YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The heroes of northeast Ohio cover the walls at the most popular Italian restaurant in Bo Pelini's hometown.
Bernie Kosar's No. 19 Cleveland Browns jersey next to the door that leads to the kitchen. The photograph behind the bar of Ron Jaworski, the former Youngstown State quarterback who took the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl.
Inside the front door hang dozens of autographed pictures of Youngstown's favorite sons, many of them football coaches, their names so familiar: Stoops, Tressel, Narduzzi — and Pelini. That particular picture, taken more than a decade ago when Pelini was defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, is due for an update.
After seven volatile seasons of being good but not good enough to satisfy Nebraska fans, Bo's come home to coach the Youngstown State Penguins, have a nice bowl of cavatelli and meatballs at Cassese's MVR (Mahoning Valley Restaurant) and send his kids to Cardinal Mooney High School, where three decades ago he earned a football scholarship to Ohio State and met his wife, Mary Pat.
"The whole thing I thought was a good fit," Pelini said recently. "It was the right thing for us. Family, friends, the job, the place to live."
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In some ways, Youngstown State is like Nebraska. Not so long ago YSU routinely played for national championships. Lately it has struggled to crack the top half of the Top 25.
The Penguins won four Division I-AA (now known as FCS) titles and played in two more championship games from 1986-2000 under then-coach (now university president) Jim Tressel. They have been to the playoffs once since Tressel left for Ohio State in 2001.
Tressel's dynasty sprang up in Youngstown about a decade after the steel mills shut down, collapsing the local economy.
"Because when this town was at its lowest point, the football program gave this community something to be excited about and proud about, I think clearly it's extremely important," said athletic director Ron Strollo, who played for Tressel at Youngstown.
It was eight months ago that Tressel fell back into Youngstown's welcoming arms, his coaching career having crumbled under NCAA violations at Ohio State.
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In most ways, Youngstown State is nothing like Nebraska. Pelini's new office is spacious but windowless, located beneath Stambaugh Stadium, capacity 20,630. His old office in Lincoln had a view overlooking the Huskers' 20,000-square foot weight room.
Nebraska would routinely pay FCS schools hundreds of thousands of dollars to visit Memorial Stadium and pad the home team's record.
Now Pelini's school will be on the receiving end of those big checks from the power conference teams.
"Coaching's coaching. This whole step back thing. … You coach where you're coaching. I wouldn't be opposed to ever coaching high school ball," Pelini said. "The challenges are always there. They're different at different places.
"I'm not an ego-driven guy. I'm not one to worry about how many people are in the stadium or how big the stadium is or how many games are on TV or anything like that."
One of the challenges at Nebraska was dealing with the ghosts. The Huskers' long run of excellence, decades of consistently contending for national championships under Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney, has created expectations in Lincoln that are nearly impossible to meet.
"Different dynamics no matter where you are," Pelini said. "Nebraska I thought was very unique in that way in that there's a lot of things that kind of went with it that were beyond the football. It's just part of the deal."
Under intense scrutiny, Pelini went 67-27 at Nebraska, but never won a conference title and his teams too often came up short in big games. His sideline outbursts would make national news.
It was that fiery, no-nonsense Youngstown toughness that at first made Pelini so popular in Lincoln.
His bluntness was not so well-received when it was directed at Nebraska fans or the former players whose championship rings gave them credibility within Big Red Nation.
"Coach Pelini did not understand what Nebraska is built on and the fan base here and how your behavior affects them," former Huskers star quarterback Tommie Frazier said. "The way he acted and the way he talked in the media, people just got tired of it. He wasn't willing to change to become the person who represents Nebraska as the head football coach."
Pelini tried last year to show a lighter side. He won some people over by carrying a cat out of the tunnel before the spring game, a self-deprecating nod to the hilarious parody Twitter account Faux Pelini.
Ultimately, though, the Pelini-Nebraska marriage could not be saved. What went wrong? "You can figure it out," Pelini said. "It's not that hard."
Pelini makes no apologies for the job he and his staff did at Nebraska. Nor for an audio recording that was leaked to the media of his last meeting with Husker players after he was fired. Pelini slammed Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst at the meeting, using some vulgar words to describe his former boss.
"I think it's sad that it came out," Pelini said. "That's what's wrong with that place."
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As with many failing relationships, the Pelini-Nebraska divorce probably came a few years too late. That Pelini has found comfort in familiarity and returned to a place where he is embraced is really no surprise.
Pelini's parents are deceased, but his wife's parents still live in the Youngstown area, as well as three of his siblings. His three children will get to go to school with their cousins.
"I run into somebody almost on a daily basis I haven't seen (in years)," he said.
Pelini said he had job opportunities at bigger schools and in the NFL. He also could have taken some time off. Nebraska owed him $7.9 million on a contract that ran through the 2018 season.
At 47 years old, Pelini is too young to be coasting into retirement. It's fair to wonder if he is home for good. Or maybe, just for respite from the spotlight.
"I haven't even thought about it," Pelini said. "I'm here because I want to be here. You never say never."
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