Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

Context Is Key as Huskers Work Through Their Rebuild

October 4, 2019
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Nebraska football has fallen from national prominence, as have all tradition-rich programs for a time, including Alabama’s. Such programs have returned to the national stage, however, though not necessarily to the degree the Crimson Tide has under Nick Saban. Still, they’ve returned.

The difference in Nebraska’s case is the length of time that has passed since Frank Solich’s 2001 team finished No. 8 in the Associated Press rankings. The Huskers’ 62-36 loss at Colorado to end that regular season signaled an end to Nebraska’s national relevance, even though the loss to Miami in the Rose Bowl was no disgrace. The No. 1-ranked Hurricanes were NFL-talent rich.

Since 2001, the Huskers have rarely been in the top-10, and then only briefly, and they’ve never cracked the final AP top 10, and only once the top 15—they were 14th in the final 2009 rankings, after winning six of their last seven, the loss a controversial one to Texas in the Big 12 title game.

Yes, Bo Pelini’s teams always won at least nine games, three won 10, but they always seemed to come up short in key games—see B1G Championship against unranked Wisconsin in 2012. 

Plus, Pelini’s behavior was deemed less than exemplary at times.

Through all the turmoil and disappointment, however, Husker fans haven’t lost their passion. And the Memorial Stadium sellout streak continues, though it could be in jeopardy.

No great insight to this point? Well, such observations are necessary context for the belief that Scott Frost is the coach who can resurrect Nebraska football, return it to the national conversation. But that resurrection will take more than a season and a half, which is where Frost will be following Saturday’s Homecoming game against Northwestern.

I’m among those who believe Frost is the coach to get the job done. And I expressed that on this week’s Big Red Wrap-Up. Not that I claim any great insight. I was offering an opinion, to which a couple of folks responded negatively on Twitter. 

One indicated that Frost would “run out of excuses” by season’s end. First, I’m not sure what was meant by “excuses.” Second, the implication that two seasons would be sufficient in determining whether Frost is the right coach is unreasonable, or so it seems to me.

To think turning around Nebraska is a task similar to drawing national attention to Central Florida with a 13-0 record in his second season shows a lack of understanding of the two programs, competing in the Big Ten compared to the American Athletic Conference, for starters.

Of course, such expectations have always been part of coaching at Nebraska. In the 21 seasons that followed the 1941 Rose Bowl, the Huskers had three winning records and one .500 record under seven coaches besides “Biff” Jones, who was called back to duty by the Army after the 1941 season.

Bob Devaney had immediate success, with talent recruited by his predecessor Bill Jennings. In his first five seasons, Devaney’s teams were a combined 47-8, with four Big Eight championships and four top-10 finishes in the AP poll. Yet when the Huskers went 6-4 back-to-back, boosters called for Devaney to replace assistants, and when he wouldn’t do that, circulated a petition calling for his firing.

In the retelling of that difficult time, Devaney said his secretary handled all his correspondence, discarding the negative letters, which meant he hadn’t seen anything about a petition. Had he seen it, he said, he would’ve signed it, too. Such was his sense of humor.

In 1969, after a 2-2 start, Nebraska defeated Kansas 21-17 to begin a 32-game unbeaten streak that included back-to-back national championships.

Tom Osborne, Devaney’s successor, claimed his job was always one seven-win season away from being in jeopardy. Folks look back on his 25-year, Hall-of-Fame head coaching career and see it as a steady climb to three national championships in his final four seasons. But it was far from steady.

Early on, fan dissatisfaction was based on lack of success against Oklahoma, which played a significant role in his nearly accepting the job at Colorado in 1978

Prior to that, the story is, a member of the Board of Regents told him after the victory against Texas Tech in the 1976 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl that it was a good thing the Huskers had won. The implication was clear. Osborne’s fourth season might’ve been his last. His teams were 37-10-2.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Osborne was criticized for his teams’ offensive emphasis on the run. There was a sense that the game might’ve passed him by, no pun intended. Clearly it hadn’t.

The Ohio State loss was frustrating, just as the Colorado loss was, for some, unexpected. But, again, this is Frost’s second season; with only two recruiting classes, it’s a work in progress. Regardless of what happens this week, or even the rest of the season, that needs to be considered.

It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact.

 
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