In case you missed it, here is a photograph of Bo Pelini hoisting a cat over his head:
This cat is named Anya, and it belongs to an athletic department employee at the University of Nebraska, where Pelini is still employed, often despite himself. His six years as head coach have been nothing if not remarkably consistent, four losses followed by four losses followed by four losses followed by … well, you get the idea. Pelini is the sort of coach who always seems to have a pebble stuck deep inside his shoe; his face is a rubber mask. He never looks particularly happy, and when he is truly angry, he makes Earl Weaver seem sedate.
After a tape surfaced last fall of Pelini profanely decrying his own fan base, it appeared his fate was sealed. But he is still there, at Nebraska, presumably flush with the recognition that he is lucky to still be there. And so this offseason, Pelini has begun the odd task of attempting to rehabilitate his image by interfacing with a parodic Twitter account, @FauxPelini, which features a doctored photograph of Pelini in a Christmas sweater, holding a feline.
Hence, Bo Pelini lugged a domesticated animal as his team emerged from the tunnel at last Saturday's spring football game. The Internet adored this, of course, because the Internet (and especially Twitter) is inherently self-referential, and when that self-referentiality goes mainstream, it completes the circle. But it seems obvious that Bo Pelini didn't merely hoist this cat merely to please the Internet; it seems obvious that Bo Pelini hoisted this cat because he recognized that the actual Bo Pelini was in danger of becoming a self-parody.
For a long time, of course, college football coaches could get away with being ruthless and draconian and overemotional and entirely un-self aware. This was the expectation; this was the lineage handed down from men like Schembechler and Hayes. Pelini was built in that mode: He grew up in blue-collar Youngstown, Ohio, and he played for Ohio State, and his emotions are splayed all over his long sleeves, which he might be able to get away more with if Nebraska had achieved better results. But for now, Pelini is a perpetually endangered coach in a middling conference at a school that is still living largely in the past. The Huskers can no longer get away with winning merely by picking recruits off the farms outside of North Platte. Pelini has to sell Nebraska to a wider swath of recruits, and he has to sell himself to a wider swath of recruits. He has to make it seem like there's more to him than a furious and anachronistic jerk. He has to make it seem like he knows he seems like kind of a jerk, because (wink, nudge) he's really not.
"The most important thing in this state is Nebraska football," Nebraska's former sports information director once said. "The second most important thing in this state is Nebraska spring football."
A year ago, Pelini allowed a seven-year-old cancer survivor to score a touchdown during Nebraska's spring game. And now, in an entirely different way, merely by cradling a house cat, I imagine Pelini bought himself at least a few months of offseason good will again. Maybe it doesn't save his job, but at least it completes the circle.