Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Zac Taylor, a Hat and a Journey from Nebraska to the Super Bowl

February 13, 2022

Bob Kopecky purchased a hat in the spring of 1996. The hat was black with a red bill and a block red ‘N’ stitched on the front with script Huskers on top and the word “football” underneath. One side of the hat paid tribute to all five of Nebraska’s national titles, while the back reminded those who saw it of the Huskers “winning tradition.”

Nebraska had just won its fourth national title—its second in back-to-back years—and Kopecky thought his granddaughter might like a hat to commemorate the moment. Memories are a bit fuzzy after 26 years, but it seems likely the hat was purchased on the day of Nebraska’s 1996 spring game. Kopecky’s granddaughter was participating in a Husker cheerleading clinic—allowing her to cheer on the sidelines of Memorial Stadium for the afternoon—and her family made the trip to Lincoln for the day.

When Kopecky presented the hat to his granddaughter, he decided to start a tradition alongside it, too. The hat could be signed, but only by Nebraska quarterbacks. It didn’t need to be every quarterback though. Instead, it could be whomever Kopecky’s granddaughter felt should sign it.

There was no rhyme or reason to who could or could not sign it. Before Kopecky passed in 1999, his granddaughter added two signatures to the hat: Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost. Eric Crouch signed it in 2001.

After Crouch, the hat sat in waiting. It wasn’t that the Nebraska quarterbacks that followed didn’t deserve to sign it—in fact many, if not all, probably did—but the rules had always been arbitrary. Kopecky’s granddaughter was left to determine who would be the next to sign it.

The years passed and the hat sat untouched.

***

A Norman, Oklahoma, native, Zac Taylor started his collegiate career at Wake Forest in 2002 and spent two seasons with the Demon Deacons. He then spent the 2004 football season at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kansas, before transferring to Nebraska in 2005. 

Enrolling in January 2005, Taylor was quickly thrown into Bill Callahan’s West Coast Offense. It wasn’t an easy spring fo Taylor, either, with reports of Callahan pushing his quarterbacks to their limits in order to determine who was the toughest on the roster. By the spring game, Taylor threw for 357 yards and seemed like the favorite to start over Joe Ganz and returner Joe Dailey. It wasn’t until August, however, that Callahan and offensive coordinator Jay Norvell would make it official. The coaches still wanted to see Taylor against incoming freshman quarterback Harrison Beck.

The first three games of Taylor’s Nebraska career weren’t exactly stellar with the quarterback completing 39 of 89 passes for 399 yards. He had three interceptions to his one passing touchdown over those three games. It was the fourth game—a 27-20 double overtime victory over the No. 23 Iowa Cyclones—where things started to shift for Taylor. He set a number of single-game school records in that game, including his 431 passing yards. He was named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week following the win.

(Photo by John S. Peterson)

It only got better for Taylor from there. He led Nebraska’s offense for 26 straight games over two seasons. He won 17 games over that time, including a 32-28 win over No. 20 Michigan in the 2005 Alamo Bowl. The 2006 season was an especially strong one for Taylor, with him ranking third in the Big 12 Conference and 20th nationally in passing efficiency by the end of it. He was also named the 2006 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.

That 2006 season ultimately developed Taylor into one of the Huskers’ most successful quarterbacks in school history. His name still appears 34 times in the Nebraska football record book. 

It was clear that if anyone should sign that hat Kopecky bought his granddaughter 10 years prior, it should be Taylor. He had arrived at Nebraska without much fanfare, but turned that into something significant, or so the reasoning went.

The issue was that Taylor didn’t necessarily agree. Through mutual connections, Kopecky’s granddaughter tried to have Taylor sign the hat but was unsuccessful. It took an autograph signing at a Lincoln JC Penney for Taylor to agree to leave his mark on the hat alongside Frazier, Frost and Crouch.

“I don’t deserve it,” Kopecky’s granddaughter remembers Taylor telling her when she handed him the hat. He joked that she was significantly reducing the value of the hat but finally agreed to sign it with enough persuasion. There was one condition though.

“If you ever decide to part with it,” he said. “I’ll take it of your hands.”

***

Frost remembers being given two footballs with a number of Nebraska quarterback signatures. They included the names of Turner Gill, Keithen McCant and “probably 20 more.”

He doesn’t quite remember where he was, but Frost’s path crossed with Taylor’s and he knew what he wanted to do. If anyone deserved to own one of the footballs with a number of Nebraska quarterback legends on it, it was Taylor.

“I had two of them and so I gave Zac one,” Frost said. “He hopefully still has a ball with a lot of those guys’ signatures on it.”

There’s a lot to be said about Taylor’s coaching trajectory, too. After going undrafted in the 2007 NFL Draft, Taylor spent one season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League before hanging up his cleats. Taylor instead turned his sights toward coaching.

Taylor spent 2008–11 as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M before being named the assistant quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins in January 2012. In his fourth season with the Dolphins, Taylor was named the team’s interim offensive coordinator on November 30, 2015 after the firing of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Taylor returned to the college ranks in 2016 as the University of Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator.

However, it seemed the NFL was the place Taylor was meant to be. In 2017, he was hired as the Los Angeles Rams’ assistant wide receivers coach. He was promoted to the team’s quarterbacks coach in 2018.

On February 4, 2019, Taylor was named the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. It wasn’t exactly a perfect start to a head coaching job for Taylor—he went 2-14 and 4-11-1 in his first two seasons—but it’s probably best not to assume that Taylor can’t turn things around. In 2021, he led the Bengals to a 10–7 record and an AFC Championship victory. He will now coach the Bengals in their third Super Bowl appearance in team history.

“This game is really rewarding but it’s tough and anybody that can coach a team to the Super Bowl . . . It’s an unbelievable accomplishment,” Frost said. “He was a great quarterback, too. He played in a different era and a different offense, but had a great career here.

“It couldn’t happen to a better guy.”

***

Taylor was the last quarterback to sign that hat purchased by Bob Kopecky in 1996. It’s not because another quarterback doesn’t deserve to—in fact, many, if not all, probably do—but there is something serendipitous about Taylor being the last for now. There’s also something about Taylor not wanting to sign the hat and feeling like he didn’t deserve to be listed among the greatest in Nebraska history.

Fifteen years later, I’m glad I went to that Lincoln JC Penney and asked Taylor to sign the hat my grandpa had given me so many years prior. I’m glad his name is situated where it is too, between the three who had signed it before him.

I’m confident that Taylor doesn’t remember that interaction nor the hat. What I do know though is that if I ever decide to part with it, I’ll honor his request and send it his way.

I just can’t say I plan to part with it any time soon. I’m still waiting for who’s next, after all.

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