When I resurrected this column from the sports columnists’ retirement home last week, my expressed desire was to focus on Wayne High and Wayne State sports.
This week, I feel the need to break from that focus to discuss something that is close to the hearts of a lot of us sports fans here in town — the football team formerly known as the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
You remember Big Red, right? Pounded teams into submission. Ran over, through and around opposing defenses at will. Crushed the quarterbacks and the opposing teams’ hopes and dreams 11-12 Saturdays a season, year after year, for generations.
In case you haven’t heard — that team has been replaced with a horrible replica, sort of like when the guys in KISS were replaced by evil robots in the forgettable 70’s film disaster, “KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park.” (Even if you’re not a KISS fan, you HAVE to find this movie and watch it . . . it is a gut-splitting, hilarious, horribly written and acted piece of art -- and this is coming from a die-hard KISS fanatic.)
The latest incarnation of the dumpster fire that Nebraska football has become took place Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis, Minn. The Golden Gophers — a team that hasn’t been anywhere NEAR a conversation of the nation’s best teams since their last national title waaaaaaay back in 1960 — looked like College Football Playoff material with the way they obliterated the impostors from Lincoln. It was like flashing back to 1983 when Nebraska blew up Minnesota in an 84-13 slaughter and being convinced that the two teams had switched uniforms and replayed that game.
It’s the latest in an ever-expanding resume of disastrous performances by this team under its current coach, Mike Riley, and his clueless coaching staff. The Huskers are 4-6 and headed to their first eight-loss season since 1957 — five years before a guy by the name of Devaney started turning the program’s fortunes around.
The knock on two of the previous coaches who followed legendary mentor Tom Osborne was that they lost games in horrific fashion. Both Frank Solich and Bo Pelini were fired after 9-3 seasons where the losses were downright humiliating for a Husker fan to sit through. (There were also other off-field issues with both coaches that helped the cause for their dismissal, but that’s another discussion.)
The current coach has taken humiliation to another level, though. Consider what we’ve seen this year:
— 42 points and more than 400 yards by Oregon . . . in the first HALF.
— Losing to Northern Illinois . . . at HOME.
— Ohio State’s one-sided ass-whipping, which came one week after Wisconsin lit us up like a classic pinball machine . . . both AT HOME.
— Making no effort to stop a poor Northwestern ground game in overtime and watching them not only score with ease, but then shut down Nebraska to win their third straight overtime game, a first at this level.
I’m not even going to go into the poor schemes, the inability to have the right personnel in the right place, tackling that a number of high school running backs could slip through, and a defense that looks more confused than a virgin on 2-for-1 night at the Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada. (Not speaking to personal experience on that comparison, having never BEEN to a brothel, by the way . . .)
How did we, as Husker fans, get to THIS point? We’ve seen other programs do it over the years — Alabama struggled after legendary coach Bear Bryant retired. Oklahoma went through a decade of inept play after Barry Switzer was fired due to NCAA violations. Other programs have gone through lulls after eras of success — Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Penn State — what is happening here in Nebraska is not unique. It’s just unique to those of us whose lives as Husker fans started during that era when Bob Devaney built Nebraska into a national power and Tom Osborne continued that legacy and ended with a legendary finish. Knowing nothing but success and bowl games and conference and national titles — it’s been hard wrapping our heads around what Nebraska football has become.
A lot of people say it began when Osborne retired and demanded that Solich be handed the keys to the Cadillac. Actually, it started when then-athletic director Bill Byrne left Nebraska for Texas A&M. University president Harvey Perlman made what appeared, at the time, to be a magnificent hire in Nebraska native (and then-AD at Pitt) Steve Pederson.
What a brilliant idea, most of us thought — a Nebraska boy, a UNL grad AND a former employee of the athletic department who got his experience back east at a Div. I school and helped turn some of that department’s fortunes around.
As it turned out, Pederson was all about himself and not interested in maintaining and building on the culture that made Husker athletics in general — and football specifically — the unique experience that it was. He set an ugly precedent by firing Solich after a 9-3 season that included some horrible (in relation to the few Nebraska experienced in the previous 8-10 years) defeats. His desire to wash the program clean of the Devaney-Osborne legacy led to an aborted hire (Houston Nutt never board the UNL plane awaiting him at an airport in Arkansas) and a hire that should have never happened when he turned to his fourth or fifth choice, Bill Callahan — fresh off being fired as the Oakland Raiders coach during a season where he called his own team the “dumbest team in the National Football League.”
You’ll remember what happened next.
Losses that were the flip-side of some Nebraska had administered over the years. A 70-10 ass-whipping by Texas Tech. Kansas scoring 76 points in THREE quarters. Oklahoma State winning in Lincoln and building a 38-0 halftime lead that led to the first-ever halftime mass exodus of the Husker faithful. (Pederson followed them out the door a couple of days later with his pink slip.)
Tom Osborne came in to help slow the bleeding and made what — again — appeared to be a great hire by bringing back Bo Pelini, who was Solich’s defensive coordinator in that ill-fated season and coached Nebraska to an Alamo Bowl win as the interim head coach.
Nebraska football was exciting again, but the mind-numbing losses didn’t stop. The heartbreaking screw job by the refs in the 2009 Big XII championship game that gave Texas an extra second to allow for a game-winning field goal allowed us to really see the anger in Pelini’s heart as he berated the officials after the game. Justified, we all thought at the time, as many of us had similar venom that we would have loved to lob that direction as well.
Over time, though, he turned his ill behavior toward those who were among his supporters, including fans and, ultimately, the school administration. Osborne retired and Shawn Eickhorst fired Pelini not long after coming on board.
Eickhorst could have made a “wow” hire, but instead went for the “who???” choice of Mike Riley, a nice guy with a career record that, to be honest, wasn’t all that nice.
And so now we find ourselves, as Husker fans, awaiting the dropping of the other shoe. Riley’s dismissal is a foregone conclusion, one must think. After Saturday’s mortifying effort at Minnesota, Nebraska is on pace for a 4-8 finish that hasn’t been seen in more than half a century. Nebraska would have to pull off a colossal upset at Penn State next week, then finish with a win over an Iowa team that bludgeoned the same Ohio State team that treated Nebraska like an old punching bag to finish 6-6 and become (this still makes me laugh) bowl-eligible. Even if that DID happen, would that be enough to save his hide for one more year?
If not, who’s the guy to replace Riley and start the rebuilding process?
A lot of Husker fans think it should be a Nebraska guy who “knows the culture” and point to Central Florida coach Scott Frost. A number of other coaches from schools such as Navy, Army and TCU have also been suggested, but a lot of people think Frost is “the guy” to turn Nebraska’s fortunes around.
Here’s why I think Frost coming home is a BAD idea.
First — let’s look at recent history:
— UNL alum comes back to be AD and begins the dismantling of Husker traditions.
— Assistant coach who is fired comes back and takes team further down the rabbit hole.
There are plenty of stories outside of Lincoln of alums who come home and fail to return their alma mater to the promised land. Do we REALLY want to take another chance on a Husker connection?
Also — Scott Frost has been a Div. I head coach for 1 1/2 seasons. Granted, he’s worked under some fantastic coaches at previous stops, but he’s just now building a program that had fallen on serious hard times. (You think 4-8 is bad? UCF was 0-12 the year before Frost’s arrival and have only had a couple of winning seasons at the FBS level.) From all accounts, Frost is happy with his current situation and has no interest to “move up” to a bigger school, whether it’s his alma mater or Florida (where he’s also been connected with a recently-opened job).
Frost has many influences in his coaching style, and one of the key mentors is none other than Tom Osborne. You can see by Frost’s demeanor on the sidelines that he’s got a lot of Tom’s style in him. And I get the sense that, like Osborne, he is driven by factors other than money, prestige and national titles. He wants to build a winner and be committed to that goal — you’re not doing that if you’re looking for the next big job opening, whether it’s at your old school or some other program.
And lest we forget — Frost’s relationship with the fan base in his home state isn’t exactly unicorns and rainbows. If you recall, Frost was a stud quarterback at Wood River in the early 1990’s and many assumed he would head east to Lincoln and be the next in line among the great in-state athletes who made a name for themselves every fall in Memorial Stadium.
He did that — eventually. But before then, he spurned Osborne and his home-state Huskers for Bill Walsh and Stanford University, where Walsh promised to turn him into the next Joe Montana.
After two years, Frost decided it wasn’t for him and came back home . . . but didn’t exactly get the hometown hero’s welcome when he came back. He was criticized STRONGLY by the Husker faithful and had to work extra hard to find his place in the program when he did go to Lincoln.
When Nebraska lost its first game in more than two seasons — an ugly 19-0 shutout at Arizona State in the fall of 1996 — Frost was the one everybody’s fingers pointed to for the first loss in almost 30 games. No matter what Frost did, it wasn’t good enough for the fan base. All was eventually forgiven, to a point, when Frost led the Huskers to the 1997 national title. (stop with the “But Michigan won the AP poll” garbage — Michigan barely beat Ryan Leaf and Washington State hours before Nebraska crushed Peyton Manning and Tennessee . . . you REALLY think Michigan could have hung with Nebraska? Put down the wacky weed . . . seriously.) And while that’s 20 years of water under the bridge, don’t think for one minute that Frost isn’t FULLY aware of what the Husker fan base is like when things aren’t going so good. He’s been there and done that . . . which trumps the “hometown boy” card everybody plays with him as the next Nebraska coach.
Unfortunately, this out-of-control roller coaster that Husker fans have been riding this season still has two more loops to power through before it comes to a complete stop and we can let the current coach off.
Whatever happens these next few weeks, one thing is for certain — we Husker fans are damned sick and tired of this ride.