What happened to Nebraska football?
Well, Nebraska just hired an ex-Tom Osbourne player to be the CEO and head coach of their program. What happened to Nebraska football? They were winners under Bob Devaney, with Tom Osbourne as the offensive coordinator, and then Osbourne maintained that greatness across the rest of the 70's. 80's and 90's. I think they were winners because they had a great stadium and recruits wanted to play in the huge games against OU near Thanksgiving and for a winning program. Nebraska won with muscle. They recruited guys and put them on the nutrition and weight lifting program and red-shirted them and they didn't hit the field until they were 280 pound or 310 pound road graders.
But, more and more kids wanted to go the the NFL and other programs built stadiums just as big and when the Florida schools like Miami, UF and FSU started winning and playing a wide open exciting brand of football it gave the best recruits a warmer place to go and still have a great shot at the NFL. Nebraska's offensive philosophy, where the QB runs the ball, is not what most NFL teams run. More and more kids wanted to play in an offense that will translate to an NFL career. That hurt Nebraska. Then, all the conference realignment stuff took Nebraska out of the Big-8 and into the Big-10 and that move wasn't ideal for Nebraska. Nebraska became the 5th or 6th most interesting program for a recruit to consider from the Mid-West. It cut into the image Nebraska was selling to recruits and like others have said it is cold in Nebraska. It is just as cold in Ohio or Michigan but OSU and Michigan retained their reputation as the big dogs in the Big-10 and perception matters.
So, Nebraska went away from the bread and butter offense of Devaney, Osbourne and Frank Solich and tried to throw the ball like they do in the NFL. A lot of Mid-Western teams throw the ball now and some do it better than others. It helps to have speed, the kind of speed you find in the South or in Cali or Texas, let me put it that way. Nebraska just hired Scott Frost, who was the QB on the co-national championship 1997 team, and Frost learned his offensive concepts from Chip Kelly who borrowed from other people but built a spread option no huddle hurry up type offense at New Hampshire and then Oregon. So will Frost go back to an option based ground and pound ground based attack that throws now and then or try to spread it out and throw the ball all over the place? It depends on what kinds of athletes he has but if he wants to get back to his roots he will dust off Osbourne's playbook.
Nebraska was like the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70's. They won games in the weight room. They might have used, how shall I put this, a little bit of chemical help along the way, if you believe some of what you hear. Other teams caught up with Nebraska and the Steelers in teams of using the weight room to get a sustainable advantage. Nebraska went away from its roots and left the Big-8 and found out it was just another program in the Big-10. Can Nebraska ever reach its former glory? I don't know but if it is going to happen it will happen because Frost is able to convince some of the best players in the country to go to Lincoln and work out a lot before they hit the field. The reason the Southern schools win most of the national championships is demographic changes to the population and fast athletes. There are very little pretenses about being a student-athlete either so to win in football a program has to make certain choices about how much they want to pretend that the players are there to go to school.
The same thing that is currently happening with football at Tennessee and Texas. Nebraska is a traditional football power that does not currently possess the talent needed to compete at the level that it wishes to.
All three programs got to this point in the same manner. All three fired or forced out a coach who was established and who had won a lot of games, simply because they were in a slight downturn. All went with a "flashy" new hire who proceeded to run the program into the toilet, and all of them are currently now trying to get out of the hole they have dug for themselves. Texas will be the easiest reclamation job, since it lies in a hotbed of high school talent. Tennessee and Nebraska require someone who is an ace recruiter and who can also keep up with people like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer with the X's and O's.
All of them will eventually find their way back, because they have the budget and the facilities. Texas seems to be snapping out of it right now. I think Scott Frost will revive the Huskers, but it will take some time. It's too early to know if Jeremy Pruitt is the answer for the Vols or not.
Since we, Nebraskans, are all going to talk about it, and only some of us are going to be right, I might as well add a few points. I grew up in Lincoln. I remember the hey-days quite well. Under Devaney, Osborne, and Solich, Nebraska had great to awesome defenses, with reasonably good offenses. I watched the Callahan, Pelini, and now Riley teams, and I do not see defenses anywhere near the caliber of the worst teams Osborne coached. Granted, Osborne realized after losses to Miami that he needed to recruit faster defensive players, and the defenses went from great to awesome, but the other coaches never did. Pelini was supposed to be a great defensive coach, but his defenses normally only roughly compared with Osborne's worst defenses. They missed tackles, did not have good pass rush, and the safeties were constantly getting smoked. Much of that can be recruiting, but Osborne found ways through the walk on program, and summer training to take two star players and get them playing at the three or four star level. I also don't think these coaches have done much to instill confidence in their players, the fan base, or the donors to make the next generation of improvements that needs to be done. We need a former Osborne player who could bring back the legacy of Osborne and Devaney.
Football power shifts rather slowly but perceptibly. Back when Nebraska was a national power, it competed with Oklahoma, Texas, Miami, and Penn State for the big bowl games. Like Oklahoma, it had an option offense that was strong on running and fairly weak on passing. Some of the great Big Eight quarterbacks of the era, Turner Gill or J.C. Watts, whom I had a chance to see in their senior years, had no chance of making the NFL, so the college game was everything.
The college game has shifted towards those programs like Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, LSU etc that play a game that mirrors the NFL in terms of speed and talent. While the soul of the old Cornhuskers were those walk-ons that filled out a roster that had a few bona fide blue-chippers, the current powerhouses are looking at four and five star recruits to ensure depth at every position.
While Lincoln is a nice small town, it is not necessarily the place that five-star recruits would envision as a great place from which to launch an NFL career.
Those old Husker teams from back when were truly special. They say the 1995 team was one of college football's greatest. But that was back when Nebraska was an elite stop for recruits and coaches alike. That isn't the case anymore.
However, they do need to open all cupboards and find a coach who is dedicated and motivated to inspire a dormant program to get them back to what they were. Pelini was not the guy, neither was Callahan, and I think Reilly is another one of those guys.
Sometimes all you need is a good coach with a believable vision and that should turn a program around. It's tough to bring kids to play in the middle of a cornfield but we've seen coaches turn programs around quite frequently. Harbaugh changed a moribund Wolverines team and Richt made Miami exciting again.
Under Tom Osborne, Nebraska recruited players in the option format and had only a handful of other teams to compete for players on offense. This allowed their defense to stay fresh. He was also a great recruiter with a doctors bedside manner that aided in winning over parents.