By Joe Scalzo
On Dec. 1, less than a week after Youngstown State athletic director Ron Strollo fired football coach Eric Wolford, he got a phone call from a “mutual friend” of the most famous coaching free agent in the country.
“He said, ‘Hey, I just talked to someone who you might have some interest in for the coaching position,’” Strollo said. “‘He’d obviously like to learn more, but his name is Bo Pelini.’
“I said, ‘You know, I might consider that.’”
Pelini had been fired the day before after seven successful — but tumultuous — seasons at Nebraska and was armed with a $7.7 million, 51-month buyout that essentially made his next salary irrelevant. Strollo gave the friend his phone number, Pelini called Strollo and, over the next two weeks, they (with an assist from YSU president Jim Tressel) worked out a plan that would provide a much-needed jolt to the Penguins’ underachieving football program.
“I knew when this [YSU] job was open that Youngstown was very appealing to me,” Pelini said at his introductory news conference on Wednesday. “I reached out to [YSU] and wanted to know, ‘Was there interest on their end?’”
First, some background. Five-and-a-half years ago, as Jon Heacock was heading into his ninth year as YSU’s head coach, Strollo met with him to outline the expectations for the 2009 season. Those expectations included reaching the playoffs, something Heacock had done just once (in 2006) since replacing Tressel in 2001.
Since the Penguins started 4-5, Strollo knew in early November that he’d be looking for a new coach. His main target was Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, a Cardinal Mooney High graduate who was working under his brother, Mike. Stoops wanted the job and had all but signed the contract, only to get a last-minute job offer to be Florida State’s defensive coordinator.
Wolford got the job instead, missed the playoffs all five seasons and was fired on Nov. 24 after a blowout loss to North Dakota State in the season finale.
By that point, Strollo had been thinking of potential candidates, but while it’s logical to think he would turn to another high-profile Mooney graduate as his No. 1 draft pick, Strollo said Pelini never crossed his mind.
“I didn’t even think about him,” Strollo said. “My life is Youngstown State football and my family, so I wasn’t tracking his career and what was said about him to consider him a legitimate candidate.
“I mean, he goes 9-3 every year, so I didn’t think he was getting fired. I wasn’t following the news that his job was even in jeopardy.
“I didn’t realize what he had gone through over the last two or three years.”
As Strollo discovered, Pelini was miserable over his last few years at Nebraska, something that become overwhelmingly clear this week when the Omaha World-Herald printed a transcript of his final remarks to his team, which included a profanity-laced rant against Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst and his staff.
(Sample excerpt: “Look at his [Eichorst’s] team of people. C’mon, man. I’d rather [bleeping] work at McDonald’s than work with some of those guys. Not that there’s anything bad about working at McDonald’s.”)
“I think what’s hard for everyone to understand is the last two years have been very challenging for Bo and his family,” Strollo said. “When he first reached out, he was just asking questions because at that moment he was unsure what the best thing was for his family.
“We never started a conversation that didn’t start with what was best for [his wife] Mary Pat and the three kids. It wasn’t about what the assistant salary pool was, it wasn’t about pictures of the indoor facility. It was about what was best for his wife and kids.”
Closing the gap
Eight days after their initial contact, FootballScoop.com, a national website that covers coaching moves, reported that Pelini would become YSU’s next coach as soon as a formal offer was presented, which would likely happen two days later.
Before that report surfaced, Strollo felt the Penguins had a “30-35 percent chance” of landing Pelini.
After the report?
“I thought it had eliminated any chance,” Strollo said.
Strollo strongly denied the news to Mahoning Valley reporters, realizing that a Stoops-to-Florida-State-type reversal would make things a lot more difficult if he had to hire Plan B.
“For a full news cycle, all the fans and the kids thought Bo Pelini was going to be the coach, which would have been a pretty big mountain for the next coach to climb,” he said.
Pelini, meanwhile, told Sports Illustrated that reports that he had accepted YSU’s job offer were “a complete fabrication,” a clever non-denial denial since Football Scoop had only reported that he would take the job once offered.
Over the next seven days, as Pelini weighed several other offers, Strollo continued to interview candidates, including eight that came on campus. (Eastern Kentucky’s Dean Hood appears to have been Plan B.) He also did extensive background on Pelini, who had a reputation as a fantastic football coach and an unapologetic hothead.
“The thing is, when you talk to former players, former coaches and athletic trainers and equipment guys, they can’t say enough good things about Bo,” Strollo said. “You obviously want to make sure your head coach reflects the right thing for your institution but at the end of the day, what you’re really worried about is your student-athlete.
“What stood out to us the most was his relationship with his kids and the people close to his program. Even to this day, we’re getting phone calls from parents of players and parents of former players telling us, ‘You’ve got an unbelievable person as a head coach.’”
Closing the deal
Although YSU’s president has kept a low profile throughout this football season — he is in California this week and did not respond to an interview request — Pelini made it clear that Tressel made the job more attractive. Not only would he have a president who valued football — “Something I don’t know if I’ve ever had” — but he also had someone who understand how to thrive in the FCS, where Pelini had never played or coached.
“He took this program to the highest level,” Pelini said. “If anything, he’s going to be sick and tired of hearing from me. I’m going to wear him out as far as using his expertise and his experience here. That’s a great thing to have and it was a big part of me making my decision to come here.”
Pelini finally made that decision on Monday afternoon. His first words to Strollo were, “We’re fired up. We’re ready to do this.” On Tuesday morning, the Cafaro corporate jet flew to Lincoln, Neb., to pick up Pelini, who was introduced the following morning inside Stambaugh Stadium’s president’s loge.
“I don’t know if I would have envisioned this a month ago,” Pelini said. “I believe I have a great situation here. It’s a great environment for my family to live in and a great place to call home. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have come back here.
“If I was looking for my next job, I’d be someplace else.”