What Bo Pelini's return to LSU means for Ed Orgeron and the culture he's established
As rumors swirled a week ago about Bo Pelini possibly returning to LSU as the team’s new/old defensive coordinator, a media member from Louisiana who I talk with regularly sent me this text.
“I personally think (hiring Pelini) would be awful. I don’t think he fits the culture that Ed (Orgeron) has established there and I just don’t think it’s a good fit. Love to hear your thoughts.”
As we found out a week later, those rumors were true. Pelini will replace Dave Aranda as LSU’s defensive coordinator. Twelve years after he left LSU’s 2007 national championship team to take the head gig at Nebraska, Pelini’s second stint in Baton Rouge will sandwich 11 years he spent as a head coach.
To answer the request of the Louisiana media member who texted me, yes, I have thoughts.
I have thoughts as someone who lived in Nebraska and covered the 2 years of the Pelini era. I have thoughts as someone who got a first-hand look at the culture Ed Orgeron built at LSU. I have thoughts as someone who pondered a lot about the future in Baton Rouge in the wake of a historic season and a mass exodus (I’m guessing you also have if you’re reading this).
Let’s establish something at the top about Pelini — his shortcomings at Nebraska were part performance and part relationships. Pelini wasn’t necessarily at Gus Malzahn-levels of fans divided, but there was certainly a significant portion of the fan base who deemed that cranking out 9 wins wasn’t good enough at a traditional power like Nebraska.
That was at the root of everything that went wrong for Pelini in Lincoln. A person with a volatile anger streak was not the ideal personality fit in a fishbowl like Nebraska. In September 2013, audio leaked of Pelini cursing out fans and media members after a 2011 win against Ohio State. That relationship was never fully healed, though fans did seem to enjoy Pelini’s willingness to poke fun at the “Faux Pelini” persona that picked up steam on Twitter (we mustn’t forget that this happened):
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) August 21, 2014
Months after that funny, feel-good moment, Pelini was fired and more audio leaked. The Omaha World-Herald got a tape of a players-only meeting that Pelini had in 2014 after he was fired. In it, Pelini had some extremely vulgar comments about then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst. It was no secret that they didn’t get along following Eichorst’s hiring in 2012. The fact that there was an expletive-laced rant released in the days after Pelini’s firing was about the least-surprising headline that could have come out of Lincoln.
Combine those things with Pelini’s animated, intense sideline behavior and yeah, it’s fair to wonder how he fits into the LSU puzzle in 2020. It probably also doesn’t help that Pelini was the coach who refused to offer Joe Burrow a scholarship even though Nebraska was his dream school. Some might also point to the post-Year 2 struggles Pelini had at Youngstown State and wonder if his best days are behind him.
All of those are reasonable concerns for LSU fans to have for anyone coming on staff, much less for the person tasked with replacing the even-keeled, successful Aranda.
But LSU fans need to remember a few things about Pelini.
One of which is that there’s misconception that players didn’t like him, and that he won’t gel with a players-first coach like Orgeron. Despite all of those aforementioned things, go back and look at how Nebraska players reacted to Pelini getting fired.
You really think we wouldn’t meet with Coach Bo? Think again. Everyman got their chance to say goodbye tonight pic.twitter.com/HjXchlpXl3
— Samuel Hahn (@daHAHNi) December 3, 2014
Pelini might be wound tighter than most, but anyone telling you he’s some stiff disciplinarian without a soul is mistaken.
Speaking of him being wound tighter than most, I’ll be stunned if Pelini is the same person he was a decade ago. He might have a somewhat similar personality in terms of what gets his blood boiling, but so many of the dynamics surrounding him are different now.
He’s not a head coach anymore. He won’t be dealing with media constantly, nor will he have the burden of leading what was once the most dominant program in college football.
Will Pelini still have a lot of pressure on him to succeed? Absolutely. You don’t get paid $2 million annually to go through the motions. The last thing LSU fans want to see is for that defense to fall off after Aranda left for Baylor. The annual expectation will be that Pelini yields results like he did in his first stint as LSU’s defensive coordinator when he rattled off 3 consecutive top 3 defenses.
As for whether Pelini sticks with Aranda’s 3-4 or he uses his traditional 4-3 base defense is a different discussion. Either way, he’s loaded with talent on that defensive line.
Scheme fit wasn’t the reason Orgeron hired Pelini. It probably wasn’t based on whether they would become best friends, either. Orgeron is about sustaining success. That means going out and hiring someone who gets LSU and at his best, showed that he knows how to coach up a defense at an elite level.
It’s the type of roll of the dice that a coach coming off a national championship with a fresh new extension can make. If Pelini isn’t a fit — as some fear — he’ll get 1-and-done treatment like Matt Canada. It’ll be well-documented, too. Like, we’ll see clips of Pelini looking like he’s about to decapitate an official (can we picture how he would have reacted to the Devin White targeting call?). If Pelini clearly isn’t a fit at season’s end, the only question will be what date LSU will make his firing official.
But Orgeron isn’t banking on that. He’s instead banking on his uncanny ability to evaluate people. More times than not, that has worked out in LSU’s favor. He earned the right for fans to trust his hires.
Time will tell if Pelini makes Orgeron look like a genius. We need to see how he handles criticism. We need to see how it responds to injuries like the 2019 group did. We need to see if Pelini is truly embracing this new chapter in career. Something tells me he wouldn’t have signed on the dotted line if he wasn’t willing to do that.
So yeah, those are my thoughts.