Greetings from one of college football’s most distinct, complicated places. A land of endless pride! A land of bottomless agony!
Walk into Memorial Stadium on a fall Saturday and behold the world-class presentation. You’ll swear you’re about to watch a national title contender. Then the game starts and you swear you’re watching a MAC team.
Coach, despite Friday’s thrilling upset of Iowa, your new program is broken. Some might even say cursed. To grasp the situation, you must understand BOTH the enduring devotion and despair here. They’re competing forces, jolting and jerking every day like kindergartners on a teeter totter.
Why such devotion? Well, let’s start with the basics. From 1962-2001, Nebraska was the best program in college football — by a Cherry County mile. During those 40 seasons, the Huskers won 398 games. Penn State ranked second with 354. No joke, Nebraska could’ve finished 0-11 in 1998, ’99, 2000 and ’01 and still would’ve led the nation in wins over those 40 years.
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But it wasn’t just the five national championships and 33 consecutive nine-win seasons. It was two beloved head coaches — one fiery, stocky life of the party; one stoic, lean grandson of a preacher — transforming a small-population farming state with zero professional sports into a juggernaut that captivated the country on fall Saturdays.
Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne made Nebraska matter. That’s as simple and complicated as it gets. That’s the formula for a stadium sellout streak that dates back to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Forty years of dominance, Coach! Can you imagine? But just as important to your situation is the 20 years of heartbreak since. What started as a slide eventually became a free fall.
Twice Nebraska athletic directors fired head coaches following nine-win seasons, rupturing the fan base. Even the consensus ideas backfired. Five years ago, Nebraska hired the national coach of the year, the heir to Osborne, the golden child who quarterbacked Nebraska’s last national championship team. And then Scott Frost became the worst Big Red coach in 60 years!
So we’re left with a paradox: Nebraska is one of the worst programs in Power Five football over the past six years. Certainly the worst in the West Division. And yet Nebraska still thinks of itself as a peer of Ohio State and Michigan. The hunted, not the hunter, against almost everyone on its schedule.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy. Nebraskans focus on the last 60 years. Outsiders focus on the last 20 years.
The critics accuse Big Red fans of delusion. Akin to an over-the-hill Hollywood actor who won’t accept anything less than a starring role. Nebraska can’t win championships, they say. Know your place in the new college football world, they say.
We get it. Deep in our hearts, we know Nebraska won’t win another national title. But we also know that over the past decade the following Midwestern neighbors produced at least one Top-10 season:
Iowa State (2020)
Oklahoma State (2021)
Oklahoma (2013, 2015-21)
Coach, can you guess Nebraska’s last Top-10 season? 2001! Doesn’t make any sense, right?
You don’t have to win championships every year. Just make Nebraska matter again.
(Here’s the caveat: When Iowa and Iowa State goes 10-2, they’re content to spend the next two seasons rebuilding. You go 10-2 at Nebraska, Coach, and we might think it’s the new normal. Just warning you.)
Do not believe those who compare this state to Wyoming or South Dakota. Lincoln is the third-biggest university market in the West Division, behind only Chicago and Minneapolis. A city exploding with new neighborhoods and diverse cultures.
And 45 minutes up the road, Omaha is a hub of booster money and high school talent that your predecessors sorely neglected. Turn on film of the Class A high school championship game last week and count the high-major prospects on your home turf.
Over the past four classes, Nebraska’s staff lost in-state recruits to the following Power Five peers:
Kansas State (twice)
Iowa (three times)
That’s in addition to nearly 20 in-state scholarship recruits the Huskers actually landed.
In addition to an improving talent base, at least three major things have recently changed in NU’s favor:
>> The rise of the transfer portal. It reduces the need to recruit top-100 prospects.
>> NIL. It bolsters programs with resources.
>> The chasm between the big two conferences and everyone else. Is Rutgers a better job than Clemson? Of course not. But over the next 10 years, the wealth gap makes it a lot easier for SEC and Big Ten programs to compete on a national level.
Even without its trophy case, Nebraska still boasts Top-25 financial resources, including a brand-new facility ready to open in 2023. So many schools have more excuses than Nebraska.
At Wisconsin, the Badgers practice without a full indoor field. That’s right. Their facility doesn’t include a full 100 yards. And the roof is too low for kicking and punting. And the stadium feels like an abandoned Siberian fortress. But how many Power Five programs own more wins than Wisconsin the past 25 years? Only six.
At Utah, the Utes share their current indoor facility with campus recreational teams. There isn’t another major city within 350 miles of Salt Lake. TV exposure is limited by the Pac-12 Network and late kickoffs. None of which stops Kyle Whittingham from building top-20 teams.
At Purdue, Jeff Brohm’s assistant coaches collectively made less than $3 million in 2021, ranking his staff near the bottom of Power Five schools, according to USA Today. They still went 9-4.
At Kansas State, the Wildcats basically operate without a recruiting footprint. Over the past 10 years, their home state has produced exactly four Top-100 recruits. Those four chose Auburn, Clemson, Wisconsin and Nebraska (Turner Corcoran). Zero picked K-State. Yet Chris Klieman is No. 12 in the country.
At Ole Miss, Lane Kiffin competes in the SEC West gauntlet with three recent national championship programs — Alabama, LSU and Auburn — and another championship coach (Jimbo Fisher). Yet Kiffin is 18-6 over the past two seasons.
Scared of the Nebraska weather? C’mon. Winters are colder in Madison and Ann Arbor. Winters are snowier in State College and South Bend.
The excuses are lame. But it’s true that Nebraska held advantages in the 20th century that no longer exist. So many advantages:
—Osborne’s unique offensive scheme attracted dynamic playmakers and gave defensive coordinators nightmares.
— Assistant coaches who never left, creating an environment conducive to great game management and talent development.
— A walk-on program that developed late-bloomers.
— A cutting-edge weight-lifting factory that chiseled monsters, slowly but inevitably.
— An academic support system that offered second chances to prospects discouraged or denied elsewhere.
— A limited TV landscape tilted toward the big brands.
Most of those advantages — if not all — are extinct in 2022. Attempts to restore them might do more harm than good, Coach.
You must find a way to create new advantages. Modernize the program.
There will be days when the task feels impossible. Sometimes you will be stunned by the sheer volume of references to the old ways. The 90s especially. Posters. Jackets. Highlights. Newspaper articles. Folk stories about Terrell Farley. (Look him up.)
Haven’t these people moved into the 21st century? You might wonder. But if you respect the tradition here, you will have freedoms that none of your five predecessors had. Ditch the sacred black practice jerseys? You’ll have license. Change the pre-game Tunnel Walk? Go ahead.
You will make mistakes in public relations. You will offend someone you shouldn’t. Be accountable! Be humble! Sincerely listen to people. They just want to be heard. They will accept change if change proves fruitful on Saturdays.
Past and present can work in harmony, occupying the same space. You see it at Oklahoma or Ohio State. You can do it here, too.
It’ll get easier once you produce a few new memories. The younger generation needs reason to cheer, Coach. They’re dying to cheer. They’ve endured so much.
Seven years ago, in the wake of the Bo Pelini arguments, I offered Mike Riley a few words of advice before his first game:
Treat this place like it's sacred, but don't take the job so seriously. Make decisions with laser-like focus, but don't beat yourself up. Look at every game like it's the only thing in life, but remember it's only football.
And when the burden feels too heavy and the opponent too strong, when the tension feels like too much, wake up and smell the roses. College football doesn't get any better.
The very next day, Riley lost his first game on a Hail Mary. Not kidding!
That loss to BYU kicked off eight years of football hell, marked by innovative defeats and improbable losing streaks. Now even the golden child is shamed.
Frost would surely tell you the job is harder than he expected. But when his initial plan didn’t work, Frost detached emotionally. He gave up. Who saw that coming?
You need to be more determined, Coach. More creative, too. You need to emphasize offensive line play. Don’t cut any corners there. Implement a scheme that holds up in November against Wisconsin and Iowa.
Flip the mentality here. Make Nebraska think and act like an underdog — at least for a while. Make tradition work as an advantage, not a burden.
It will be hard. So hard that some days you’ll want to quit. Or take another job. Keep in mind the payoff.
If you turn this program around — and eventually someone will — you will experience a level of joy and enthusiasm you can barely imagine. Because the people here? They never abandoned Nebraska football. Never said “the hell with it.”
Through 20 years in the wilderness, they turned on their TVs every Saturday. They bought tickets and sang the fight song and ate their Runzas and stayed till the bitter end.
Coach, you should’ve heard Memorial Stadium in September during the first quarter against Oklahoma. You should’ve seen it for Illinois and Wisconsin. This was the worst Nebraska team in 60 years! They kept cheering.
Husker football is church here. And part of church is showing up, even when times are hard. Even when faith wavers. Coach, you can reward their faith.
So work your tail off. Dive into the details. Empty the tank.
If you fail, you’ll walk away with 20 or 30 million bucks. Not too shabby. But if you succeed? If you win here? If you restore Nebraska football to its rightful place in the college football world? Shoot. You’ll look back in 20 or 30 years, shake your head and declare an ironic truth.
You would’ve done it all for free.