It’s the dawn of a new gridiron era at Florida Atlantic University. After a decade of play under the guidance of legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger, who started the program from scratch, the Owls kick off their 2012 college football season Friday night at FAU Stadium against Wagner (8 p.m.) with a new captain at the helm.

Carl Pelini leads a college team onto the field for the first time as a head coach. The former defensive coordinator at Nebraska spoke to Boca Raton earlier this spring about replacing an icon and what to expect from an FAU team coming off a one-win season.
On preparing for his first head coaching job: “Each year, I rewrite my coaching philosophy based on personal experiences or discussions with people I respect. By the time I applied for this position, I had a working document that, essentially, was 19 years old. The one I submitted to FAU had little to do with football and more to do with how to run an organization, how to deal with employees, how to encourage creativity in the workplace, and how to develop a mission and push everything toward that mission.”

On replacing an icon: “I don’t think about replacing Howard. I’m my own person, and I’m not going to win trying to be like him. I have to be very careful to put own stamp on this program—and do it the way I think it right. We’ve started on the ground floor and have rebuilt everything. … We’ll look back in five years and see if my approach was the right way.”

On how the 2012 team will distinguish itself: “I want to be a physical football team, and I know that sounds funny [since the offense has installed] the spread. But the best spread teams have been physical in that style. They want to lull you into being soft; we were always physical in our approach to the spread. … We also have to instill in this team that we can’t make mistakes. We need crisp, clean football. Let’s make teams beat us, let’s not make the grievous errors that cost us. … You have play with great effort, and you have to coach effort every day. I want our players to practice and play with passion and excitement.”

On what he’s most excited about heading into the season: “I’m excited about this opportunity, period. This is a growing university—five years from now, you won’t recognize it. … If you want to become a major academic institution, athletics becomes a big part of that. Athletics is the front door of a college, it’s what people and prospective students see from the outside. … Athletics also becomes a huge part of campus life … At the same time, you have to connect locally to people outside the university—what better way to do that than to find a great local nucleus for your team and recruit the tri-county area.”