Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini walks the sidelines during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Penn State in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. Nebraska won 17-14. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
COLUMBUS — Players on Ohio State’s defense in 1990 answered directly to three men: coordinator Bill Young, their position coach, and a 195-pound safety named Bo Pelini.
It did not matter if you were a cornerback like Scott graduate Lance Price or a nose tackle like Corey Pargo from Rogers.
“Bo knew exactly where you were supposed to be,” Pargo said. “He would know I was supposed to be in the ‘A’ gap if I went ‘B’ gap. He’d say, ‘For this defense to work, you have to be ’A’ gap. The linebacker has ‘B’ gap.”
Pargo, an assistant coach at St. John’s Jesuit, chuckles at the memory. He is not surprised his former teammate is still barking orders — now as the man in charge of one of college football’s premier programs.
In his fifth season at Nebraska, Pelini will return to Ohio State for a Saturday night showdown between the Big Ten’s two highest-ranked teams.
True to form, he refused this week to wax nostalgic about his time at OSU, where he played from 1986 to 1990 under Earle Bruce and John Cooper. Pelini is worried about stopping the 12th-ranked Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0) with a defense that has fallen short of NU standards this season; not the old days.
Asked if the homecoming carried a special meaning, Pelini replied, “No, why would it?”
“I'm at a different time in my life, a different place,” he said. “I have a job to do. That's all I'm concerned with.”
His truthful answer might be different. It was Pelini’s time at OSU where he met friends who would later be in his wedding, became a team captain despite possessing ordinary athletic ability, and forged the foundation for his rapid coaching rise.
He willed his way to recognition in a forgettable era. Pelini never went to the Rose Bowl nor was part of a team that finished higher than a tie for third in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes went 25-18-3 over his final four years.
But for those part of those OSU teams, the kid from Youngstown stood out — even as a freshman buried on the depth chart. Among those who took notice was OSU coach Urban Meyer, who grew up about 60 miles north of Pelini in Ashtabula and was as a graduate assistant in 1986 and 1987.
“A really tough guy,” Meyer said. “Just like his personality is now.”
Price recalled a player who was low-key and quiet away from the field — a contrast to the boorish sideline image he at times projects today — and tenacious on it.
“Just the way he knew the game, that’s what made him,” said Price, who played for OSU from 1987 to 1990 and will be inducted into City League hall of fame next month.
Former OSU defensive tackle Greg Smith, now a surgeon in Texas, told the Omaha World-Herald last year of Pelini’s "perfect" game. After games, coaches review the film and assign players a plus or minus for every snap. Pelini one time graded 100 percent — an achievement Smith had never seen.
“He was the best free safety in the Big Ten and he was probably slower than almost every linebacker in the Big Ten,” Smith told the newspaper. “He was in the right place at the right time all the time.”
After graduating from OSU, Pelini became a graduate assistant at Iowa and spent a year coaching quarterbacks at his alma mater — Cardinal Mooney High. He was then hired as a scouting assistant by the 49ers and promoted to secondary coach by age 27.
Pelini honed his reputation as a defensive mastermind over seven years in the NFL and five years as a college coordinator, including for the LSU team that beat the Buckeyes for the 2007 national championship, before he was hired at Nebraska in 2008.
Pelini steadied a proud program that hit bottom under Bill Callahan. He has been good but not great, winning at least nine games in each of his first four seasons but never losing fewer than four. Now, in a state of 1.8 million where Nebraska football is the most revered institution, the natives are restless for more.
It has been 12 years since the Huskers last won a conference championship, and many believe this is the team to end the drought. As Pelini prepares for one of the biggest games of his career this weekend, he has no time for sentiment.
“I do have pride in where I went to school and my career there,” Pelini said of OSU. “That has nothing to do with Saturday. It doesn't really make any difference what happened back in '86 to '90. That's a different time in my life.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.