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FAU's Pelini no stranger to building a program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Carl and Bo Pelini make up one of three sets of head-coaching brothers in major-college football. Carl was his younger brother's offensive coordinator for four seasons at Nebraska.

So when they cross paths, be it by telephone or in person, what do these gentlemen with a combined 50 years of coaching experience talk about?

"You know, it's funny. You spend so much time with football [and] he's family-first," Carl Pelini said Tuesday. "We talk, but it's usually non-football related and more family related. ... After talking football all weekend, when you talk to your brother, it's the last thing you want to talk about."

Bo has the more glamorous gig at Nebraska, but the recent dust-up over his 2011 rant about "fair-weather" Cornhusker fans gives a reminder about the intense pressure of that job.

At Florida Atlantic, Carl has better weather and less visibility, but he has his pressure. For his first head coaching job, he replaced a legend who founded the program. He is charged with regenerating the Owls on the field and building a following in the stands in a large but tough-to-penetrate market.

Nonetheless, Carl Pelini jumped at the chance to start his head coaching career at FAU.

"I was a Nebraska, had a great job and was in no hurry to leave," he said. "I was very particular about where I wanted to go. When I came here, it was a young program but everybody I met on campus was very interested in building something that was sustained. That was important.

"I knew I could come in here and sign 30 junior-college kids and make a little run, but what I was interested in was building a program here what would survive long-term. I think there are a lot of people on campus, including the administration, both on the athletic side and academic side, [who] were all about seeing that done. And I knew that [with] construction of an $80 million stadium, winning becomes very important to a lot of people who didn't give it a second thought beforehand."

He no doubt knew what a fertile recruiting ground he would move to. His current roster counts 38 players from the strip of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and 42 from elsewhere in Florida.

But he didn't appreciate the growth of the university until he came to campus and saw all the construction. Founded in 1964, FAU's enrollment has shot past the 30,000 mark and the formerly all-commuter school has an on-campus population of 7,000. More dorms are planned.

In the late 1990s, FAU decided to start football and hired Howard Schnellenberger to build it - not a bad choice considering his rebuilding work at Miami (Fla.) and Louisville. The Owls kicked off for the first time in 2001, climbed to the Division I-A ranks in 2004 and earned their first of two bowl berths in 2007. They won those bowls, plunking Memphis 44-27 in 2007 at New Orleans and beating Central Michigan 24-21 at Detroit.

The program took a step back, finishing 1-11 in 2011, Schnellenberger's last year. The big highlight was the opening of 29,419-seat FAU Stadium, freeing the Owls from having to play home games in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Schnellenberger remains popular in south Florida, and he served as honorary captain for both sides in the season opener between FAU and Miami. But otherwise, he is staying out of the spotlight.

"Coach Schnellenberger has been very supportive; really, he's been hands-off," Pelini said. "When I took the job here, he became an ambassador for the university, working more on the fund-raising side. He's been good about that.

"He offers help when I need it, and yet I don't feel like he's looking over my shoulder all the time, which gave me the freedom to build my own program."

Pelini has seen his share of program building. He served as graduate assistant and later a restricted-earnings coach at Kansas State, in the early days of coach Bill Snyder's near-magic building there. In 2005, he was brought to Ohio as part of Frank Solich's first Bobcats staff.

Talk about two head coaches with patience in abundance.

"That's something I thought really prepared me for this, because when we got there it was really down," Pelini said. "I got to watch a guy meticulously go about building a program and believing in his process and sticking to his guns, even early on when he was getting some criticism - people were in too much of a hurry.

"He stuck to his process and believed in what he was doing, and look where it got him."

FAU finished 3-9 in Pelini's first season of 2012. In its first season in Conference USA, FAU's record (2-4, 1-3) isn't exactly shiny.

Yet, it wasn't unreasonable before the season to expect the Owls to be 0-6 headed into Saturday's 5 p.m. home game with Marshall. But here's the thing: The Owls just as easily could be riding a four-game winning streak into Saturday.

They lost 42-35 to Middle Tennessee on a slick fourth-down interception in overtime and had Rice on the ropes until Greg Hankerson, subbing for injured quarterback Jaquez Johnson, committed three late turnovers.

"I kind of felt like our play had kind of shown we belong in this conference," Pelini said. "We've got a lot of improvement to make, but we potentially could a team that does just fine in Conference USA."

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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