First and foremost, a mea culpa needs to be issued to the now battered and bruised heart of the Nebraska football program. In late April, I articulated that the idea of “identity” was “lame, meaningless,” and had “worn out its welcome.”
My words were based on the frustration of hearing an offense’s name being cursed whether it was the West Coast Offense, a pro-style offense, and whatever you want to call what was done under Bo Pelini. One of the best things I’ve ever heard a Husker fan say every year since Frank Solich was relieved of his duties is that the Big Red needs to get back to “Nebraska football.”
That’s true, but it’s not just that the program needs to find what it once was. The Huskers need to figure out what can reasonably be implemented in the first place.
As we watched Wisconsin grind the Blackshirts into dust over the course of the second half last Saturday, we saw an identity that was installed 18 years ago and executed to perfection.
A team’s identity is much like a fire on a freezing night in the middle of a forest. If you can keep it stoked, you’ll stay warm and make it to the next day. If you can’t, you will freeze to the point that you may very well die of hypothermia. That might seem to be an extreme analogy, but bear with me.
When former Husker Barry Alvarez took over for Don Morton in 1989, the Badgers were — according to Alvarez himself — “the s****iest program maybe in the country.”
Having seen his alma mater’s success with a power run game and spending his entire coaching career in the Midwest, the wheel wasn’t broken in his eyes. He took advantage of a population base in Wisconsin that was over 2.5 times what he’d have to work within Nebraska. As a result, he found big, burly linemen to pave the way for his backfield much as the Huskers had.
The early returns weren’t great. Alvarez went 11-22 in his first three years. However, he would use those seasons to adapt current players and recruit to his system while taking advantage of the NCAA scholarship rules of the day.
As a result, Wisconsin finished the 1993 season with a 10-1-1 overall record, a Big Ten co-championship and a win over No. 16 UCLA in the Rose Bowl. There were the occasional dips along the way, but the Badgers won consecutive Rose Bowls in the 1998 and 1999 seasons, finishing No. 5 and No. 4 in the Coaches’ Poll, respectively.
As of 2005, Alvarez had Wisconsin on steady footing and stepped aside as head coach with a 119–74–4 overall record following a 10-3 season.
His fingerprints did not leave the program. They haven’t to this day — he remains the Badgers’ athletic director.
Current head coach Paul Chryst has a bonfire roaring in the middle of that cold and harsh forest to go with his 26-6 record. Meanwhile, the Nebraska football program couldn’t be further from that situation.
Following the most recent loss to the Badgers, starting offensive guard Jerald Foster made an interesting statement. “I don’t want to be Wisconsin. I’m Nebraska, if that’s simple enough to say. I don’t want to be them.”
Fair enough, but the problem is that Nebraska doesn’t know what it wants to be and hasn’t for a long time.
What if Tom Osborne took over the athletic director role as Alvarez did upon his retirement from the coaching ranks? Perhaps we would see the Cornhuskers run an offense similar to what they did during the dominant era of the 1990s.
However, with Osborne’s appointment of Frank Solich as head coach, he expected things to continue without missing a beat. They did for a while. Nebraska did win its most recent conference championship under Solich thanks in large part to the wisdom of Husker coaching legend Charlie McBride. Once he retired, things went downhill.
Some familiar faces of the day became too comfortable in their roles, recruiting suffered, and the Big Red endured its first .500 season in a long while in 2002. The university turned to native son Steve Pederson to take over the athletic department following Bill Byrne’s departure for Texas A&M. This is when one of the biggest blunders in Nebraska football history took place.
Following Nebraska’s 31-22 win over Colorado in 2013 — a victory that gave Nebraska a 9-3 regular season — Solich was fired to great surprise. Pederson said something that still echoes through the halls of Memorial Stadium to this day: He would not “let Nebraska gravitate into mediocrity” and would not “surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas.”
That’s a noble goal — he could’ve justified it more by letting Solich go following the 7-7 season in 2002, stating the need for a fresh start. Letting a longtime member of the Nebraska coaching staff go after a rebound year was simply a horrible move.
The search for a new head man was a trainwreck. Eventually, Bill Callahan came in and the marriage was incredibly awkward. No one was truly happy with the arrangement. Not fans, not boosters, not even Callahan himself. He got four years to implement his offensive identity in the West Coast Offense, but the plug was eventually pulled on the experiment by a new athletic director — Osborne.
He had finally returned to a role in which he could have potentially been as effective as Alvarez, but it was far too late.
The point of this history lesson is that Wisconsin has this immense source of heat to keep it cozy in the midnight air even if a blizzard should hit, thanks to doing what it has done for nearly two decades. Nebraska, on the other hand, is still trying to get the kindling lit for the first time in just as long.
Should the Huskers remove Mike Riley and negate his efforts, water will be poured on his attempts to start that fire back up or at least get a spark. Yes, Nebraska football does need an identity, but it needs something else immediately and in great supply: patience from the fan base.
The trek back to relevance will not be a short one — there will be bumps. Maybe Riley isn’t the guy to stoke the flames of an overall cultural revival. However, he has embraced the fans, the walk-on program, and the traditions that Huskers hold dear. Former players are back around the program, he’s recruiting at a level not seen since Callahan (perhaps the former coach’s one excellent trait), and he understands the high standards desired.
There are things he can do better. However, unlike his predecessors, he’s shown the willingness to be proactive, admit his mistakes, and address them.
If he can’t manage to get the aforementioned patience from Husker Nation, anything remotely resembling a spark of an identity goes out. The program starts all over again on a cold night in an ever-changing environment that won’t keep anyone’s hearts warm.
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