He’s reached the pinnacle of college football before, and now Bo Pelini is back at LSU to return the Tigers to the top

To say Bo Pelini had been “forgotten” might be a bit harsh—but it also isn’t far from the truth.

He had settled into a head coaching job at Youngstown State, a smaller, lower-division football program nestled in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

He was in a comfortable, quieter place, well-established with his family and out of the limelight of major college football programs like Oklahoma, LSU and Nebraska, where he had coached previously.

Bo Pelini, who coached the Tiger defense from 2005 to 2007 and was a pivotal piece in LSU’s BCS National Championship, returns to LSU this season as the defensive coordinator. Photo courtesy LSU Athletics.

So when former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left LSU to take his first head coaching position at Baylor, Pelini wasn’t exactly at the forefront of Tiger fans’ minds. But he was precisely who Ed Orgeron had pinpointed as his man.

This wasn’t Pelini’s first job offer since moving to Youngstown State in 2015. But it was the first job he felt was the right fit for what both he and his employer were looking for.

“I’ve had a bunch of different opportunities over the years, and a lot of them, I mean, I basically blew it off,” Pelini says. “I’ve never worked with Coach O, but we’ve been around each other a little bit, and I just thought it was a good fit. I was excited about it. I still have a lot of friends here and a lot of great relationships.”

The hire marks a Baton Rouge return for Pelini, who coached the Tiger defense from 2005 to 2007. He was a pivotal piece in LSU’s BCS National Championship during his final year in purple and gold.

Back then, Pelini’s defenses were known to be some of the best in the country. In his previous three-year stint at LSU, the Tigers went 34-6 and ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense.

In that span, the Tigers also averaged 38 sacks per season and racked up a combined 71 turnovers. So if you’re wondering what to expect out of LSU’s defense this season, Pelini is hoping for a lot more of the same.

“We have a talented group of kids who want to play hard and physical,” Pelini, 52, says. “They’re tough. I’m not going to burden them with X’s and O’s and that type of thing to the point where they’re out there thinking all the time. The more prepared they are, the more detailed they are. The more confident you are, that’s when you can really turn it loose.”

With the departure of Aranda and arrival of Pelini, a lot of the talk surrounded a potential switch in base defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. While it is thought that Pelini does prefer a 4-3 defense—meaning four defensive lineman and three linebackers—he has also emphasized the need for versatility.

The Tigers have beefed up their defensive line in recent years and have a plethora of depth in the secondary, which should allow Pelini to get creative with his coverage and experiment with a variety of different blitz packages.

Not only does Pelini have a load of talent at his disposal, the leaders on the defense are already beginning to take form, particularly in senior linebacker/safety JaCoby Stevens and junior linebacker Damone Clark.

“I think [Stevens and Clark] have really stepped up there,” Pelini says, emphasizing how important team leaders are to the success of the group as a whole. “They are guys that command a presence and the guys that are respected. These kids want to be good, and in our case, I think they want to be great. Coach O, I think, has done a phenomenal job of navigating through everything that’s been going on, and our kids have stayed pretty focused. I mean, let’s face it, there’s a lot of distraction out there. Our kids haven’t really blinked, and that’s a testament to the type of kids we have in this program.”

Last year’s undefeated national championship run demonstrated that mentality, which percolates through LSU’s program.

And now Pelini is back to try and climb the mountain the Tigers summited a season ago and he hasn’t tasted since 2007.

Check out more LSU-related stories in our full Tiger Pride special section.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of 225 magazine.