By ERIC OLSON, Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says he can't change his ways and fans might as well accept that yelling and confrontations between him and him players are going to happen on the sidelines.
The latest incident came Saturday, when Pelini and safety Daimion Stafford got into a heated exchange following a Penn State touchdown — a confrontation caught on camera for the ABC-televised game.
Stafford pointed his right index finger in Pelini's face, turned around and then came back to yell and point some more as Pelini leaned toward him. Pelini's back was to the camera for the duration of the video.
Pelini said Monday that he has a disciplined team that represents the state and university well and that he didn't think Stafford was being disrespectful.
"The only thing you can criticize Daimion Stafford for was wanting to win so bad," Pelini said. "He was upset. He should be upset. We gave up a touchdown."
Pelini said he was trying to calm Stafford, who later in the game made a key interception and fumble recovery. No. 16 Nebraska won 32-23.
"I love the guy. He's an emotional leader," Pelini said. "Let me tell you, it's an emotional game. That stuff happens. That's not the first time that's ever happened. That happens on the practice field. It's no big deal to me."
The Stafford incident was similar to one that happened Oct. 20 against Northwestern. That time, an ABC camera captured cornerback Antonio Bell screaming at Pelini after Bell was removed from the game for committing a penalty. Bell had to be held back from the coach by a teammate. Bell was dismissed from the team the next week, but Pelini said it was not because of that incident.
Chancellor Harvey Perlman supported Pelini in an email to the Associated Press.
"I think at this point Bo is a victim of his reputation and is unfairly singled out by the news media," Perlman wrote. "He has noticeably controlled his sideline behavior this year. Unless there is evidence that he is losing his team's respect, which I do not see, I think within reason you have to accept him for who he is."
Pelini said what happens on the Nebraska sideline is no different than on any other in college football.
He said he knows cameras are pointed at him because he becomes animated when he's upset. He said he doesn't worry or care about the cameras' presence.
"People are going to try to focus on the negatives of my personality and whatever else," he said. "I believe in who I am and I'm not changing. I couldn't change if I tried. I'm a passionate guy, I love what I do, I love my players. We have a great relationship."
The situation with Stafford stemmed from Matt McGloin's 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James that gave Penn State a 17-6 lead. Pelini said Stafford and other players were upset because of communication problems with the coaches on the sideline. The defensive calls came in too slowly, and players weren't able to get lined up right before the ball was snapped. Also, the calls weren't always the correct ones.
"It probably was my fault. I know it was," Pelini said.
Stafford declined interview requests after the game. Linebacker Will Compton, who also had a tense encounter with Pelini on the sideline, confirmed Pelini's account.
"All of it was frustration," Compton said. "Nothing was hitting the fan."
Pelini said he and Stafford ended up laughing about the incident at halftime.
"The players know this with me: I treat them like a man until they give me a reason not to," he said. "I've had players in my office, and I've lit them up in my office. Usually by the end of that, the next thing I do is walk over and put my arm around them and tell them I'm doing this because I care about you."
Pelini's behavior has been dissected on social media and radio shows since he took over at Nebraska five years. His biggest outburst came in a 2010 game at Texas A&M when he dressed down quarterback Taylor Martinez on the sideline and spent much of the game berating officials. His behavior drew a reprimand from Perlman, and Pelini made a public apology.
"When you have a mutual understanding between players and coaches, and the players understand you truly care about them as human beings, then you can get away with it," Pelini said. "If they think you're a selfish guy and you're in it for you — my players understand myself and the staff are not in it for us — you can have those types of exchanges. Someone from the outside might not understand and, to be honest with you, I don't care if they understand it."
Athletic director Tom Osborne was out of town and unavailable for comment.