2018 was the worst season for any Husker Coach in 62 years. You have to go back to 1957 when Bill Jennings struggled through a 1-9 record to find Husker squad with fewer victories. Every one of Frost’s post-Osborne predecessors got off to better starts. Frank Solich and Bo Pelini each had nine wins, Mike Riley notched six, and even Bill Callahan — who was determined to hammer a square peg (West Coast Offense) into a round hole (the run option team he inherited) — managed five victories.
Yet as we enter 2019, Husker fans are looking forward to the upcoming Husker Football season with the kind of optimism we haven’t seen since the Osborne years. How can this be explained in the aftermath of a 4-8 season? Are Husker fans delusional? If Nebraska truly has “the most knowledgeable fans in college football,” how can this be rationally explained?
Simply put, it’s our belief in Coach Frost and his vision for Husker Football.
Once upon a time, I heard a high-level corporate executive make the comment, “I don’t know why people are always asking about ‘that vision thing’ during job interviews. To me, it all BS; much ado about nothing.” That comment struck me like a thunderbolt at the time and has stayed with me over the years because I thought it was one of the stupidest things I’d ever heard from somebody who should have known better.
In my humble opinion, “that vision thing” is what separates competent leaders from the truly great ones. And in the context of Husker football, it’s the reason why Scott Frost stands head-and-shoulders above his four Husker predecessors despite such an inglorious start to his Husker head coaching career.
Why is it important?
Since at least one person apparently had a hard time with the concept, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. Vision is defined as the ability to plan the future with wisdom and imagination. Two things are necessary for ultimate success. First, you’ve got to begin with a clear-cut goal. Then all of your focus, energy, and attention has to go towards attaining it. It’s all the little, day-by-day, steps that ultimately culminate in making it happen (luck = preparation meets opportunity.) When the goal, the focus, and the effort are all there, even the most “impossible” of dreams can come true. A few of my favorite examples include:
• George Foreman, a fat, 45-year-old boxer who’d been retired for ten years announced to the world that he was returning to the ring to regain the heavyweight championship belt – to near-universal laughter and eyerolls. At the time, everyone, myself included, considered Old George a big joke—but he got the last laugh by proving all of us wrong.
• Arnold Schwartzenegger, a handsome, young Austrian body-builder, once answered a TV interviewer’s question about what his future ‘post-Mister Olympia’ plans were by saying — with a straight-face — that he was going to become an American movie star. I remember watching that interview and recall thinking to myself that this dude was delusional because there was NO WAY given his body type, his long name, and especially his bad English accent, that he’d have a film career at all, let alone become a star. Years later I was the one eating crow when Arnold became the No #1 movie box office draw in the world.
• Herb Brooks and his 1980 US Olympic Ice Hockey Team. It’s one thing for an individual to achieve the impossible dream, but it’s an even more monumental task for a coach to get a number of players, coaches, and support people to buy into his vision. My favorite example of a coach’s vision playing out successfully is Herb Brooks and his “Miracle on Ice’ hockey team who pulled off the greatest upset in Sports history. Herb had to convince an entire team of all-star players and a skeptical U.S. ice hockey establishment that our U.S. program needed to revamp its schemes, expand its training regiment, build an actual team culture versus a collection of all-stars, and rethink our attitude if we hoped to win a medal, let alone upset the mighty Soviets for the Gold. In January of 1980, Herb’s ‘vision’ was widely-regarded in U.S. hockey circles as ‘Herb’s Folly’ — until ‘the miracle’ happened.
What did our Previous Head Coaches Envision for the Husker program?
It’s a struggle to describe any clear-cut “vision” for former coaches Solich, Callahan, Pelini, and Riley. In my mind, none of them articulated a vision — at least to us fans — that was uniquely theirs. Part of it may be that most coaches are reticent about sharing too much information publicly about their plans and strategies. But even a review of their actions at the conclusion of their Husker coaching careers fail to provide clear-cut answers.
The most definitive vision of the four was probably Bill Callahan who communicated it with his three favorite words: West. Coast. Offense. But the focus seemed to be all about “The Playbook” and very little about how Bill’s WCO fit into an overall vision for our program’s future. In hindsight, it’s hard not to suspect Bill’s thoughts about coaching Nebraska went much beyond, “I coach the WCO…my buddy Coz coaches the defense…we recruit a bunch of 4 & 5-star players…and win, baby!”
Like BC’s focus on offense, Pelini was all about defense. He clearly struggled with many of the responsibilities that went along with being the Head Man, particularly recruiting. One glaring example was his program’s inability to use Suh’s fame and star-appeal to build a pipeline of difference-making defensive tackles. Under Pelini and Riley, fans often talked about how our offenses struggled to “find an identity.” That criticism alone speaks volumes about the lack of a clear vision.
What’s different about Frost’s Vision?
Frost has been very forthright and transparent in communicating his vision for the Husker program. A Frost Critic might complain that he’s just playing off his status as a former national championship QB. But when it comes to “the Good Ole Days,” Scott has combined his understanding of, and experience with, ‘what still works’ with a smart, creative approach to updating many other things he’s learned from Osborne and other great mentors to work for today’s players in today’s college game.
SCHEME. From the very beginning, Frost made his approach crystal clear: It’s all about combining ‘Oregon Speed’ with ‘Husker Power.’ But it’s also important to note that – in contrast to many other head coaches — the Head Man’s focus wasn’t all one-sided. Scott had a clear vision of what he wanted on BOTH sides of the ball. He also understood how the two units needed to complement one another.
Scott’s critics point to the yards the defense gives up and liken his approach to Oklahoma’s arena-ball theatrics. But the ‘Husker Power’ part of Scott’s vision has not yet been fully integrated with ‘Oregon Speed.’ The same was true during Frost’s two-year stint at UCF. The fact of the matter is that it will take Frost and Company at least three or four years to implement his vision of a revolutionary, highbred offense and defense. Enjoy the high-octane offense that the Huskers put on the field next fall. But even if Adrian Martinez continues to put up gawdy numbers next fall, keep in mind it’s still very much a work-in-progress.
STRENGTH & CONDITIONING. Once upon a time, I used to believe that a program’s strength and conditioning program was all about the quality of the strength coach hired. I still believe that the man you hire is important. But the greatest strength coach in the world isn’t going to be successful if the Head Coach doesn’t have his back or views S&G as “just another part” of every good football program. Zack Duval is one of the best strength coaches in the business. But he and his staff are much more effective because everyone inside the program understands that the Head Coach is very passionate and very committed to their S&C success. This is the ‘work-in-progress’ part of Scott’s Husker Power vision.
CULTURE. To say the previous culture in the Husker locker room was a mess is an understatement. I think most knowledgeable Husker fans realized it had gotten really bad as we watched our team get man-handled and out-hustled during the 2017 season. We had gotten so far away from the ‘glory days’ of Nebraska football that watching them play was literally gut-wrenching. But I doubt any of us realized just how challenging or just how long it would take to begin to flip the culture.
I do believe that we move forward in 2019 with a stronger culture than we had last spring. There was a noticeable change in the team’s culture the second half of last season. The slobberknocker victory over Sparty in the snow was a great indication that the Old “Chip on the Shoulder’ Nebraska was on its way back. Same with the Iowa loss. Given the way they dominated the line of scrimmage, Iowa should, by all rights, have blown us out the same way they did in 2017 and 2016. The fact that it came down to the final play of the game told me a lot about the team’s new mindset.
DEVELOPMENT – PART ONE. Coaching is like teaching. Show me a great teacher and I’ll show you a great coach. And while there are as many styles of teaching / coaching as there are teachers and coaches, the most effective ones are people who are really “into it” and are in the profession for the right reasons. They are people who inspire you and make you want to work harder. You find yourself wanting to make them proud of you. I mention this because the beauty of Scott’s coaching trajectory is that he hired a team of smart, high quality coaches who, for the most part, had come up through the ranks. These coaches had earned their spurs coaching at schools like Northern Iowa, Indiana State, St. Norbert, Northern Michigan, Fort Scott CC, and New Hampshire. Trust me, if you’ve spent time coaching at those places, you’re in it because you love coaching and love your players, certainly not for the fame, fortune, and glory.
DEVELOPMENT – PART TWO. One of the beauties of Scott’s high-octane offense and defense is that it allows players to get considerably more practice reps than would ordinarily be the case. When you combine this with Scott’s plan to build up the squad to a size that will allow four full offense vs. defense scrimmages and you’ve got a recipe for player development unparalleled in college football. Scott sees this as a way that Nebraska can develop a competitive edge.
RECRUITING. Any thoughts that Scott wasn’t “into” recruiting were dispelled within his first week on the job last year. Frost and his coaches take recruiting seriously. Look no further for evidence than the fact that they signed their top picks in their two years at Nebraska: Martinez in 2017 and Ty Robinson/Wandale Robinson in 2018. I doubt Nebraska is ever going to consistently attract a top ten recruiting class—but they don’t need to in order to win at the highest level. If they can consistently recruit a top 10-20-ranked class, we will be just fine.
WALK-ON PROGRAM. And one of the big reasons the program will be fine with ‘only’ #10-#20-ranked recruiting classes is because of Scott’s renewed emphasis on the walk-on program. Getting quality local players to walk-on at Nebraska over scholarship offers to smaller schools is a lot more challenging today than it was during the Devaney-Osborne era. But early indications are that the allure of joining Frost’s program is already working its magic.
OVERALL. Frost has said that back in his playing days, Nebraska Football used to take pride in being ‘the best at everything’ associated with the program. This included all the important, but less visible, program components like academic support services, dietetics, life skills, and our walk-on program. He told interviewers that “We plan to be that way (#1) again.” Frost has set a new bar for all the support staff throughout the program. Funny thing about standards: the people directly involved in an organization often complain about the ‘new high bar’ that’s been set–but then put their noses to the grindstone and, low and behold, ultimately achieve it.
As with everything, “the proof is in the pudding.” Nobody is giving Frost any trophies or A-grades for ‘darn good planning.’ Nevertheless, a great staff with a great game plan is the foundation for the development of a great program. Saban and Sweeney didn’t create their monster programs overnight. They started their dynasties the same way. Time will tell if we’re on the right track. But my gut tells me the Huskers are poised to take a big step forward this 2019 season.
Expect a Happy New Year!