A decade-old photograph of Bo Pelini sums up why the football coach is returning to Baton Rouge for his old job.

LSU athletic trainer Jack Marucci can produce the photo at will.

Taken in Marucci's backyard on a Fourth of July in the late 2000s, Pelini stands with his young son, Patrick, former graduate assistant John Papuchis and quarterback Matt Flynn. All are smiling and holding up their index fingers, the champions of Marucci's annual LSU staff Wiffle ball tournament.

Such a picture combines Pelini's fundamental elements, according to those who know him best: football, fellowship and winning.

Pelini's foursome had dominated the tournament bracket, which was played out on a miniature dirt baseball field in Marucci's yard while hot dogs sizzled, ballpark music blared and unlit fireworks rested against the fence, waiting for their hour to explode in the Louisiana sky.

It was enough for an Ohio native wearing a Cleveland Indians jersey to feel at home.

"He was a guy that was one of us," Marucci said.

LSU: Pelini whiffle ball

LSU athletic trainer Jack Marucci once hosted whiffle ball tournaments in his back yard on the Fourth of July. Pictured around 2005-07, Bo Pelini (left) holds up one finger after winning a tournament one year with his son (middle left), former graduate assistant John Papuchis (middle right) and former quarterback Matt Flynn (right).

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One of us.

The sentiment echoed throughout the state Monday afternoon, when news broke that the former LSU defensive coordinator had agreed to replace Baylor-bound Dave Aranda — a deal which included a three-year, $2.3 million-per-year contract that lured Pelini away from his hometown gig as the head coach at Youngstown State.

Throwbacks of Pelini's dominant defenses from 2005-07 flooded local news sites and social media.

Current LSU defenders tweeted their approval.

Former Tigers, like safety Danny McCray, fervently connected with old teammates, exchanging messages such as, "This is gonna be EPIC."

Two weeks had passed since LSU won its fourth national championship. The program's homegrown head coach, Ed Orgeron, had returned his favorite childhood team to the pinnacle of college football, and it didn't take long for him to experience the cyclical gutting successful coaching staffs experience.

Aranda left for Baylor, taking with him former defensive line coach Dennis Johnson and analyst Jorge Munoz.

Passing game coordinator Joe Brady, the Broyles Award-winning assistant who helped build LSU's record-breaking offense, became the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator.

Filling those vacancies will be perhaps the most pivotal hires of Orgeron's tenure at LSU. Tasked with make-or-break decisions that could alter the momentum of the program, Orgeron turned to the defensive coach who left Baton Rouge a champion.

"It was just like they were saying Joe Burrow was one of the greatest recruits LSU ever had," said Curtis Taylor, an LSU safety from 2004-08. "I think that Bo Pelini is going to be that next great recruit, as far as bringing a coach back to LSU, because I know how much he meant when we were there."

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'Excuse my language'

Oh, yes, the players knew how much Bo meant to them.

Ask any of them and they'll tell you.

Taylor said he normally declines interviews, but he made an exception just to praise Pelini. He was as intense as anyone, Taylor said, a demanding coach who held his players accountable.

Pelini "knew how to get the best out of every player," former middle linebacker Darry Beckwith said. "It would feel like he would always yell at me every single day of my freshman year, and I could not quite understand it until one day he told me that he saw a lot of potential in me, so he held me to a higher standard than anybody else."

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Pelini was hard on his players, but he took up for them with constant actions that won them over.

Flynn remembers how the team used to run about four wind sprints after practice. Coaches watched the players, and if someone had incorrect hand placement at the start, or if someone didn't run all the way through the line, a coach threw a flag and added another sprint.

Position coaches usually monitored their own positions. But one day, Flynn said, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher threw a flag on a defensive player. In retaliation, Pelini thew a flag on an offensive player. The two coordinators fired flags back and forth until the players were sprawled out on the practice field turf, exhausted after about 20 extra sprints.

"Jimbo and Bo both kind of addressed us at the end," Flynn said. “ ‘We kind of got heated at each other a little, and I guess we took it out on you.' We were too tired to be pissed."

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By golly, was there plenty of heat.

Taylor cackled and began a story with the preface, "Excuse my language."

It was tied in Tuscaloosa — LSU 34, Alabama 34 — on Nov. 3, 2007, and with less than two minutes to play, Pelini called a blitz for safety Chad Jones with the Crimson Tide backed up on their own 30.

Over the crowd, over Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson's cadence, Pelini's voice cut through loud and clear and haunting. 

"I could hear Bo on the sideline," Taylor said. "Talk about, 'Make a f****** play! Make a f******* play!'"

Jones stunted inside the tackle and tore the ball loose from Wilson. Taylor recovered. Jacob Hester ran in the game-winning touchdown two plays later.

"I will never forget that until the good Lord decides to bring me home," Taylor said.

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'That's a bad white boy'

Vince Marrow remembers when Pelini used to drive him to pickup basketball games in Youngstown, Ohio.

Marrow, who is black, and Pelini, who is white, were best friends growing up.

Marrow, the big-time athlete from the inner city, had just transferred to Cardinal Mooney High, a private Catholic school.

Pelini, the year-older guy with the car, reached out to Marrow once he learned he'd be joining his school.

They were like Julius Campbell and Gerry Bertier in the blockbuster movie "Remember the Titans," Marrow said, the teammates who bonded beyond race.

"I swear to God, that's how we kind of were in our mix," said Marrow, now the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Kentucky. "He just made it more comfortable. So then I started staying at his house. He starts staying at my house."

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This is where Pelini's story of toughness begins, in northeast Ohio — a region known for steel-mill grit, adversity and sports. Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops went to the same high school, and his younger brother, Mark (now head coach at Kentucky), was just a year older than Pelini and played on the same football team.

Pelini was the hard-nosed quarterback of Cardinal Mooney's 1985 football team, which reached the state championship. He was the left-handed option quarterback for the Cardinals, a disciplined athlete who went on to play safety at Ohio State for Earle Bruce and John Cooper.

"(Pelini) demanded excellence," said Cardinal Mooney athletic director Dan Bucci, a legendary football coach who retired in 1999. "There’s no doubt about it. He was that type of coach. He doesn’t stand for any foolishness on the field. He was the same way as a quarterback."

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Pelini was "a very confident individual," Bucci said. It wasn't until many years later that Pelini told Bucci that when he was at the line of scrimmage, he would point to the defensive tackle and say, "We're running right at you," and that's right were they were running the play.

These are the stories, Marrow said, that define Bo.

There's another in which the high schoolers went to play pickup basketball at a local park.

"He's the only white guy on the court, probably in that whole area at this playground," Marrow said. They found their way onto the court, and on "the last point, when he threw me an alley-oop, the alley-oop won the game.

"I dunked it, and he was like, 'Get the f*** off the court!’ ” Marrow said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, s***. Like this dude.' Everybody said, 'Oh man, that's a bad white boy.’ ”

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Not a 'one-trick pony'

Beckwith knows some still have reservations about Pelini.

The very fire that former players, coaches and colleagues praise in their memories is also the very thing that produced problems in Pelini's first head coaching job at Nebraska.

Yes, there were good times in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers went 67-27 in his eight seasons and never dipped below a 9-4 record. Pelini gained social media fame because of a parody Twitter account — Faux Pelini — and he showed his sense of humor by carrying a cat through the stadium tunnel before the 2014 spring game.

There were also battles with administrators behind the scenes. Pelini was twice caught on tape going on four-letter-word rants about Nebraska fans, media and former Cornhuskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst — the man who fired him in 2014 (Eichorst, now deputy athletic director at Texas, declined to interview for this story).

But look at the way the Nebraska players reacted when Pelini left, Marucci said. You'll see the same gripping sadness that happened when Orgeron was passed over for the full-time job at Southern Cal in 2013.

"They know a good one walked out that door," said Marrow, who was a graduate assistant at Nebraska from 2011-12. "They know that."

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Nebraska has not had a 10-win season since firing Pelini, and the Cornhuskers are mired in three-year streak of losing seasons — a rut that some still link to the issues that rose toward the end of Pelini's tenure.

In the midst of Joe Burrow's Heisman Trophy season at LSU, the quarterback revealed that Nebraska didn't want him. The timeline falls upon Pelini, but the program was hot in pursuit of Heisman quarterback Lamar Jackson, who signed with Louisville after Pelini was fired.

These are all also the criticisms of a head coach, not of a defensive coordinator.

Those Nebraska teams still played stout defense with talented defenders like All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

The Cornhuskers mirrored the trademark of Pelini's defenses at LSU: havoc. The Tigers averaged 38 sacks per season in his three-year tenure, and the defense created a combined 71 turnovers.

Orgeron has put a high price on such volatility, and he has said he believes Pelini is more than capable of creating havoc in the wake of his predecessor.

Aranda is widely respected in coaching circles, a guy nicknamed "The Professor" who constantly tinkered with his 3-4 defensive scheme to create defensive leverage.

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Can Pelini be as creative as Aranda? Can his history in a base 4-3 defense produce the same problems as it did 13 years ago?

Pelini "wasn't a one-trick pony," Beckwith said. The Tigers mixed up coverages. Showed zone but played man. Showed man but played zone. They'd pepper backfields with blitzes from linebackers, from safeties, from cornerbacks.

"I can remember numerous times on Thursdays, he would come in with like 10 new blitzes," Beckwith said. And the blitzes sometimes bore the name of the player who'd be blitzing. Just think of it, Beckwith said: If you had a blitz named after you, wouldn't you be more pumped to rush the passer?

Those are the details that break against the struggles in Nebraska, the concerns that Pelini might not be a psychological fit in Baton Rouge.

"The psychology was what was one of his best assets," Marucci said with a laugh. "That was one of his best assets."

Before each game, Flynn said, Pelini gave such stirring motivational speeches for the defense in the locker room, that the offense would turn from their meetings to listen in.

And pairing Pelini's energy with Orgeron's already Bunyanesque motivational tactics?

"I wouldn't want to be on the other side of the ball on the first play of the game," Flynn said. "There will not be any lack of motivation, I'll tell you that."

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Youngstown was still home for Pelini.

After Nebraska, Pelini had multiple options to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Marrow said, but he chose to go back to Ohio and his family.

Bucci said he saw Pelini watching his nephew at a Cardinal Mooney basketball game last Friday. They spoke briefly, Bucci hovering away from the rumors that Pelini might be leaving for LSU.

Pelini's daughter attends Cardinal Mooney, and he told a local television station, WFMJ, that he appreciated that Orgeron and LSU gave him the weekend to think his decision over.

"It was hard for him to leave his hometown," Marucci said. "But you're coming back to a place where you feel very secure."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.