In the years immediately after the 2002 national championship Rose Bowl and the departure of Heisman winner Eric Crouch, Nebraska was in a state of identity crisis. The Cornhuskers parted ways with longtime Tom Osborne assistant Frank Solich and attempted to modernize the program with an NFL approach by hiring Bill Callahan.
The program went 30-20 from 2002-05, but a bedrock during that time was running back Cory Ross. Ross became a running and receiving threat as a junior and senior, with more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in each of his last two seasons. Ross still ranks ninth in all-purpose yards in Nebraska history.
An undrafted free agent, Ross enjoyed a brief pro career with the Baltimore Ravens, but when his playing days ended, he returned to where Nebraska coaches — including Callahan — made an impact on his life.
In this weeks’ Athlon Sports Cover Catch-up, we checked in with former Nebraska running back Cory Ross, who appeared on our 2005 Big 12 cover.
What have you done since leaving Nebraska?
After I left Nebraska, I played for the Baltimore Ravens for three years, got hurt and had to sit out a year. Then I played in the United Football League under coach Dennis Green for three year. Then I had a stint in Canada with the Edmonton Eskimos. Though all the injuries my body has taken, I called it quits. I ended up coming back to Lincoln and did a lot of radio appearances. I ended up meeting a couple of guys who were starting an Arena football team in Lincoln while I was here, and they asked me to come on staff. I really took a liking to it and fell into the head coaching gig with the Lincoln Haymakers. That ended up falling through, but the owner of the Omaha Beef, Rich Tokheim, wanted me to take over last January. That’s how it started. I just fell in love with it the last three years. I really want to get into the college level and let people I know I’m interested. I’m getting a feel of how it is to be a coach. I love coaching. I love teaching, I love being around football.
Did the coaching itch start when you finished playing or has this been a goal all along?
I had thought about it for a long time. When I was in high school, Eric Bieniemy (now the running backs coach with the Kansas City Chiefs) was the running backs coach when I was a senior. I wanted to follow in his style, his footsteps, because I saw the passion he had. My senior year, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I started doing radio, but I was away from the game. I started at Lincoln High School coaching running backs three years ago. It became a magnet for me to be around coaching.
What level of football is the Omaha Beef? Is this a semi-pro team?
Yes. They get anywhere from $75-300 a game. That’s the max in the league they’re in (Champions Indoor Football). It depends on who you’re with and the owner of the team. But the Omaha Beef has been around for 17 years, so it’s stable. People in Omaha know who they are and what they do. It’s Arena football. Some of our guys have been able to go to NFL camps in May and things like that. There are small leagues like this everywhere, but the CIF is pretty good with teams that are stable and have been around. It’s an opportunity for guys to continue or try to get more film and show they’re playing against some talented guys. We have players from DI schools. If you’re the best in the league, people are going to look at you.
Are you getting mostly guys who are right out of college or more veteran players?
Pretty much right out of college. We have few guys who are 2-3 years out who are trying to chase that dream. A lot of them are fresh out of college. We had a guy who was with the Chiefs who was released and another guy who is doing it because he loves the game. He’s not looking for an opportunity to get to the next level even though he’s playing well. We have guys like that who just want to keep playing. And we have some young guys who are 20-21-years old from out of state who we house, take care of their food and stuff like that.
Do they need to have second jobs or a day job? How do they make ends meet?
Here they don’t have to. You get paid per game, every week, and your housing is taken care of and your food is taken care of. You really don’t have to have a job. A lot of the out-of-town guys want to come in and as long as we feed them and house them and give them a place to work out and they can get film, they can do that. A lot of guys are chasing a dream. When you get signed to Arena 1 football, that’s actually pretty good money. Canada teams are always looking at Arena and looking for players.
From a day-to-day standpoint, how is this different from other coaching jobs? Do you have GM or administrative duties? Is this a full-time job for coaches, too?
Some coaches in the league have to work other jobs. But I help out with sales to get sponsorships for our team and I watch film with my coaches. For me, it’s a full-time job. Some of my assistant coaches have side jobs and things like that. We get film (from prospective players) every day, so every player we sign I have to approve of.
I read that with the Lincoln Haymakers, you used Bill Callahan’s playbook. Is that still the case with Omaha?
Of course, man. I use Callahan’s playbook. The terminology is different and obviously it’s different with 11 (players on offense) and eight, but the concepts aren’t different at all. The concepts are universal. I fell in love with the West Coast offense. When he brought it to Nebraska, that was my first experience and I was dialed in. That was something I loved. When I was a free agent in the pros, I wanted to go to a West Coast-style team because I understood the concepts.
I bet if you polled Nebraska fans, Callahan would not be their favorite coach. You admire him quite a bit. Does it bother you that Nebraska fans don’t hold him in high esteem?
Sometimes it does. I was a captain the years he was here. I got to meet with him every week. I knew him personally, and I knew where his heart was and what he was trying to do. Some people just didn’t take it the right way. He brought in a system that was almost perfect for Nebraska. A lot of things that weren’t in the head coaches control, they blamed him for it. Everyone here knows I’m pro-Callahan on the radio because of what I’ve seen and what he’s done and what kind of players he was bringing in at Nebraska and changing it and making it fun offense to be a part of. Some guys really profited from it. Zac Taylor is working with the Miami Dolphins now (as quarterback coach). I thought he could be a pro quarterback. He took that offense and ran with it. Those coaches were why I really fell back in love with football. They made football even more fun. They made me realize there was more to it than the simple plays I had in high school. I came in and it was option left, option right and ISOs. I learned a lot more football and I understood what football had to offer and fell in love with that.
You went to high school in Denver and then you came back to Lincoln for your post-playing career and now in Omaha. Was the state of Nebraska a place you always wanted to return and considered your home?
I think I chose Nebraska even before I decided to be a coach here. After my first year with the Ravens and I came home that summer, I moved back to Lincoln. I fell in love with the people here. People who travel here to play us, they always say it’s great people around here and a nice atmosphere. I’m from the city. I’m from Denver, so I know how big cities are. I hate traffic. So I knew right after my rookie year that I’d come back here and find a place and call it home just because I fell in love with being here and wanting to raise a family.