had to bring me in. He told me I was being considered, but I don't think I ever was. He wanted to hire a name guy. He would've hired anybody that had a big name."
That person turned out to be Oakland Raiders head coach Bill Callahan, who has yet to win the support of Nebraska fans. The Cornhuskers went 5-6 during Callahan's first season in 2004 – their first losing campaign since 1961. They're struggling again this year, too, following last week's 41-6 loss at Missouri.
Pelini, though, doesn't take any delight in Nebraska's demise. He's too consumed with his role at LSU to play the what-if game.
"I didn't feel any sense of entitlement to that job," said Pelini, who spent a year as an assistant at Oklahoma before moving on to the LSU job in 2005. "I don't completely agree with how it was handled, but that's not for me to say.
"It's only the right job if it's a mutual thing, if both sides see it as the right fit. That obviously wasn't the case at Nebraska."
But what if the Cornhuskers had offered Pelini the job? At 36 and with only one year of college experience on his resume, was he ready to become a head coach?
"Oh yeah, I was ready," said Pelini, tilting back in his office chair and propping his feet up on his desk. "But I'm even more ready now."
A few weeks ago, as the Tigers were preparing to play South Carolina, Pelini asked linebackers coach Bradley Dale Peveto to step outside.
Seems a disagreement over a scheme had led to a heated exchange in front of LSU's players during a defensive team meeting. The best way to settle it, Pelini figured, was to throw down in the hallway.
"They walked out the doors and all of a sudden we're hearing bodies banging against walls and them screaming at each other," defensive tackle Marlon Favorite said. "We were trying to get out there and stop it, but the assistants were blocking the door."
Favorite begins to cackle.
"After a few minutes they walked back in laughing," he said. "It was all a joke. Football can get intense sometimes. Coach Pelini does a good job of keeping us loose and relaxed."
Ask any player or coach, and they'll tell you Pelini couldn't be a better fit at LSU. Head coach Les Miles said he knew he'd gotten a gem when he plucked Pelini away from Oklahoma following the 2004 season.
Miles was the head coach at Oklahoma State when Pelini was at Nebraska. After watching game tape, Miles thought he'd figured out a way to expose the Cornhuskers' defense.
"But when we played them," Miles said, "they ended up using a totally different scheme. They beat us, and after that I started watching more and more of their film. He was coming up with different plans every week. Each game it evolved."
Miles knew he wanted that kind of strategist on his staff, and he was also impressed by the newspaper articles he read about the way Nebraska's players got behind Pelini and urged the administration – albeit unsuccessfully – to hire him as their head coach.
"Those players wanted him to be there, and that said a lot," Miles said. "At that point I had never met him, but I knew I wanted him on my staff."
Beneficial as Pelini has been for LSU, the program has also helped Pelini improve as a coach.
"There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat," Pelini said. "The more you move around, the more you learn things. This was an opportunity for me, for the first time, to install a system and create a culture that carries over from year to year."
LSU's players are obviously buying in. The Tigers are third in the country in pass defense and fourth in rush defense. Opponents are averaging just 9.3 points per game.
"I don't think we take weeks off," Pelini said. "There aren't a lot of ups and downs, because we set such a high standard for ourselves."
Defensive end Tyson Jackson referred to Pelini as a "defensive guru." His teammates agree.
"When I take the field, I feel like I'm out there with an army and he's our leader," Dorsey said. "He's always wired up, always intense. He's not a big cusser or anything, but he knows how to get you fired up."
Dorsey said some members of LSU's defense view Pelini as a "father figure" and that it's not uncommon for one of them to call Pelini on his cell phone to talk out a personal problem.
Favorite, a recording artist when he's not playing football, said Pelini has taken an interest in his rap music.
The Tigers said they've also noticed the effort Pelini puts forth when it comes to his family. Along with the Saturday morning soccer games, Pelini is a regular in the elementary school cafeteria, where he often eats lunch with his 6-year-old daughter, Kate. Other nights he'll make a special trip home from the office – just to tuck the kids into bed.
"We want to have a family atmosphere around here," Pelini said. "That helps on the field. When someone watches us on film, we want them to say, 'Wow, those guys play with passion. They really enjoy each other.'"
Tucked away in desk drawers and filing cabinets are a handful of notebooks filled with notes Pelini has taken at various coaching stops.
George Seifert, Pete Carroll, Ray Rhodes, Mike Shanahan, Hayden Fry, Mike Solari, John Cooper, Gary Kubiak, Les Miles and Bob Stoops. Pelini has been exposed to some of football's all-time greats.
"When you're around people like that – if you learn to watch and observe with an open mind – you can't do anything but get better," said Pelini, who played at Ohio State.
Pelini's big break came shortly after his playing days ended at Ohio State. He'd spent a year coaching at tradition-rich Cardinal Mooney High School, his alma mater, in Youngstown, Ohio when then-San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy responded to a letter he'd sent months earlier.
Just like that, Pelini was on his way to the Bay Area after accepting a job as one of the team's in-house scouts.
"I had just gotten engaged, and I was out there by myself living at the Marriott," said Pelini, who was 25 at the time. "Instead of going back to the hotel to watch TV at night, I started sitting in on some meetings with (defensive coordinator) Ray Rhodes.
"We talked a lot of football and, after a week or two, he recommended me to Coach Seifert for a job as a quality control coach."
That was the fall of 1994, and San Francisco would go on to win the Super Bowl the following January. Rhodes was hired in Philadelphia the following season and was replaced by Carroll, who eventually took Pelini with him to New England in 1997.
It was there, under Carroll, that Pelini said he developed and molded the defensive philosophies he preaches today.
"It was such an unbelievable experience for someone so young," Pelini said. "It was an accelerated deal. They taught me. They showed me. I learned so much. I still remember Mike Shanahan saying, 'One year with the 49ers is an education. Two or three years is like getting a master's degree.'
"The learning never stops. You have to continue to evolve or you're going to get passed."
Pelini was an assistant in Green Bay when Solich hired him at Nebraska in 2003. At the time he said he had no intention of leaving the NFL.
"I didn't leave the pro game because I didn't like it," Pelini said. "I left the pros to get into the college game to see how it would be and how it would compare when it comes to family life.
"There are pluses and minuses to both, but the bottom line is that I like teaching these kids. At this stage of a college football player's life, they have no idea how much more there is to learn."
When he can find the time, Bo Pelini said he likes to curl up with a good book. Sometimes he reads in the living room before he goes to sleep at night, other times it's on a plane – or even in the Tigers' locker room an hour before kickoff.
Tom Clancy, John Grisham and all that “FBI, CIA-type stuff,” Pelini said.
"It relaxes me and gets my mind off the craziness that is college football," Pelini said. "I need it to calm me down."
If anything, the demands on Pelini will be increasing in the coming weeks and months.
For starters, there's a national title for which to contend. One loss, and the Tigers might be out of the picture. And after the season, of course, there will be the issue of Pelini's job status. He's almost certain to have a handful of suitors. Perhaps this time he'll find that "right fit."
"I don't really concern myself with that next step," Pelini said. "It's either going to come or it's not. What I try to do is focus on the task at hand. I was hired to do a job and I'm going to do it the best I can.
"If someone out there recognizes me and contacts me, then maybe I'd look at it. It has to be the right fit for both sides. Right now there probably aren't too many opportunities out there that are better than the one I’m in now."
If opportunities do arise, Mary Pat Pelini said her husband will handle the situation just fine. After all, he's been through this before.
"This isn't the first time people have labeled him as the hot, up-and-coming head coach," Mary Pat said. "They’ve been saying it the last three years, but he's still here. He just keeps proving himself. That's all he can do."
- Bo Pelini