Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

The Choice to Change

August 25, 2019
31,475

This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2019 Nebraska Football Yearbook. Never miss a Yearbook, or any issue of the magazine, with a subscription to Hail Varsity.


Nebraska was broken. 

Scott Frost, a man who knew what it had been and what it could be, was tasked with resurrecting it. He came from an unbeaten dream season in Orlando, Florida, and brought above everything else hope. A team that was 4-8 before his arrival believed he was the one who could mold its players into a consistent winner. They trusted his words, and early on they trusted his message. 

Excitement swelled before the home-opener against Akron and then washed away with the rain that cancelled a game. The first game. The start.

Guys finally got on the field the next week against Colorado. The Blackshirts hit. Hard. Seven sacks in their first showing seemingly set a tone for what was to come. Frost’s offense, his signature, posted 565 yards, the most in a game since Sept. 26, 2015. But the Huskers lost. The psyche of the team had just the slightest crack.

Troy came to Memorial Stadium for the next game. The defense held the Trojans to 12 first downs but the offense turned it over three times and the team committed 10 penalties. Another loss. A wedge.

Nebraska’s next game was on the road before 100,000 Michigan fans and a ranked Wolverine team still fuming at Frost over a slight made two years earlier with a different team. Michigan pummeled the Huskers. It was 39-0 at halftime. Afterward, Frost called it rock bottom. Swinging fast and violent, Michigan became a hammer.

Against Purdue on Sept. 29, Nebraska lost a winnable game 42-28 at home to ensure it would remain winless through the first month of the Frost era. The breaking point. 

Two weeks later, with the Huskers sitting at 0-6, the worst start in program history, the change Frost was so desperately looking for had finally come. The story of the final six weeks has already been told, though. This is about the two leading up to it––from the aftermath of the Purdue loss through the week of the Northwestern game. 

A different story altogether, told best by the captains who changed the course of a season — and maybe more. 

“Maybe I should have thought more about what was coming.” 
 

John S. Peterson
Nebraska defensive tackle and captain Mick Stoltenberg before last year’s Purdue game

On Dec. 2, news broke Scott Frost was leaving Central Florida to be the next head coach at his alma mater. At his first spring game on the sidelines in 2018, the Huskers sold out a practice. At his first Big Ten Media Days in July, he stole the show and told the conference to, “Get us now.” Excitement was everywhere. Jerald Foster, a senior left guard at the media event along with senior wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. and senior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg (all of whom would become team captains), told reporters the Huskers had a “Why not?” mentality when it came to their first year under the 2017 national coach of the year.

Foster: People’s confidence was so high. Not only as a player, but with the fans and everybody being kind of on our backs, it felt like it was going to roll. It was a hard schedule, definitely. I saw that. I thought we all saw that as we’re about to get a chance to do something crazy if we’re able to go and beat all these teams at their houses and make a real big statement for ourselves.

Stoltenberg: In any situation, especially when you’re putting everything you’ve got into something, you really strongly believe that you’re going to be successful.

Foster: Of course, with what (strength and conditioning) Coach (Zach) Duval put us through, there was a whole lot of confidence in our season.

Stoltenberg: I think throughout the winter guys started to realize that we had responsibilities and we had to make sure we were doing the correct things.

Senior linebacker, captain Luke Gifford: We had started (mandatory team meals) during the summer, and during the summer there wasn’t really anyone missing. We got pretty good.

Stoltenberg: With Dave Ellis coming in, our nutrition program was completely revamped, and we felt like that could give us an edge if everyone was eating at the training table for every single meal every day, especially for the guys who were on a meal plan. I mean, that’s free food. It didn’t make any sense to me that guys wouldn’t want to be there. 

Paul Bellinger
This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2019 Nebraska Football Yearbook

And it was nice just as far as being a team. You’d go to the training table and every one of your teammates would be there for every meal. You’d get to eat with your teammates and talk with your teammates and bond through that.

Gifford: We had cleaned it up when the staff got here. Because when they first got here in the winter it was bad. People were missing everything, doing punishments, and it was just kind of like, “Oh the punishment’s not that bad,” so it was not that big a deal.

Stoltenberg: Maybe I should have thought more about what was coming, but from the way I saw it, things were going fine through fall camp, things were going fine through the early season, it was when we started stringing together losses that we started to get that familiar taste in our mouth of what had happened the previous season.

Foster: I definitely believe if we would have had that first game, it would have set us up a little bit better. That’s not an excuse for the way the rest of the season went, but the first game is pretty big for a football team. 

I’ve never in all my years had a game where they just cut it dead like that, so that was crazy, and then coming into the Colorado game, we just had so many problems.

We were playing good when that Colorado team came up here. A couple of their guys said we looked like monsters when they played here.

Gifford: Then we started losing and just like anything else, things start to slip.

Michigan was pretty demoralizing. It was just rock bottom. I remember Coach Frost talking about it after the game . . . I felt like heading into Michigan the confidence was not anywhere near where it needed to be.

Stoltenberg: I was on the sideline early on that game, but once the game started going south you could definitely see that old familiar feeling. That was the one game that was really reminiscent of some of the games that happened late the previous season. That was a pretty tough feeling, especially as a team captain, just watching your team go down the same road we were trying to get away from and kind of letting go of the rope when things started getting more difficult. 

I think that was the one true game all season . . . where guys didn’t think they could win that ball game.

Gifford: I think we were pretty confident overall (going into the next week) but we still knew there was a lot that needed to be fixed culture-wise. It still wasn’t there, and we all knew that, but we felt like we were going to win the game going into it. Purdue was a pretty good team, they weren’t bad, and we did some good things.

"I was angry at a lot of people after that game." 
 

John S. Peterson
Nebraska offensive lineman and captain Jerald Foster

Two of the most memorable moments of the Purdue game both happened in the first half. With the Huskers trailing 17-7 in the second quarter, safety Marquel Dismuke broke on a David Blough pass and picked it off, returning it inside Purdue territory, but the turnover was negated because corner Lamar Jackson was flagged for holding. Before and after the play, he was jawing with the Purdue sideline. On the next drive, Dismuke was flagged for a late hit out of bounds that turned a second-and-10 incompletion into a first down. 

After the game, Frost said he was tired of coaching players who don’t play the right way, that his team looked at that time like the most undisciplined team in the country, that his team looked like it liked losing. It was as emotional and fiery as he had been in a press conference all season. He was the same in the locker room immediately after the game.

Foster: He was pissed. He was vocal.

Gifford: I think that’s another thing that opened people’s eyes. Because he hadn’t really been like that since he’d gotten here, but just the way that game went, it was definitely needed.

Stoltenberg: You feel like it’s on your shoulders as a defense. Just being on the sidelines, you felt like if we had done some things differently, if we had been more disciplined, we could have made a difference and won that game. I strongly believe that. 

Foster: I believe in all my guys but when I see something that heartbreaking (the penalties) — that’s a heartbreaker. Guys that I feel like are good athletes just doing things they know aren’t the right thing to do, it kills you. It really does. It takes away the vibe of the whole sideline. People start pointing fingers. A lot of offensive guys, we didn’t feel real good about the defense when all that was happening. It throws in doubt.

Gifford: I started thinking about how the coaches have preached how much the little things matter since they’ve gotten here and really every staff we’ve had has preached those things but no one has ever really correlated that to missing classes or missing meals or being late to lifting or just missing things that seem insignificant — like the mandatory meals on Sunday that people miss. It was like, I don’t know why no one sees a correlation there, because everything we do, we’re great until something little happens.

Stoltenberg: It’s just building good habits. Those habits are not exclusive to the football field but in every aspect of being a student-athlete.

Foster: I was angry at a lot of people after that game. There was a lot of anger throughout the locker room. We all wanted to win. That never changed throughout the whole year. Everybody wanted to win. But it’s when it gets to those moments of not just wanting to win but figuring out that I can do it, I will do it, and I’m not going to allow myself to be in the wrong until the clock hits zero.

Gifford: I think that was just the boiling point . . . I actually went to Coach (Jovan) Dewitt first right after the game.

We went into the defensive meeting room and I just told him something has to happen or we will lose every game this year. Something has to change. I basically told him that I would rather lose with the guys that are doing things right than win with the guys who weren’t going to do anything right and not change the culture of the program. Because at the end of the day, the only important thing . . . at this point we’re 0-4 and we’ve got to win the next however many games to make a bowl game. At that point it was like, “Ok we can obviously still do it, but the biggest thing that can happen this season is that we change the culture.”

Foster: Mick and I, we usually walk (after a game). We had walked back to our parking garage, we go up the stairs, same routine every time. After we had said our goodbyes to our parents and we were on our walk, I kind of was still fuming at the ears. I yelled at him and I said, “We’re going to have a meeting. We’re having a meeting. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.” And he was like, “I know. We need this. After we talk to Stan and we talk to Luke, we’re going to have this.” I said, “I don’t care if they’re in it, I know if you’re with it, the two of us coming up to a coach and telling him we need this and we need change, it’s going to be worth it.”

He said, “Giff’s coming here soon, let’s talk to Giff.”

Gifford: We all live together — me, Mick and Jerald . . . We all ride home together so I had told them I talked to Coach Dewitt and what happened and when I got in the car, they brought it up anyway. They wanted to talk to (Coach Frost) anyway.

Foster: Mick said if we don’t turn this around now, this is going to be the worst season Nebraska’s ever had and it’s going to be on us.

Stoltenberg: I expressed to them that it’s embarrassing we were so undisciplined out there and that we were continuing to put together losses.

Foster: We really didn’t talk too much to each other (in the car) but we got home and it kind of turned into a roommate yelling match of who’s more angry about what’s all going on.

Gifford: We just said at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is that we leave this place better than it had been the last couple years so they could win championships. We knew we weren’t going to be the ones that got to win them at that point, but we knew we could have a hand in what’s done in the next couple years and getting them off in the right direction.

Foster: After we calmed down a little bit, got a little more level-headed, I called Stan and I said. “Stan we’re meeting with Coach; I’ve already talked to Giff and I’ve already talked to Mick about it,” and he said, “Yeah I was going to call you about that.”

As crazy as it is that none of us talked to each other, we were all completely on the same page because it was just . . . I mean, people’s hearts were heavy. We all knew we were better than what was going on.

"If you go against the team, you're not on the team." 

 

Eric Francis
Nebraska coach Scott Frost leaves the field following last year’s loss to Purdue

The morning of Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, the four captains decided on a 10 a.m. meal, and then a meeting in Frost’s office.

Stoltenberg: You hear coaches all the time say, “Hey if you need anything just come on in,” and until that point we really hadn’t gotten together and laid it all out like we did.

Foster: We told him what we felt and how we felt about the program and he said, “Hey, I’m on board with whatever you want.” He said if we really feel like there are guys on this team who shouldn’t be playing, or there are guys on this team we need to at least look at and let those (other) guys see they’re not the best thing since sliced bread and give them a reality check, he said “I’m with it.” So, we did that.

Gifford: (Frost) had talked about the meals and stuff the night before in the locker room, so the first thing we came up with was we’ve got to find some kind of punishment or whatever it is that people can’t just brush off and say it’s not that hard so why does it matter.

Foster: It used to be you would run three gassers if you were on the list, and that was kind of hard, but it wasn’t anything that you couldn’t do.

Stoltenberg: It became almost like a currency rather than feeling like you let the team down.

Foster: Weeks before, I remember Mick was mad at one of the younger guys because one of the younger guys told him, “Yeah, I missed class, but I’ll be all right, I’ll just run real quick and be done with it.” Mick got on him after that. And he brought that up when we were all in the office together.

Stoltenberg: It struck a chord with me in the wrong way.

Foster: I was like, “Well let’s change it. Let’s do something that we’ve never done. Let’s do something harder.” Coach Frost said, “Well, back in the day we used to do stadiums,” and I was like yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do stadiums. Let’s go for it. Stan said let’s not let them go up and down just once, let’s go for three times like they’d do three gassers. And then Luke goes, “Nah, let’s do six, I don’t want these guys to ever miss anything ever again.”

We were all still fired up, we were like, yeah let’s make them do six of them. Coach said, “I don’t know if that’s good for them to be doing it after practice,” because your heart rate is already so high.

Mick said let’s have them run at five in the morning. He was like, if you want to be a problem, you can wake up at 4 (a.m.), get here at 5 (a.m.), run six full stadiums — you’ll go up North (Stadium), come back down for six times — and then go have breakfast and that’ll give you enough energy that you’ll make it through the workouts.

Stoltenberg: When it’s after practice that’s just in the back of your head like, “Oh it’s something I’ve just got to do later.” But if it’s in the morning, early, before you’ve got class, before you’ve got any obligations, it would really be a struggle to get up and do that. It would really be something that would stick in your mind.

Foster: Make it something people fail at.

Gifford: Then also (we came up with) three strikes. You get three offenses and they move you locker rooms, so you’re out of the main locker room. To us, what’s more demoralizing than having to be in a different locker room than your teammates?

Foster: After we got done talking about guys we felt like shouldn’t be playing, we called up a team meeting.

Gifford: Later that night, probably around 5 (p.m.) . . . We made it mandatory. I don’t think anybody missed either, unless they had class conflicts or something going on. Everyone was there.

Foster: We told them this is going to be the law. If you go against it, then you’re going against the team. If you go against the team, then you’re not on the team.

Stoltenberg: You could hear a pin drop when we got the team together, and it wasn’t just to get everyone in a room and start yelling at people and call people out, it was genuinely a call to arms.

The captains decided on one main speaker — Stoltenberg. 

Gifford: I always felt like it’s easy to talk too much. For me and Jerald, if Mick’s going to do it, there’s nothing for us to say. It kind of gets to the point where it’s redundant and it’s like, “All right, I don’t want to sit here and listen to you guys talk all night.” It’s got to mean something.

Foster: (Stoltenberg) was pissed when he came into the room.

Stoltenberg: It was probably one of the most emotional times I had been in. Being a leader, I wasn’t new to addressing the team, but that was a tough conversation to have, especially just laying it out on the line.

Foster: He was holding it in for so long. And I feel like a lot of us were, but allowing him to tell it was perfect because it gave me that feeling of, “It’s off my shoulders, it’s now been said.”

Stoltenberg: The biggest thing I tried to drive home was this is not just about working hard and doing the right things. It’s about genuinely sacrificing. Sacrificing the things that are keeping you from being successful. I kind of just shared with everyone my experiences and what I’d sacrificed throughout my time at Nebraska, one of those being the health of my knees and a shot at playing professional football, which at that point was out the window.

Basically just reiterated to the guys that this is bigger than yourself, this is bigger than your own personal accolades or accomplishments. If you want to be a successful football team you genuinely have to sacrifice and give things up for the greater good of the team.

Stoltenberg opened it up to the floor at one point, giving the chance for a younger player to speak up. One did — linebacker Mohamed Barry.

Foster: I didn’t really expect Mo to talk; I don’t think anyone else did. 

Stoltenberg: That was the type of situation where we didn’t want it to turn into everyone standing up and giving their speech and giving their two cents. We kind of just wanted to keep it just the things that we were saying and keep it brief. But that was one guy, just the way he stood up and the way he played and the way he left it out on the field throughout the season, we were OK with him standing up and saying something.

Foster: Mo’s (speech) was more a younger guy telling everybody that after we’re all gone — us seniors — that it’s not going to change. 

Stoltenberg: Some guys, they don’t like listening to Mo because Mo keeps it real . . . When he got up and just stood and supported us and supported our claim, I think it was good just for everyone to see on every level of that team how passionate guys were about it. 

It’s our life. Being a part of Nebraska football is pretty much the greatest part about our lives. I think when Mo stood up and got passionate and got loud and started going at it, it definitely just reaffirmed the things we had been saying.

Gifford: I think the reception went well, but at the same time I think guys were like, “Yeah, we’ll see.” We’ve had talks like this in the past and nothing changed. You still stand up there and talk to everybody and you can still see in some guys’ eyes that it’s like, “Yeah right.”

“There was a confidence I had never been around since I had gotten there.” 
 

Eric Francis
Nebraska linebacker and 2018 captain Luke Gifford

Nebraska played Wisconsin and Northwestern the next two weeks, both on the road. The Huskers lost to the Badgers 41-24 and then to the Wildcats 34-31 in overtime, but the captains could see things changing. It started right away during the very next practice after the team meeting. 

Gifford: Monday came and it was a rude awakening. Usually Mondays are pretty easy. Not easy but everyone is still sore from Saturday and pretty slow, and we’re just fixing some things and getting ready for the next week, but we were getting after it. Guys weren’t in the same positions they were in; some of them weren’t starting, others were. I think when we came out and that’s the way it was, guys’ eyes were really opened.

Foster: There were Blackshirts getting taken. There were starters sitting. A lot of stuff was happening offensively and defensively. If you were a guy who maybe didn’t start but you came with it on special teams, you were going to get pushed over the guy who started and he was just out there.

Stoltenberg: I think it took some getting back to the basics.

The depth chart changes between the Purdue and Wisconsin games featured six on the offensive side of the ball — including four new starters — one non-injury related new starter on defense, and changes to the punt returner and long-snapper on special teams.

Foster: It folded a couple guys, which was, in my eyes, fine. Pressure always takes away the weak first. That’s how it always goes, so it was good to see the guys who really were about it and really cared take a step forward. I think it opened doors for the younger guys as well.

Gifford: Even through that week there were guys who missed a lot of stuff and that (next) Monday morning, everybody who missed had to be there at 5 a.m. and they had to run stairs. Monday after Wisconsin. Everything that had happened through the week — the guys who missed something or had a punishment — (they) would do it the next week.

Stoltenberg: I’d go up to Adam Clark (former director of football operations) and I’d go up to (chief of staff) Gerrod Lambrecht and I’d get a list every week. And then we’d take that list into the weight room to post who was having to do the punishment.

Foster: It was like 20-something guys would mess up every single week. I mean, this is going to class, eating, being in meetings, there are a lot of chances (to get on the list). Not being in class, not being in meetings, missing any meal, training room . . . After the first week we changed it, it was three, and it stayed about three, maybe one after that.

Gifford: The first time guys had to do that, they were hurting. They got to practice and it was like, “We’re actually going to do this?” I think it was Coach Duval that was out there with them and even Coach was like, “This is not fun, you guys better not miss anything again because I don’t want to be out here either.” It’s at the time of the year where it’s starting to get cold and being out there at 5:30 or 6 is not what you want to be doing on a Monday morning.

Foster: I don’t care who you are, that is a day. Going from doing that in the morning, then to the high-sprung offense and defense that we have, you are worn out. I knew a lot of guys that felt like they didn’t deserve to do it, but we told them it really doesn’t matter about you at this point, if you don’t think you deserve to do it, why don’t you do it and then you never get put in a position where you might have to do something that hard. 

I knew I didn’t want to do it; that’s why I was fine with waking up just a little bit earlier so I would never be put in a situation like that. Us captains, none of us ever got on the list, but even though you’ve never been on the list it still scared you.

Gifford: Then that next week came and that was Northwestern. We had a great week of practice. Things were starting to change and obviously the game went the way it did — it was tough — but I remember before the Northwestern game, in warmups, I had never been on a team at Nebraska with the same type of vibe and feeling before a game. Everyone in there 100 percent thought we were going to win. There was a confidence I had never been around since I had gotten there. Everybody was loose — a good loose, serious but loose — and just confident in everyone around them.

Foster: We had a great practice week, had a great start to the game, did what we were supposed to be doing with the key and the schemes and then we lost it at the end, and that was on us. So a different kind of frustration, but at the same time, we did understand this is a good push forward. We need to keep striving to do better. We understood that.

Gifford: For me, I knew we had turned the corner after that game . . . 100 percent (the Northwestern loss would have broken previous teams). No doubt. (It didn’t break this team) because of the last two weeks and how we had changed. Especially just seeing the difference in what we were before and where we were at then. I don’t know if we’ve seen that much growth in our program in the last four years I was there.

“We’ll be proud.”
 

Eric Francis
2018 captains Mick Stoltenberg (44) and Stanley Morgan Jr. (8) celebrate after beating Michigan State

In the week leading up to a Senior Day showdown with Michigan State, Frost credited the senior class and his four captains with keeping the ship afloat. Days before a 9-6 victory in the snow, Nebraska’s fourth in five games, he called the Huskers “dangerous” because they had “really good leaders” who kept the team from coming apart. 

“These guys are going to mean a lot to me as long as I’m coaching here because this is going to be the group that had to go through the growing pains of changing everything,” he said then.

Showing up in his office on that off Sunday without any prior indication they were coming, that was the point of relief for the head coach.

Gifford: I think it was kind of one of those moments where Coach Frost was like, “This is what I’m talking about; finally we are to this point, this is what we need.” It wasn’t easy, because at the end of the day we still have things as captains to get better at, as leaders, but there was also a lot of people that needed to change the way they were doing things. They’re still your good friends and your buddies, that’s the hardest part.

Stoltenberg: I think that was big, especially for our relationship with Coach Frost.

Foster: There was a lot of getting by. That was the culture before. I feel like now, you can see just out of the practices we’ve had, that’s not the culture at all.

This spring really allowed me to take a step back and see just how hard and focused these guys are and just the determination that they have for the game . . . I really do feel like it was something that we not gave them but allowed them to understand. As captains that’s something you’re always trying to do, you’re always trying to build the young and work with the old guys and just allow everybody to keep pushing forward.

The accountability list still runs. It’s the exact same thing. The young guys have really taken it upon themselves to not only keep what we said but to add on to it if they felt like this is what’s needed for the team.

Stoltenberg: (Frost) has reiterated to us that he thanks us for the work we did and trying to help pull things in the right direction, but I know I can speak for everyone in saying we aren’t seeking recognition or anything like that from helping. 

To us, that was our responsibility and when the wins start to come this year, we’ll know the hand we had in that and we’ll be proud and we’ll be able to call each other up and get excited for the guys and send texts out to our former teammates. 

Really all I want is to see Nebraska getting back to what I wanted it to be when I was a kid and what I wanted it to be when I was playing there. Whether I’m there or not, it really doesn’t matter to me.

* * *

Gifford was interviewed for this story first. A few weeks before he sat and waited to hear his name called at the NFL Draft, he sat and answered questions about his last year at Nebraska. He was done. His Husker obligations had been fulfilled. But when asked who was on the accountability list, who had to run, who messed up, Gifford wouldn’t reveal names.

A week later, Foster did the same. That’s between the men in the locker room, he said.

A week later, Stoltenberg did the same. 

 
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