Frost aims to get Nebraska back among the nation's top college football programs
When Howard Schnellenberger took over as head coach at Louisville in 1985, he used to speak to recruits in his office while idly spinning around his finger the 1983 national championship ring he won at Miami. Every now and then, it would just happen to pop off, giving Schnellenberger the chance to growl at a recruit, "Would you like to try it on?"
Schnellenberger used to boast that the Cardinals were "on a collision course with the national title” and that "the only variable [was] time." While Louisville never replicated the success of those Hurricanes, Schnellenberger certainly understood the value of selling prosperity and the ability to co-opt it into future expectations. Dream big, and you might just get a ring.
It would be tempting for Scott Frost to walk around Nebraska's campus wearing both the national title ring he won as quarterback for the Huskers in 1997, and the bauble UCF distributed after last year's 13-0 season that led the school to declare itself national champions. Say what you want about the relative veracity of that claim, but a pristine record -- the only one among FBS teams -- and a defeat of SEC West champ Auburn in the Peach Bowl look pretty darn good on a coach's resume. No one would blame Frost for arriving in Lincoln wearing a title banner as a cape, the better to let players, fans and everybody else in the state know that it's time to win big again, and he is just the man to make that happen.
The trouble is, Frost isn't the guy to lead a parade in his own honor. He loves Nebraska and is thrilled to be back in the state where he grew up and played high school and college ball (after a two-year detour to Stanford). He brings a hot offensive system and an amazing track record to a school desperate to return to the dominance (five national titles, 25 conference titles, 23 double-digit wins seasons) that prevailed under Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and -- believe it or not -- Frank Solich, from 1963-2003. Just don't expect him and his people to be flashing jewelry or "national champs" tattoos around campus.
"We're guys who aren't going to advertise much," Frost says. "We don't wear our rings around the office."
Frost is clearly selling prospects on the ability to win big at Nebraska, which struggled to a 4-8 finish last year and posted losing records in two of Mike Riley's three seasons in Lincoln. Frost must satisfy a fan base thirsting for a revival of the days when it seemed like the Huskers played for the national title every season. It's a tough crowd. Even though Bo Pelini posted a 66-28 record (.702) during his seven seasons guiding Nebraska and won at least nine games every year, he was fired because of the four losses he sustained each season. And for the fact that he wasn't a Nebraska guy, like Osborne and Solich.
Frost was born in Wood River, Neb., -- 2010 population: 1,325 -- played ball at Wood River HS and returned to the state after his two-year hiatus in Palo Alto to quarterback the Huskers to a 24-2 record, including a 13-0 mark in '97. He understands the state, the fans, the program and the expectations. He is Nebraska, and that means a lot.
"What these fans long for are those three decades that produced five national championships under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne," Nebraska AD Bill Moos says. "Scott represents the best of the bunch and gives the fan base hope we can return to yesteryear. He understands the culture. He is a Nebraskan. And he knows the names of every farm and ranch town in the state."
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When UCF hired George O'Leary to take over its program in 2004, he declared the school a "sleeping giant." Eleven years later, the Knights were merely sleeping. The 2015 edition staggered to an 0-12 record. Despite having won four conference titles, O'Leary resigned midway through the season, as UCF plummeted to last in the nation in offense. It had weathered a recruiting scandal, the death of freshman Erick Plancher during an '08 preseason conditioning drill and a lawsuit filed by a former assistant accusing O'Leary of bullying and excessive criticism.
Though the school had upgraded its facilities and taken advantage of its size (current enrollment: 66,183) and fertile Orlando location, it was in disarray when Frost migrated from Oregon to assume the reins. Within two years, the Knights were fifth in the nation in total offense, had posted the perfect record and were receiving more national press than ever before. The Frost system had a lot to do with it -- more on that in a minute -- but the coach considers the program's culture and his assistants just as responsible for the success.
"I have a bunch of coaches who aren't just good coaches; they are good men," Frost says. "A lot of people talk about taking care of the players. When I hire coaches, I want them to mentor and develop relationships with young men."
Like every new coach, Frost must sell his vision outside of the program but must also convince holdovers to commit themselves completely to him. Frost didn't come in vowing to work the Huskers like never before -- although two players were hospitalized in late January after struggling during a strength workout -- but he did establish a set of expectations designed to produce more success. Senior offensive lineman Jerald Foster welcomed the new approach and says that some of last year's problems were due to a lack of trust between the players that led to on-field breakdowns.
"The first thing (Frost) said to us was that he is going to make us accountable for our actions and responsible for what we have to do," says Foster, who grew up in Lincoln. "He wants to build us up."
Mick Stoltenberg, a senior defensive lineman from Gretna, Neb., is impressed with Frost's "charisma" and ability to relate to players. The expectations are high, but Frost has already succeeded in convincing the players that winning won't be exclusively due to great leadership or an unstoppable offensive scheme. If the players don't demonstrate maximum commitment, no turnaround is possible.
"The coaches might instill different things, but there are definitely things that the players can control," Stoltenberg says. "The team is run by the players. At the end of the day, if you're not going to buy in, you shouldn't be here. I'm seeing (the buy-in) at all levels."
While Frost convinces the current players to embrace the new way, he is working to revive the recruiting apparatus that fueled the Huskers' previous success. Despite a short window, caused by his decision to stick with UCF for the bowl game against Auburn, Nebraska closed strongly and assembled a talented class that is ranked 22nd nationally. Although Frost speaks about mining the state, the 24-player group included only one Nebraskan.
But Frost and his staff added eight Florida players, five junior college standouts who should contribute right away, highly regarded running back Maurice Washington and QB Adrian Martinez, who flipped from Tennessee to Lincoln. It was an impressive haul that included 10 late signees. Frost reports that he and his coaches were on the trail while preparing UCF for Auburn, which made for an arduous schedule but which also provided sales support. Here was Frost, preparing for a New Year's Day bowl game, which he coached with Moos' complete blessing -- "It was a three-and-a-half-hour infomercial for Nebraska," the AD says -- telling prospects they could be enjoying similar success in 2018 and beyond.
"Our coaching staff sold itself on what we accomplished in Orlando," Frost says. "I don't think anybody gave us a chance. We took an 0-12 team that was ranked at the bottom in offense and defense and turned it into a 13-0 team that was top 20 in offense.
"A lot of people saw that."
Frost's offensive system is also quite attractive. He honed it at Oregon under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich and turned it loose in Orlando to great effect. Of course, there are those who believe a hurry-up spread attack won't work in the Big Ten's cold-weather climes, but several conference teams have spread concepts in their offenses, and Frost isn't worried about the weather. He tells recruits that the people who thrive in the attack "become household names."
"I've seen it be number one in the country in rainy Oregon and (number five) in hot, steamy Florida," Frost says. "I think it can be the same in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"Kids want to play in that type of scheme. They've watched the Oregon offense and UCF offense and know that it's successful."
Surrounding all of this is the Nebraska factor. Frost knows the state, its people and its culture. "It is red in this state from border to border," Moos says. And Nebraskans are excited. That's why the spring game sold out in 24 hours. Husker fans have filled Memorial Stadium an NCAA-record 361 times, dating to 1962. There is no fan base more loyal or passionate, but Moos reports that last year people told him it was at a low point in terms of morale. Frost plans to use his understanding of the state to bring the best prospects to Lincoln and to pitch outsiders on the value of succeeding in front of such rabid supporters.
"This is home and my alma mater," Frost says. "I have a lot of passion for Nebraska and a lot of faith in what Nebraska is all about and what it can be."
And should he start winning big, don't count on Frost flashing championship bling all over the state.
There will be plenty of others waiting to do that.