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Nebraska Football Team on the Field of Memorial Stadium
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Trev Alberts Can Find Success Not by Following ‘the Nebraska Way,’ but if He Stays True to His Way

July 14, 2021

It was halftime of the 2004 Outback Bowl. Trev Alberts sat at the middle of the dais with Mark May to his left and Rece Davis to his right, a Nebraska Cornhuskers logo stuck in the middle of the desk in front of them. Alberts had just gotten done praising the coaching ability of Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeye team was up 20-7 on the Gators at the break. 

The conversation turned to Nebraska’s open coaching job. Alberts pleaded to the camera for Ferentz to move to Lincoln and take over the program he once played for. Probably only somewhat in jest. May responded, plainly, “Christmas is over.” Ferentz, May said, had laughed at the notion of leaving Iowa for Nebraska. 

Nebraska had gone 10-3 that year with losses to Missouri and Texas, and a 28-point thumping at the hands of Kansas State. Its coach, Frank Solich, was fired before the bowl game.

“I think this is the right move,” Alberts said at the time, running in stark contrast to the rest of the fanbase. “I think if you’re really honest about it, the program had slipped into mediocrity somewhat. The bottom line for Nebraska is this: it always has been and it always will be about winning championships. Anything less is frankly unacceptable.”

That point in time, 18 years ago, is largely still viewed as an inflection point for the Husker program. Moving on from a coach Tom Osborne tapped as his replacement because he had maxed out at nine wins was met with intense scrutiny and second-guessing. Still, it’s one of the most-talked-about “what if?” moments in program history.

Nebraska didn’t hire Ferentz. Instead it hired Bill Callahan. By the estimation of some, the program has yet to recover from that string of decisions. 

Back on New Year’s Day in 2004, Alberts closed out the halftime segment with this in response to May laughing off the Huskers: “Mark makes a good point, forget about Nebraska and Kirk Ferentz laughing, that’s the point that maybe people in Nebraska have to start to understand. Maybe the whole thing we have in Nebraska, what we think our position is as a university, maybe it’s not viewed that way nationally.”

More than 17 years later and… has that changed much? 

If it hasn’t, Alberts is the next guy tasked with trying to do it. 

Among other things, changing Nebraska’s fortunes will mean Alberts has done his job. Though he said at his introductory press conference on Wednesday success won’t be because of Trev Alberts alone, he’s now the man in charge of the greatest commodity in the state.

He won the program’s only Butkus Award as an All-American linebacker in 1993. Alberts produced 15 sacks that season. His name is literally etched into Memorial Stadium’s stone, his jersey retired. He was an easy option waiting right up the highway.

This was a fundamentally huge decision for us,” UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said Wednesday. 

And at a pivotal time. 

Added NU system President Ted Carter: “We had to get this right.”

So Alberts was the only “candidate” interviewed for the position, Green and Carter said. Of course there was a national search and a committee that created a pool as deep as 25 potential options to replace the recently retired Bill Moos as Nebraska’s 16th Athletic Director. Semantics aside, Nebraska considered others, and now Alberts is the only name that matters. 

But what will make him successful as Nebraska’s AD won’t be his history with the university or his intimacy with the football program. Alberts won’t be a slam dunk hire because he does things “the Nebraska way.”

It doesn’t even really matter in the grand scheme of things how “stereotypically Nebraska” this hire is or isn’t. 

If Alberts is successful, it’s because he stayed a card-carrying member of the No B.S. Club. 

If his career has proven anything, it’s that Alberts isn’t afraid to say what he feels needs to be said or do what he feels needs to be done. Call it living without a fear of failure, or something like that.

A professor once said leadership is being able to tell your followers what they don’t want to hear. 

Alberts shuttered a football program and a wrestling program in just his second year as the athletic director at UNO in the name of moving up to Division I. “This is obviously an emotional day,” Alberts said when the news came down. “It’s also a day of great opportunity for UNO.” 

Four years later the men’s hockey team was in the Frozen Four. In 2017, the men’s basketball team made it to the Summit League championship game while the men’s soccer program won the title. In 2019, the baseball program made the NCAA Tournament and Alberts announced plans to build a new stadium for them to call home. He raised $100 million in private funds.

Challenges met head-on.

“Very early on I recognized how significant the challenge was and that I needed help,” Alberts said of UNO. “We were unafraid to go out and ask for help.

“You have to be humble enough to ask for it, and you have to listen.”

Littered throughout Alberts’ comments on Wednesday were little nuggets one could take and view through a football-specific prism. 

Outside of Nebraska, the only aspect of Alberts’ job that will draw attention is what he does with Scott Frost’s job. 

The head football coach was a savior four years ago but a 12-20 record to begin his tenure has landed him on too many hot seats to keep track of.  

Frost was out of town Wednesday, the only major Husker coach not at Alberts’ introduction. Through a statement, Frost said he looked forward to working together. Alberts said he felt the Huskers had the right leaders in place for all of their major sports, making sure to include Fred Hoiberg and Amy Williams and Will Bolt in his comments. 

“Certainly we haven’t achieved at the level we all hope to attain, but I believe strongly in Scott Frost’s leadership,” he said. 

Though don’t assume Alberts to be Frost’s buddy. They didn’t play together. Frost wasn’t Alberts’ hand-selected prize the way he was Moos’s. It’ll be important for the coach to be beholden to the AD rather than the other way around. Moos made it clear that Frost was going to be around as long as he was and extended the coach’s contract two years right before a loss to Wisconsin in 2019 that dropped the team to 8-14 under Frost’s watch.

Alberts spoke about unity of purpose, a callback to one of Frost’s main messages at his introductory press conference in 2017. Teamwork, Alberts said, needs to be properly established. 

“We’re going to have clearly defined roles, and we’re going to always do what is in the best interest of Nebraska,” Alberts said. “We simply cannot afford to allow anybody to put their own personal agenda ahead of what’s in the best interest for Nebraska.

“I’ve watched organizations with tremendous talent accomplish very, very little. And I’ve watched some organizations with marginal talent, because they were unified, change the world.”

Despite Frost’s best efforts, Nebraska hasn’t been unified the way the coach had hoped. Management styles were questioned, freedoms given. 

Alberts needs to strike a new tone. 

“Rarely do you hear Nebraskans make excuses,” he said. 

And Frost has made too many. 

“We all just went through the Will Bolt success in the baseball program,” Alberts said, answering what he admitted was a loaded question about which teams embodied his desired brand of attention to detail. “I love the confidence that they displayed in terms of how they competed and it was really very clear that that was a team that was together. 

“What I told Will this morning, I said (that the) hire of Rob Childress to me is indicative of a coach that’s very secure in (himself). It’s about how do we find the best help, go out and find a way to win. I think that says a lot about his leadership and what his goals are.”

Ironically enough, another part of Alberts’ job will no doubt be to smooth frayed tensions with the Big Ten. If Alberts is to be hard-nosed at home, it’ll be equally important he’s amenable away from the fort. 

“Obviously last year there were a lot of opinions out there,” he said. “I think it can be pretty natural to say, well, things aren’t working out. Nebraskans don’t run from challenges, we confront them. … We need to do our part. 

“The Big Ten needs Nebraska to be successful and I believe that Nebraska needs the Big Ten so we’ll keep working and developing those regional rivalries. And when success comes, suddenly being in the Big Ten is pretty awesome.”

That’s nothing that hasn’t already been said before, but perhaps it’s noteworthy that the tone from day one is that what’s been done hasn’t been good enough.

To be clear, Alberts has little reason to be weary of Frost. “I think he has a lot of great football coaching ahead of him,” Alberts said Wednesday. The man running the football program is still a young coach with a talented staff and an innovative offensive playbook. 

But he does need to produce this season, not just to quiet the noise away from home but to steady the waters close to it. Nebraska’s blue-chip ratio has taken a nose-dive and the fanbase is restless. Patience isn’t what it once was. It’ll be more important that Alberts provides a baseline standard than unconditional support. 

What Alberts said nearly two decades ago still remains true for everyone that’s part of the Nebraska machine today: it’s about winning championships. 

“I love this place,” he said Wednesday. “And I want to help.” But, he said “we’re also not entitled to success here. It has to be earned. … We’ve got great people. We can do this but it isn’t gonna be overnight, it isn’t going to be easy.”

Nothing worth doing ever is. To that end Nebraska hopes it has the right man leading the charge finally. 

Alberts’ past suggests he is.

“We will not be paralyzed with fear in decision-making,” he said. “So many times it’s easy to identify the problem and sometimes executing on that is where the rubber meets the road. We won’t always be right, but we’ll have the courage to execute, we’ll have the courage to do the tough stuff, as long as it’s in the best interest of Nebraska.”

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