In the FCS Huddle: Pelini hits ground running at Youngstown

( – Disregard any thought of a three- or five-year rebuilding
plan, new Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini has returned home to do one
thing – win, and win big.

“That’s why we’re here. That’s why I came back here,” Pelini said. “I didn’t
come back here to lose, I came back here to try to continue to build a great
program and compete for conference titles and national championships. I’m
looking forward to having the opportunity to do that.”

The Youngstown State program has stood on the doorstep of its first FCS playoff
berth since 2006 in each of the last two seasons, and returns an experienced
team this year, so the Penguins could crack the national Top 10 and will be
expected by many to reach the postseason. The future surely is now.

But Pelini is no ordinary first-year coach – one of the bigger hires among FCS
schools in recent years after he spent the last eight seasons guiding the
Nebraska Cornhuskers.

That tenure ended with the fiery 47-year-old shown the door for failing to meet
lofty expectations. The Cornhuskers went 67-27 and won nine or 10 games each
season, but they never seriously challenged for a national championship.

Youngstown State is quite familiar with national titles, having won four of
them on the former Division I-AA level – all in the 1990s – and the architect
of that run, Jim Tressel, also has returned to the Missouri Valley Football
Conference university in the last year as school president. Although Pelini
didn’t attend YSU, he grew up in the Youngstown area and has embraced his
homecoming, just as Youngstown has embraced him back.

“Football is football as far as I’m concerned,” Pelini said about the drop from
the FBS to the FCS, “they’ve just got different resources, different
scholarship counts, just some roles that you operate under that are different.
Other than that, as far as how to develop a team, develop your football team,
do those types of things, I don’t think it’s much different.”

The seventh head coach in YSU football history, Pelini replaced Eric Wolford,
who was fired after going 31-26 over the last five seasons. The last two years
have left the Penguins wanting more, as they began the 2013 season with an 8-1
record and last year at 7-2, but melted down each time with a three-game
season-ending losing streak.

Still, the Penguins will bring back seven starters on each side of the ball
this year, including sophomore quarterback Hunter Wells, running back Martin
Ruiz, wideout Andrew Williams and four linemen from an offense that struggled
in the red zone as well as a defense led by ends Derek Rivers and Terrell
Williams and linebacker Dubem Nwadiogbu. Both starting kickers will be new.

While Pelini doesn’t necessarily believe he has to step in and change the
culture of the program – as many first-year head coaches set out to do –
there’s plenty of work to be done to ensure the Penguins won’t fall short of
their goals again. They play in the top FCS conference, which is home to a
North Dakota State program that has won the last four national titles.

“I want to implement the culture that I believe is right,” Pelini said. “I
think Coach Wolford did a good job here, a really good job. So now I’ll just
try to build with new things and take it to another level.

“Mental and physical toughness and accountability, discipline, all of the
things that I think are important. Obviously, those are some of them. We’re
trying to get these kids started off on the right foot, give them every chance
to have success.”

Spring practices begin March 17. There is continuity with the return of Shane
Montgomery as offensive coordinator for the sixth straight year. Pelini, who
served as a defensive coordinator at LSU and Oklahoma in addition to Nebraska,
has given that role to Ron Stoops Jr., a position coach the last five seasons,
in a promotion.

“Nebraska’s loss is our gain,” Ron Jaworski, a former Youngstown State
quarterback and current NFL analyst for ESPN, told The Vindicator newspaper in
Youngstown. “He has great people skills and he’s a great motivator outside of
the Xs and Os and design of how to run offenses and defenses.

“What a great attribute to have in Youngstown. The local guy comes home. It’s a
great story and I think the program is going to have incredible success.”

Blue-collar Youngstown sits just inside the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, about
60-65 miles between both Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The university hopes a
native – Pelini attended Cardinal Mooney High before he left Youngstown to play
free safety at Ohio State – is just what it needs to restore the Penguins
program to a lofty level.

And Pelini isn’t shying away from expectations.

“I think there’s a lot of good coaching that goes on in this conference. I
think there’s some good programs,” he said. “You’re gonna be challenged every
week in this conference. I think that’s good. That’s what you want to do, you
want to play good opponents, you want to play at the highest level. I think
we’re gonna do that.”