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Wisconsin vs. Nebraska, 9.29.2012

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and linebacker Sean Fisher (42) talk during a second-quarter timeout at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012.

Bo Pelini returns to his Ohio roots this weekend.

Returns to face his alma mater, Ohio State (class of 1990), hoping to make a splash.

In Columbus, he will be a three-hour drive from his native Youngstown, where he used to be one heck of a — get ready for it — swimmer.

Yeah, swimmer.

"As a sixth- or seventh-grader, people said he had all kinds of potential in the pool," says Roy Nard, Pelini's basketball coach from 1984-86 at Cardinal Mooney High School.

Pelini was a high-scoring point guard, the first Cardinal Mooney boy to surpass 1,000 points in high school. He also was an above-average baseball player, "a great center fielder," Nard says.

Pelini earned a football scholarship to Ohio State as a hard-hitting safety.

"In any one of those four sports, he could've been a superstar," says Nard, 63, chair of the Cardinal Mooney Health and Physical Education Department. "He's probably one of the best all-around athletes we've ever had here."

Nard watches Pelini on the sideline these days and can't help but smile. Nard will watch intently as 21st-ranked Nebraska plays No. 12 Ohio State on Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.

"You see those facial expressions and how intense Bo gets? That's how he was on the basketball floor," Nard says. "He was so darned competitive that I had to slow him down in practice."

Pelini evidently made life difficult for opponents. He was a tenacious defender — big surprise — and always wanted to guard the opposing team's best player, regardless of position.

He set a school record with 13 consecutive made free throws in a game. He hated it whenever he missed a free throw, Nard says.

"He could've been a very good college basketball player," Nard says.

Nard remembers another distinct characteristic of Pelini's.

"He would kind of try to help coach when things weren't going well on the floor," Nard says. "He kind of had his own ideas what we had to do."

There's a shock.

Vince Marrow, a Nebraska graduate assistant, was the second Cardinal Mooney boys player to exceed 1,000 points. Marrow was a gifted outside shooter, Nard says, and starred alongside Pelini.

"Let me say this," Marrow says. "From the age of 16, I knew Bo was going to be a head coach somewhere. He was a leader."

Pelini is a leader with a low tolerance for unnecessary distraction. That's why he became rather cold this week when asked if returning to his alma mater would be special. He said he has a job to do. To be sure, he can yuck it up with old friends during the offseason. What's more, anybody who knows Pelini understands that he dislikes being the focal point of any story.

Plus, we know Bo can be cantankerous at times. He could be that way even as a teen, Nard says with a hearty chuckle.

Nard clearly likes Pelini.

"He never fouled anyone, of course," Nard says.

He gives the G-rated version of the time Pelini went on a recruiting trip to Iowa the week of a basketball game against a city rival. A snowstorm pounded Iowa City. He had trouble getting out of town.

Game day arrived. The game started. No Bo. 

"The game's going into the fourth quarter, and finally here comes Bo into the gym," Nard says.

Pelini's first shot hits the side of the backboard. Next time down court, Nard says, Pelini turns it over. He turns it over again, and Nard sends in a substitute.

"Bo said, 'Coach, what are you doing?' Nard recalls. "I said, 'What are you doing? You have jet lag. Sit here for a few minutes and watch.'

"I'll never forget the look on his face. He said, 'If I knew you were going to take me out, I would've stayed in Iowa!'"

Classic Bo. He recovered to finish with 20-plus points.

Nard has several fond memories of Pelini, Marrow and Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck (also a Mooney graduate) and looks forward to the Nebraska-Ohio State showdown.

Nard isn't a Buckeye fan. He thinks Urban Meyer's team is very beatable, especially if the Huskers can contain dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller. That's a fairly big "if," but I like NU's chances to win — let's say 31-28, Big Red.

At any rate, Nard obviously remains a staunch Pelini fan — facial expressions and all.

"I just hope Bo can come out here and beat Ohio State's butt."

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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