Howard Schnellenberger used to talk often about his mentors. Bear Bryant and Don Shula. They’re men who spent their lives consumed by football. After Bryant’s last game he was asked what he planned to do now, given that he was retired and would have hours to relax and enjoy life. “Probably croak in a week,” he famously said. Four weeks later, with football gone from his life, Bryant died.
Carl Pelini, the man tasked with replacing the famous and infamous Schnellenberger has different role models. There are books and family pictures in his office, replacing the footballs and awards Schnellenberger left behind.
“People ask me who my mentors are, and a lot of times you wanna talk about the guys you’ve worked with, but my mentors have also been from history,” he says. “Alexander the Great? I just finished a book about his campaigns. It was amazing what he was able to do. Very few men compared to the armies he was fighting. How he trained and motivated his guys was just …”
His voice trails off.
“I just read whatever I can get my hands on. There’s a new book I just found out about, called From Red Ink to Roses, and it’s about Barry Alvarez and how he took Wisconsin from being in debt, worst team in the Big 10, and how he changed the entire perception of the program at Wisconsin. Just finished Moneyball. What a great book, what a great story.”
The 46-year-old Pelini comes from a football background. His brother Bo is the head coach at Nebraska, and Pelini himself has been a coach for the better part of two decades. But he isn’t like many coaches. He reads science-fiction and war history. He has one masters in journalism, another in education. And his office has more books than it does footballs.
There is one football picture in Pelini’s office. Dressed in Nebraska red, there’s Pelini, bent at the waist, hands on his knees, with a scowl covering his face. It’s the epitome of his reputation — loud, brash, football — in the truest sense.
“I had seen him and his brother on the sidelines,” Athletic Director Craig Angelos remembers. “And I had heard they were intense people, which I liked.”
Except that the reputation was always more perception than it ever was reality.
“I think if you watch my intensity on the field, you make certain decisions on coaches based on how they’re acting in the game,” Pelini says. “That’s an intense time, there’s a lot going on. It’s not necessarily a reflection of who you are. I developed some close, personal relationships with the beat guys who covered Nebraska, and they knew who I really was, and still decided to show that perception because it’s a good storyline. I get it.”
That ‘storyline’ included an incident from November 2010 when Pelini got into it with a photographer. Following Nebraska-Texas A&M (a game Pelini and his Cornhuskers lost 9-6), a cameraman captured Pelini berating a player on the field. Out of the corner of his eye, Pelini saw the camera. He wasn’t happy.
Pelini stormed over to the camera and pushed, breaking off a piece of it.
“It was a regrettable incident,” he says now. “One thing I learned, whatever happens, get the players off the field. I should have just allowed the police to do their job and removed myself. I just put the lens down. And I did call [the cameraman] that next week and his point of view was more ‘there’s nothing to apologize for.’”
He’s learned now, he says, it’s a different time.
“If you’re too emotional, up and down, you end up making rash decisions. It was a good learning experience.”
One of Pelini’s many tasks after he got hired on Dec. 5 was to build a recruiting class. He had eight weeks to build relationships with players and coaches in South Florida, eight weeks to sift through Schnellenberger’s signees and figure out who needed to stay and who didn’t.
“It’s kind of a daunting task,” he admitted to the Palm Beach Post on signing day.
That day, Pelini announced a class of 23 players, shocking many. Not himself, though. The former Nebraska defensive coordinator believes the recruiting job he had back in Nebraska to be more difficult than the one he was staring up at in Boca.
“A lot of people look and say, ‘well, it must have been easy to recruit at Nebraska,’” he says. “Not really.”
Pelini’s assignment in Nebraska was to convince athletes in California to jump over 10 states and come play for the Pelini brothers amid the cornfields and quiet of Lincoln.
Nebraska senior defensive end Cameron Merideth was one of those players. Hailing from Huntington Beach, Calif. he needed some pushing and prodding.
“The first time I met Carl [Pelini] he came over to my house, it was recruiting season, probably the first month of January,” Merideth says. “He had just got to Nebraska, just got hired. That day he was hired, he was out recruiting. He wasn’t moving with his family and that kinda showed me how important football was to him. He didn’t even move out of his house yet, he just got on the first plane to see me.”
Merideth would eventually sign (as would others like future NFL stars Ndamukong Suh and Prince Amukamara), allowing him to eventually see his favorite Pelini moment ever.
It was April Fools day. A player had gone into Pelini’s office and stolen all the pens from his desk. An enraged Pelini went looking for his pens, and he had a suspect.
“One of the players did it,” Merideth says. “But he thought it was our head of football operations, coach [Jeff] Jamrog.”
So, Pelini stormed into his office.
“He just walked into Jamrog’s office and flipped over his desk,” Merideth says. “Everything went flying everywhere, and Jamrog had no clue what it was about. Carl just left.”
When Angelos went looking for Schnellenberger’s replacement, he spoke to about 10 different coaches. Offensive guys, defensive guys. Young coaches, old coaches. Loud and brash, quiet and confident.
He was looking for the total package. For a coach who knew enough about football to love it and teach, but yet, still be able to worry about academics. About life. About everything.
“I believe it was important to get someone who could have a holistic approach to the job,” Angelos says. “He’s very well-rounded, very academic oriented, because that was a big issue. I wanted to make sure we had a coach who came in here and made sure these young men did well academically. That was a big piece of the puzzle.”
From 2003-2011, Schnellenberger and his players were docked scholarships every year for low APRs (academic progress rate), a score measuring the performance in the classroom of athletes.
“I’m OCD,” Pelini says laughing. “I’m obsessive about stuff.”
“The APR scores. I don’t want to be toeing that line anymore.”
It would explain why, upon being hired, Pelini would talk to the football team about the classroom, not the football field. Over, and over, again.
“When I first took this job, all the players wanted to talk about was football,” he says. “And for the first three weeks, all we talked about was education. Until they were sick of hearing it, but I’m serious about it.”
And so now the job really begins. He inherits both a 1-11 team and a brand new stadium. Expectations are low, so inherently, Pelini’ll get the credit for any sort of turnaround. Which isn’t how he looks at it.
“I’m not going to sit here just to make people think I’m working hard,” he says. “I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to say, when the job’s done, let’s go home.”
A career spent coaching and moving, reading and learning, has left Pelini with something else: perspective.
“Whatever happens on that first Saturday — win, lose, get killed, kill them — doesn’t matter,” he says. “Sunday’s still in front of you and so is Monday and so is the following Saturday. Those teams that have a steady rise are the teams that don’t have great peaks and valleys.
“So for me, I’m not so concerned with what it was last year, or what it was the last 10 years. I’m not going to be judged on any of that. I’m going to be judged on what happens from this point forward.”
Yes. Yes, he will.
In Carl Pelini’s first season, the Owls will play games at Georgia, Alabama and Navy, securing the team over $2 million dollars. Pelini’s required to play enough game-guarantees (games FAU is paid to play in) every year to generate $2 million per season. And although the team has just five home games next season, Pelini appreciates where they will be played “The stadium’s just a building,” he says. “But what you ultimately see with a stadium is an administration that’s committed to winning. There’s no substitute for that support. You can’t win without it.”
Aug. 31 Wagner*
Sept. 8 at Middle Tennessee
Sept.15 at Georgia
Sept. 22 at Alabama
Sept. 29 North Texas
Oct. 13 at ULM
Oct. 20 at South Alabama
Oct. 27 Troy
Nov. 3 at Navy
Nov. 10 at Western Kentucky
Nov. 16 FIU
Dec. 1 ULL
*Home games in bold
Meet the new guys
Since taking over as head coach on Dec. 5 2011, Carl Pelini, has revamped the coaching staff, plucking assistants from the around the country to assemble his crew. “When I went into the interview process I had lists of guys that I knew, that I had coached with,” he says. “What you find out when your search expands — a lot of these guys [I hired] weren’t on my list, they just impressed me.” Here’s his four biggest hires:
Offensive coordinator — Brian Wright
- Wright takes over for Darryl Jackson, who was an assistant coach under Schnellenberger since 2007. The 39-year-old holds a masters in arts and spent the last two seasons at Montana State. Under Wright, the Bobcats averaged 440 yards per game, the most productive two offensive seasons in school history.
Defensive Coordinator — Pete Rekstis
- Rekstis replaces Marvin Sanders, whom Pelini originally hired to be his defensive coordinator. Sanders accepted the job on Dec. 10 and left to USC (to become a defensive backs coach) on Feb. 12. Prior to Sanders’ brief stay, Kurt Van Valkenburgh manned the position since the program’s inception in 1998. Rekstis was formally the d-coordinator for Miami-Ohio.
Recruiting Coordinator/Wide Receiver’s Coach — Jeff Sims
- Sims takes over for Jared Allen, who is now the tight ends coach for Pelini. Sims, 39, was previously a quality control assistant for Indiana. Under Howard Schnellenberger, there was no official ‘recruiting coordinator,’ so Sims gets the inaugural title.
Running Backs Coach — Kerry Dixon II
- Just 30 years old, Dixon was formally the running backs coach at Montana State (alongside Wright, the offensive coordinator). Dixon takes over for David Serna, who served as running backs coach since 2005. Under Dixon’s command at Montana State, the ground game found the end zone 19 times and rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in 2011. Alfred Morris gave FAU 1,186 yards and 9 touchdowns last year.