Listen up, Pelini coming back for YSU

YOUNGSTOWN — Telling people what they don’t want to hear is never an easy thing to do — for anyone.

Doctors have to do it. Families have to do it. Friends, bosses, coworkers… and journalists. We all do. It’s part of life, whether we like it or not.

So, while some people don’t want to hear that Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini will be returning next season, he will, indeed, be back on the sidelines. He’s not quitting, and YSU isn’t firing him.

Pelini and the Penguins agreed on a three-year extension in February of 2019, and YSU isn’t the type of institution to buy out a coach after one year. This isn’t Nebraska, and Pelini isn’t a quitter.

The reason his continued time at YSU may be disappointing to fans is because Pelini’s tenure — and teams — have been terribly inconsistent.

There was plenty of excitement when the fiery, high-profile coach was hired in December of 2014, and most people were surprised the former Nebraska head coach came back to Youngstown to be part of a lower level of Division I football (FCS). Things started off well, with Pelini leading YSU to the FCS Championship game in 2016, just his second year, but things have went downhill since then.

The Penguins were 6-5 in 2017, 4-7 in 2018 and 6-6 this year. Pelini is 33-28 overall in five years as head coach and 18-22 in the brutal Missouri Valley Football Conference. The man who won 70 percent of his games and never had less than nine wins in a season with the Cornhuskers is barely over .500 at YSU, with one playoff appearance.

As disappointing as this is for fans, it’s even more frustrating for Pelini, a Youngstown native deeply rooted into the area. As a reporter who has covered YSU for Pelini’s entire tenure, the dissatisfaction of his time at YSU became more and more evident over the last two seasons.

A defensive guru throughout his career, Pelini was often left without an explanation or understanding of why players were making inexplicable mistakes on that side of the ball. His teams have often followed great performances with terrible ones. They looked uninspired one week and ready to run through a wall the next. Pelini often admitted to being baffled by the up-and-down play. Fans and members of the media were as well.

His tone changed toward the end of this season. The last few months, he sounded different than I’ve ever heard him. A coach who was a key part of a Super Bowl title (San Francisco, 1995) and a national championship ( LSU, 2008) sounded distraught and beat down — but not defeated. Instead of losing his temper, as he has many times in his career, Pelini was more focused on figuring out how he can reach a new generation of players.

It’s not easy. Ask any coach at any level. Times have changed, and so have people. The changes aren’t necessarily bad, but for an intense, in-your-face 51-year-old football coach who is used to the grit and grime of the Youngstown rustbelt, this social revolution is a bit of a rude awakening. Just because he’s coaching in Youngstown doesn’t mean the players are going to respond to the old-school approach that seems to reflect the Mahoning Valley.

Pelini seems to be realizing this, and he talked, extensively but not specifically, about adapting to a new age of players during a Nov. 19 press conference.

“The kids are different now,” he said. “It’s a different dynamic as far as how they were brought up playing the game. I don’t know that a lot of the kids these days are watching the sport the way we did. They’re definitely not playing in the backyard the way we did growing up, which creates different challenges. I could spend an hour on it and how some of the aspects of coaching have changed over the last seven, eight years, but you’ve got to adapt.

“You have to really think it through and be prepared to make the necessary changes to meet the challenges that lie ahead. I feel comfortable that maybe some of the frustrations that have come through this year have helped me identify some of the important issues and develop a plan to move forward and better this football team.”

It was an honest answer from a man who is willing to accept that some of the very qualities that helped him reach the pinnacle of the sport may be the same ones leading to his demise. People, especially from this area, should appreciate such authenticity. I did.

All that said, if Pelini was almost any other coach, he probably wouldn’t be here. Certainly no other coach (aside from maybe Jim Tressel) would receive a contract extension after a 4-7 season in which his team suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in school history (the 2018 home opener to Butler). But, that’s what a glowing background does for you in the coaching world.

Yes, some of the statistics and records under Pelini are ugly, and after five years, the team should be well on its way to continuity instead of trending downward, but maybe, just maybe his recent self reflection will be a revelation for him. There is still hope for him to turn things around.

That’s what Penguin fans need to cling to because YSU and Bo Pelini are sticking together, whether people want to hear it or not.


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