We have reached the 100-day threshold of the Scott Frost era at Nebraska. What have we learned over that span? All this week we'll be taking a look at the "first 100 days" from a variety angles to help answer that question.
Scott Frost didn’t set out for Stanford to play safety. He went there to learn the passing game from one of the paragons of the pro game, Bill Walsh. But after Frost attempted nine passes as a true freshman backup to Steven Stenstrom, who was back in 1994, Walsh started to tinker with the idea of trying Frost at safety.
Actually it was more than tinkering. Reading the clips from that fall camp, Walsh may have been enamored with the idea. He compared Frost to Jim Thorpe and said he could be the best safety in college football, “he’s just that athletic.” Frost agreed to the move as long as he could keep his spot as the backup quarterback.
The sophomore made his defensive debut in Stanford’s second game of the season, grabbing an interception in the Cardinal’s 51-20 win over San Jose State. Game 3 was against eighth-ranked Arizona.
“Stanford’s football team looked at itself as if it was Pompeii in ruins,” wrote California columnist Bob Padecky after the game. That’s how that one went. Frost, a safety for two games at that point, didn’t pull any punches in postgame interviews either.
“Arizona would make a tackle and you’d see half the team stepping on our quarterback as they surrounded each other,” Frost said after the 34-10 loss. “Yeah, Arizona talked trash. They think they are good. They know they are good. And it looks like they are that good. I wish we had a little bit of that spirit.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, Frost still has plenty of it.
It seemed like a fair enough question to me. Four days before the 2018 Peach Bowl, an Auburn reporter asked Frost a question that was ostensibly “what jumps out about the Tigers on tape?” The problem was that it came wrapped in a package that implied UCF might struggle to throw deep on Auburn.
“Where are you from,” Frost asked.
“I’m from New York, but I cover Auburn,” the reporter replied.
“Ah,” Frost said and let that one syllable hang there as the only real answer to the question.
Until the game, that is.
UCF hit for nine passes of 15-plus yards against that Auburn secondary, one more than the Knights had averaged prior to that game and more than double what the Tigers were allowing per game. Auburn had the blue-chip talent and Power-5 pedigree; UCF had an offense its coach knew worked.
That competitiveness mixed with confidence has been readily apparent in Frost’s first 100 days at Nebraska, and it may have as much to do with any future turnaround in Lincoln as scheme, speed or strength.
Bo Pelini had an edge, of course. It was so apparent (and abrasive to some) that it often appeared to be all there was. The needle on Nebraska’s fight-or-flight gauge was always buried on the fight side, maybe so much so that such a level of fury was simply unsustainable. How else do you explain how a 14-10 deficit with a conference championship on the line ended up 70-31? How a 24-21 lead at Ohio State becomes 63-38? How a 17-3 lead at Wisconsin ends in a 59-24 loss? Pelini had as much competitiveness as you could want, but something was missing.
Bill Callahan had an edge, too, if you consider an occasionally unwarranted belief in his offense and a thinly disguised disregard for Nebraska’s place in the college football pecking order. Remember “oh, it’s probably too technical for you,” or “one game, one season?” Edgy, yes, but in all the wrong ways.
So what makes Frost different? There are a few ideas I think are worth exploring there.
One, confidence and competitiveness are perfectly paired, but they don’t always come in the same package. Wanting to win is in abundance. It might even be a way to paper over doubts about one’s ability to win. More rare are those who have supreme confidence but a relative indifference to results, but they’re out there. Rarest are those that can combine both and use one to replenish the other. Frost is one of those. The competitiveness was probably always there, but the confidence seems to come from having thought a lot about “this is how I would do it,” before ever getting the opportunity to do it. The proof would come quickly, however.
That’s the second point worth exploring – results. Two years is a small sample size for a head coach, but UCF covered a lot of ground in those two seasons. We have the benefit of judging the complete body of work of Frost’s predecessors, but if you had stopped after Year 2 with the last three you could tell a much different story. Pelini had Nebraska ranked in the top 15 at the end of his second year as a college head coach, heights the Huskers wouldn’t reach again at the end of a season during his tenure. Callahan had the Huskers 24th at the end of his second year as a college head coach, heights the Huskers wouldn’t reach again at the end of a season during his tenure. Riley had plenty of college experience when he arrived in Lincoln, but Year 2 at Nebraska ended up being the only year in which his Huskers had a winning record. There was relative hope to be had at the end of each of those seasons.
Why does Frost’s two-year résumé deserve to be viewed differently? Because there’s more proof there. There’s no deeper hole to climb out of than winless, and in two seasons UCF went from everything to prove in the wins column to nothing to prove in the loss column. The sample sizes in this example are the same, but the results aren’t. Pelini’s two Nebraska years are the only ones that are close, so to put it in terms of particular areas of expertise, his greatest Nebraska achievement was perhaps inheriting a defense that gave up 33.4 points per game, and two seasons later turning it into the nation’s best scoring defense at 10.4. An improvement of 23 points is a lot. Frost inherited an offense averaging 13.9 points per game, and two seasons later turned it into the nation’s best scoring offense at 48.2. That’s 34.3 points better and Frost added the conference title that just eluded Pelini in 2009.
But the biggest factor that sets Frost’s confidence level apart is this one: He believes he can do it at Nebraska. I’m not sure that was always the case for those that came before him. The circus that accompanied the Callahan hire, not to mention how he came to be available, certainly didn’t inspire confidence. Pelini, I think, grew to feel burdened by the expectations that came with Nebraska’s tradition (and he still came as close to meeting them as anyone post-Solich). Riley got an out-of-nowhere golden ticket and never quite shook the endearing but ultimately empty just-happy-to-be-here tenor of his tenure. All of these coaches said the right things when they were hired, but Big Red reality quickly cut through the veneer.
Frost doesn’t need a primer on any of that. Nebraska is a great job in many regards and a tough job in many others. It may be toughest of all for Frost given the expectation level. But he knew that was coming. He’s lived it once before.
There’s a lot of work ahead for Nebraska in the months and years ahead. Every season when Nebraska wasn’t what it once was adds a little weight to that burden.
But there’s also a clarity that comes with knowing just what awaits, whatever the walk of life. When you know there’s a hard day’s work ahead, the choice becomes rather simple: Are you going to do it or not?
Saying “yes” to that question is hard enough. It’s harder still to live it, requires confidence and competitiveness.
Nebraska’s football program now appears structured to ask and answer that question each and every day. Should be on about 100 days of yesses so far.