GREATER CHICAGOLAND — It’s a little after 11 a.m. CT as I hit the outskirts of Chicago on August 25. The drive from Metro Detroit to the Windy City typically requires a fill up at some point and today is no different. But this trip is a little out of the ordinary. For starters, it’s centered around the first story for Sports Business Chronicle, and I’m also scheduled to interview a sports personality who requested anonymity and not because he’s a source (more on that later). As I wait for the gas to pump, naturally I’m scrolling through Twitter because there really isn’t another way to pass 45 seconds of time and I see the below Tweet from The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel, who leads college football coverage for the digital media subscription-based company.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) August 25, 2017
Coincidentally enough, and as you’ve probably guessed, I’m on my way to chat with @FauxPelini, once a satirical personality with a few measly hundred followers screaming 140 characters into the Twitter abyss. The parody of former Nebraska football coach and current Youngstown State head boss Bo Pelini is arguably the most trusted source of comedy in college football, maybe within all of Sports Twitter.
“I’ve followed Faux for years and his brand of satire is just so spot-on. Most impressively, he continued to grow his following long after Bo got fired,” Mandel wrote over email to Sports Business Chronicle about what attracted The Athletic to engage with @FauxPelini. “As a start-up site, we were looking for contributors who had a built-in following who could help bring in new readers. I knew he’d written some full-length stories before that were just as funny as the tweets so I reached out to see if he’d be interested in writing on a regular basis. Needless to say it has worked out exactly as we hoped it would.”
With nearly 595,000 followers, @FauxPelini is the most followed writer (full-time or contributor) at The Athletic by a few hundred thousand. While the numbers have grown to a point that @FauxPelini calls “crazy,” and the notoriety has ramped up over the past few years, one would think there’s an overarching plan, elaborate or thinly-sketched, to the madness, witty remarks and subtle and not-so-subtle digs at college football programs.
.@OleMissRebels Do you offer a 401k plan
— Fake Bo Pelini (@FauxPelini) July 21, 2017
“I had no plan at the beginning, I have no plan now, I have no ideas about monetizing,” @FauxPelini tells me at a nearby Starbucks, essential winging it this entire time since 2010 when the account was first conceived. Despite running by the seat of his pants, he’s “more open to opportunities now than I ever have been in terms of seeing what’s out there.” Maybe there’s an art and a science to the undefined chaos.
As many would think given his affinity for the Cornhuskers, @FauxPelini didn’t actually attend Nebraska, but he still stayed within the Big 12 family for college. He moved to Chicago “a while back” and in December 2010, started to experiment with Twitter as he saw the then four-year-old social platform gaining a stronger foothold in sports media.
“People were figuring it out, but I didn’t have a master plan of what any of this could become,” he says as he began to “throw up random smartass Tweets” with a nonexistent voice in the early stages.
He added: “This parody account, not a lot of thought went into it. No plan, nothing. I think I set it up as ‘Coach Bo Pelini’. That’s what it was for the first six months until I got a warning from Twitter that this is a violation of our terms of service, which I thought was kind of hilarious. I actually loved that part of it. That’s when I changed. Six months in, I changed it.”
What was the initial motivation for starting the account? Boredom? Joining the college football Twitter discussion? A larger experiment? No, no and hell no.
“Even questions like that, I think you’re giving me way too much credit,” laughed @FauxPelini. “There was no thinking about joining a conversation. It was something I could have just forgotten about after a day. But it got to a few hundred followers after like a month. That gave me enough for it to be a fun thing to mess around with for a few weeks or a few months, maybe until I got bored with it or people got bored with it.”
During Nebraska games in 2011, @FauxPelini started to gain some headway in the Twitter universe, Tweeting “Bo Pelini’s secret thoughts during key moments of stressful Husker games. A lot of tweeting in all caps. A lot of yelling at the quarterback or the defense.” Still, the twisting Twitter journey continued, seemingly with a go-with-the-flow mentality that would make a Type A’s head spin. At 2,000 followers, @FauxPelini “had a thing” but that “thing” was still yet to be determined. There was enough of a fire still burning to make it worthwhile and so, the account remained.
“There’s an audience but I don’t know what @FauxPelini is,” he said about the 2011-13 years. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but there seems to be this relationship between this weird account and its followers that it almost seemed like I’m just part of it as opposed to running it. It was a fun moment. From there, when Bo tweeted at me, that was insane.”
Fast forward to the 2014 BCS National Championship, when real-life Bo Pelini Tweeted at @FauxPelini, jokingly asking for his cat back after being mocked by the parody account with a photo of him and a cat.
@FauxPelini ok enough is enough… I want my cat back. You’ve had her long enough!
— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) January 7, 2014
“Hilarious, surreal, can’t be happening. It was so random,” @FauxPelini said of the emotions and reaction to real-life Pelini Tweeting him. When Pelini held up a cat prior to the 2014 Nebraska Spring Game, “that was officially weird,” according to @FauxPelini.
“It wasn’t him Tweeting but it was sort of him interacting. He’s Tweeted at me once or twice since then.”
With the Twitter interactions and Real Bo knowing of Fake Bo, would @FauxPelini ever be interested in meeting the current Youngstown State coach now?
“I’ll give that a healthy pause,” said @FauxPelini, waiting a few seconds to answer. “I think so, in some sort of controlled environment. He’s been a good sport about it. His son has Tweeted back and forth with me a few times. I don’t think it’d be a disaster. He’s probably not dying to meet me. If I ever was around him, I might say who I am from a little distance.”
“It’s just Twitter,” @FauxPelini pointedly lays on me. “It’s easy to overthink it. … You don’t exactly need a big back story for it to make sense. It’s not like people are demanding this story about who this character is and why it makes sense. It’s just Twitter.”
He elaborated that the only time he tries to make sense of it all and take a step back is when he talks to reporters. Here I am, trying to understand the man behind 140 characters and an anonymous figure, who said there’s about “40-something” family and friends who know he’s the voice behind @FauxPelini. He explained that despite there not being a “real overarching and compelling reason that I can’t have people know I am,” it’s easier to manage with his day-to-day job.
While choosing to remain anonymous could be considered partially calculated, the way @FauxPelini operates on Twitter — without a drawn out blueprint or any remote semblance of a plan — is part of the ingenuity.
“All of it is crazy if you just stop and put it all into context. There is really no context. This is all so new, and we’re trying to figure out what this market is,” he says, adding that there’s a place on Twitter for the “dumb guy Tweets” and obvious, concise statements he projects to his half million-plus followers.
“Fake Bo Pelini is a step behind the guy who thinks he’s the smartest and makes a bunch of dumb observations about stuff that’s out there. At the same time, he tries to be that consistent voice,” he added.
I’m looking at a U.S. map and thinking the people at “Northwestern” aren’t as smart as everyone says they are
— Fake Bo Pelini (@FauxPelini) October 16, 2012
As he alluded to, the “market” for creative voices and digital personas, fictitious or not, still “really hasn’t settled out yet.” It’s only scratched the surface. The opportunity at The Athletic is one of the first to develop from Twitter for @FauxPelini, with the first being a contributor gig with SB Nation from 2014-16 that included pieces such as, ‘How to be a college football coach who doesn’t get fired for a while’.
This path from Twitter and Internet obscurity to heightened prominence — between Twitter influence and the persona created around @FauxPelini — is one that couldn’t be scripted or even predicted. He explained that if people outlined a path like his or maybe that of Barstool Sports’ PFT Commenter, who grew from the comments section of Pro Football Talk, was possible, “people would probably tell them that this was crazy, and it wouldn’t work.” And yet, lo and behold the Twitterverse world we live in now. Some of the biggest sports personalities on the web or social media outside of athletes and traditional media are parody, satirical accounts and characters.
“Who knows who the stars are going to be? There’s a lot of room for creative voices these days,” said @FauxPelini, who added that the Fake Dan Beebe Twitter account around the former Big 12 Commissioner was one of the early trendsetters in the space.
“PFT Commenter, he went after it in an impressive and probably more well-thought out way than me. He’s brilliant. … There’s room for just creativity and talent right now to go out and make a thing. When PFT went out, there wasn’t a roadmap to go from the comments section of Pro Football Talk to Barstool. It’s talent that rose to the top away from the traditional channels.”
For the college football season, @FauxPelini is writing exclusively for The Athletic and authoring a weekly ‘life advice’ column, with the voice roughly “being a hybrid” of real-life Pelini and what @FauxPelini has morphed into up until this point.
So, could writing full time be in the cards for @FauxPelini at some point soon?
“I think my answer there would be maybe. It would depend and a lot of things would have to fall in place. Yeah, I’d be open to whatever the next phase could be,” he said.
When Pelini was fired by Nebraska after the 2014 season and hired weeks later by Youngstown State, @FauxPelini called it “the turning point” for the account and maybe even his digital footprint to an extent, which was partially tied to the 49-year-old coach and still is to this day.
“I thought pretty seriously about winding it down. From the day it started to get attention, I always thought that this thing would have a limited shelf life,” @FauxPelini said. “Either I’ll get bored of it or people will get bored of it. There will just come a natural point to shut it down. When he got fired, it seemed like for a few days it would be a good time to wind it up and go out with a bang. But, when I decided not to, partially I wanted to keep it alive to see what he was going to do.
“With him going to Youngstown, it left room for me to keep it going. He’s out of the national scene for the most part, although last year with Youngstown’s success he broke through. It allowed me to do it, actively or inactively. If he had gone to be a head coach at another big time program or the defensive coordinator somewhere, I wouldn’t have been watching those games or committed enough to watch those games. There probably would have been a time to wind it up. But with him going to Youngstown, I could keep it going.”
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With Pelini now out of the national or regional spotlight, unless he’s making a deep playoff run like he did last year, how does @FauxPelini fit into the college football Twitter conversation?
Like most aspects of the account, he doesn’t think about it at all. What he does think about is Tweeting what he personally thinks is funny, admitting that the persona is “probably much more similar to my personality and humor, at least, than I’d like to admit. It’s always been that I’m tweeting something that I think is funny.
“(Bo Pelini) is the perfect character. All you have to do is turn it up half a notch from his craziest rants. It could seem like him.”
@FauxPelini’s wide-ranging tweets stretch to pop culture, politics, the 2016 U.S. presidential election conversation and even some remarks about President Donald Trump. Although, he admitted “that’s a tricky world” to still navigate based on the political climate and how polarizing certain issues are to discuss.
— Fake Bo Pelini (@FauxPelini) September 6, 2017
When asked about his followers approaching 600,000, more than double any writer at The Athletic, @FauxPelini said he tries not to think about it.
“Too bizarre, too funny,” he says.
He still can’t quite pinpoint why people keep coming back for the “dumb, smartass comments,” a phrase he reiterated a few points in our discussion. He did say that his Tweets must be organic and if 140 characters sounds funny to him, he’ll Tweet regardless of audience, reach or what jokes might resonate most with his followers. Sports Business Chronicle asked PFT Commenter, who has some mutual admiration for @FauxPelini, about what he enjoys in particular from Fake Bo Pelini.
“FeauxPelini is a great acount on account of it takes a hilarious lovable subject and combines it with a unique ghostwriter,” PFT Commenter wrote over email. “Bo himself translate’s well to twitter because he speaks in under 140 characters at a time and lives life in absolutes. Feaux taps into that absurd energy and temperment of perpetual disbelief and comes out the other side with a voice that is shockingly his own.”
It’s a voice that again registered with The Athletic and Mandel, who also told SBC that the college football section in particular wanted to add contributors who could compliment the traditional writing and reporting already present within the section. A strategic and calculated move for the startup publication, 100 percent, but for @FauxPelini, he’ll continue to wing it … 140 characters at a time.
“I’m a huge fan of satire in general, and so I loved the idea of adding a humorous article that readers could look forward to every week,” Mandel continued to write. “And we wanted to make sure (@FauxPelini) had the creative freedom to address all manner of topics outside of football — that’s his brand and that’s what his followers enjoy.”
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