The booming industry that is major college athletics has, for better or worse, changed the way we view the role of a college coach. They’re not really a caretaker or teacher anymore, they’re in town to do one thing: win. And it’s expensive to field a winning program. The top 10 in terms of yearly expenses from 2015-16 (the latest data USA Today has available) is littered with winners: Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma to name a few. Win and you keep the money flowing — eight of the top 10 in expenses are also in the top 10 in revenue — but lose and you start making changes.
The last head of Nebraska football didn’t win, so out he went. It didn’t matter that Mike Riley was a tremendous teacher of young people, this game’s bottom line is victories. (Well, it sort of did. That aspect of the ordeal was what made it so hard to acknowledge things didn’t work.)
Still, the game’s very best know that you have to do one to accomplish the other. You can feel that when you get those brief glimpses into Nick Saban’s practices, you could see it when Scott Frost and his staff transformed a winless team into an unbeaten one, you can hear it when you find yourself down that rabbit hole on a Sunday watching old YouTube clips of Nebraska in the 80s and 90s and listening to Tom Osborne talk.
Osborne hears it at Husker practices now, too. He recently told the Journal-Star that the screaming and hollering you’d find elsewhere has been replaced by teaching. At the end of the day, coaching a bunch of 18, 19 and 20-year-olds has to have some element of that. This staff gets it.
“There’s going to be some sloppiness to the practices but I don’t want to see guys dip their toe in the water, I want to see them dive in head first,” Frost said before spring ball began. “We’re going to make mistakes, we don’t have a coaching staff that’s going to yell at them or cuss at them for making mistakes. We’re just going to teach them to do it the right way.”
Through the first two weeks, that hasn’t just been a talking piece, it’s been reality. Things have been sloppy and offensive line coach Greg Austin wasn’t happy with his group’s Saturday, saying it “was not a good day, I can just be honest with you on that,” but instead of ripping his guys he went a different way.
“Today was our day of adversity,” he said after practice. “I brought the guys in and I said, ‘Hey, what are we going to do? What are we going to do when faced with adversity? Are we going to get our butt back in the meeting room, find out what we need to do to get better, and then come out here and attack it? Or are we going to put our tails between our legs and sulk about the things that happened to us today?’
“Today, in my opinion – and just in terms of the offensive line, I can’t speak on any other position – was certainly a day of learning and I think one of the days that’s going to go down as one of the days that made us better overall.”
Players have frequently talked about the “shoot your shot” atmosphere that’s developing in practice and how freeing it is to play without fear of making mistakes or fear of getting yanked by a coach if something goes wrong. The install for both sides is mostly done at the midway point of spring, so moving forward it will be about “tightening the screws,” as running backs coach Ryan Held puts it, and in that regard, the staff will look to minimize as many flubs as possible. But, even before the install was complete, coaches haven’t been worried about mishaps as much as repeated errors.
“I like new mistakes, I don’t want repeat mistakes,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “Now if I keep getting guys who have proven to me that they’re smart guys, if they keep making the same mistake, then I’ve got to look at myself, too. When you’ve got mistakes, you look at it two ways: is it guys who aren’t trying or they're not grasping a concept? Then you have to look at yourself as well. If there are a bunch of repeat offenders then I have to look at how I’m teaching it.”
That’s an approach that’s shared by pretty much everyone in the coaching unit. Last week, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said “I believe what he believes” when talking about Frost’s tackling philosophy, but he really could have been talking about anything. The cohesion of the unit has been on full display since their early days in Lincoln.
“Absolutely, I agree with [Ruud],” Held said. “We don’t want the same mistakes over and over, that means you’re not listening in the meetings and you’re not actively trying to fix them. Every time we go out there, guys are going to make mistakes so we’ve just got to be able to correct them within because we just have so much going on with different looks that each play there’s something new that you can correct and fix.”
Film room is as important as anything because of the pace of practice. Guys like cornerback Lamar Jackson and wideout JD Spielman have said they don’t even have time to talk after plays because everything happens so fast, so the major corrections come in the film room when guys can catch their breath.
On the field, the staff uses codewords.
“We give codewords out so we can fix it on the run and then when we get into meetings we’ve got to be able to fix the things that are big-picture things and even down to the small details so we don’t make the same mistakes over and over,” Held said. “Our guys know what we’re talking about because I don’t have time to say, ‘Hey listen, this play yadda, yadda, yadda.’ I don’t have time to do that because things happen so fast.”
So, if a running back is supposed to run through a gap and they don’t, Held will yell “run through the smoke.” If a back doesn’t “chomp down” on the ball on a handoff, Held yells “Pacman.” They’ve even borrowed some Adidas terminology.
“One of the new things we’ve implemented is ‘Three Stripe Life,’ meaning wherever they get whizzed off or hit, they’ve got to burst three stripes down the field,” Held said. “We’re kind of using an Adidas deal.”
There’s also an interesting thing happening at the end of drives. Even if a ball-carrier gets tackled or falls down, they finish the play in the endzone. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters has been tweeting with the hashtag “Playmak6rs” a lot recently. The six represents points, and the Husker offense — which ranked 84th in scoring and 111th in red zone conversion percentage — wants to live in the end zone this season.
“We have to learn to score touchdowns and that’s got to be our mentality,” Held said. “I want to see us learn to finish.”
There’s still a long ways to go before the results of this offseason course can be put on full display, but there’s plenty of optimism over how this new squad will test out. A benchmark of sorts (remember those in school? Gross.) takes place on April 21, then what could amount to a mid-term on Sept. 1 when Frost and Co. take to Tom Osborne Field for the first time against Akron. The last time this staff took on a rebuild, their approach paid off spectacularly. They’re looking for the same here.
“The standards are high at Nebraska, we didn’t come here to be 6-6, we didn’t come here to be average,” Walters said. “We’re trying to win championships. That’s the mindset the guys have. That’s the culture we want to create, a championship culture, every day you come to work you’re going to prepare and play like a champion. Guys are starting to buy in. By the fall, we’ll be good to go.”