LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s descent from the top of the college football hierarchy is going on two decades, yet those white helmets with the red block “N” remain an iconic piece of the sport’s lore.
That might be why the Cornhuskers‘ 0-4 start is so jarring, and not just to people inside the program and a fan base that has sold out Memorial Stadium every game since 1962.
Nebraska’s worst start since 1945 has been a major story line this season, especially after the splashy hire of 2017 national coach of the year Scott Frost, who completed Central Florida’s two-year turnaround with a 13-0 record before he returned to his home state and the program he quarterbacked to a share of the 1997 national championship.
The Huskers have lost 14 of their last 18 games, and last weekend they dropped an eighth in a row for the first time in the program’s 129-year history. They’re listed as 17 1/2-point underdogs for their game at Wisconsin on Saturday night.
Even the coaches who used to get beaten badly and regularly by the Huskers are having difficulty grasping the current state of the Nebraska program.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” said Glen Mason, 0-9 against the Huskers as Kansas coach from 1988-96 and now a Big Ten network analyst. “I would have thought they would have been better. Not great, but I thought he would make them better right away.”
“Unthinkable. Shocking, really,” said R.C. Slocum, whose Texas A&M teams went 1-3 against the Huskers, including a 39-point loss in the 1997 Big 12 championship game.
“It just breaks my heart,” said Jim Walden, who was an assistant at Nebraska under Bob Devaney in the early 1970s and went 1-7 against the Huskers as Iowa State coach from 1987-94.
Nebraska ranks fifth all-time in wins, and no team won more from the 1970s through the ’90s under Devaney and Tom Osborne. The Huskers went 309-56-5 for an .842 winning percentage over the three decades, and won all or part of five national championships and 17 conference titles.
Nebraska is 150-87 (.633) since, hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999 and hasn’t appeared in the final Top 25 in six years.
“Look at every program in the country, they went through some dog days, so to speak,” said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, 5-14 against Nebraska over two stints from 1989-2010. “They’ll build their way out of it, and I have great confidence in that. It doesn’t surprise me a bit. College football, it’s hard to be surprised by anything.”
Schools such as Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and Southern California have endured lean times, but Nebraska’s down cycle has been lingering.
Mason, Slocum and Walden said the turning point was the decision by former athletic director Steve Pederson to fire Frank Solich after a 9-3 season in 2003. Solich had played for Devaney, was an Osborne assistant and went 58-19 in six years. Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini and Mike Riley followed.
“I don’t think Bill understood the Nebraska program,” Mason said. “Right away he talked about changing the recruiting and doing away with the walk-on program. Being a guy who had to compete with Nebraska back in my Kansas days, I was thinking, ‘Are you crazy?’ That walk-on program was the envy of every program in the country.”
Osborne’s triple-option offense also gave the Huskers a unique identity that attracted top running backs, and his teams played what Mason called “suffocating” defense. Those days are long gone. Offensive coordinators on the previous three staffs had a penchant for the pass, and since joining the Big Ten in 2011 the Huskers have allowed more than 50 points in nine conference games, including five of the last seven.
Walden said he watches Nebraska games regularly and the drop in talent is apparent. Slocum said two factors work against the Huskers in recruiting. High school players don’t know much about the Huskers because they’ve mostly been irrelevant nationally in their young lifetimes. Also, Slocum said, the move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten seven years ago made it more difficult to pull a large number of players out of talent-rich Texas.
None of that is to say Nebraska can’t rebound and compete for championships again.
“We need Nebraska to be good,” Walden said. “We need teams that are not just the sparkling Ohio States and Alabamas of the world. You need that good ol’ Midwest hard-core Nebraska-type mentality to be good. I always felt we were leaders to show the way you could get things done, and not necessarily in a glamorous city or a big school. Nebraska was what we used to call a blue-collar college, a blue-collar football team, and we loved the fact it was a farming community and people loved the school and this team and it was everything to them. I still do believe that’s important.”
Each of the four former or current coaches interviewed said Frost is the right man for the job because he excelled as a player, succeeded as Oregon’s offensive coordinator and UCF’s head coach, and knows what it takes to win at Nebraska.
Frost is trying to blend old-school Nebraska principles, such as relentless effort and being the stronger team in the fourth quarter, with the fast-paced spread option offense he brought from UCF.
“He understands what they used to be, and that’s the standard he’ll set,” Mason said. “I don’t think he’ll take any shortcuts. It might take him a little bit longer than they would have liked, but it’ s not his fault because he wasn’t there when they were making decisions that let that program decay.”