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Nebraska Football Now Sees What it Truly Misses

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.

Comment below or keep up with the author by following Brandon on Twitter at @eightlaces



  1. flyergil

    October 10, 2017 at 11:25 AM

    You and I are thinking along similar lines. But I suspect many are not… Below is what I put on Sam McKewon’s facebook page after Saturday’s game. It got a handful of likes and the responses you would expect. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, too.


    I hear a lot of discussion about fans wanting Nebraska to be more like Wisconsin — let’s get back to smash-mouth football: a pounding running game and a bruising defense. In the next breath is a desire for Scott Frost — a coach (and “a Nebraska man”) who runs a fast-paced Oregon style of offense and a bend, but don’t break defense. The two desires do not seem to logically fit.

    Should the court of public opinion prevail, and we’re on the hunt again, Frost could be the answer; but he also might not. We do know that he does not run a smash-mouth offense and defense like Wisconsin’s. If he comes in, it will be a culture reboot as well — a fourth since Frank Solich — as he sets up to recruit for his style of play. Obviously, if this happens, and Frost comes in, I’ll pull for him… just as I do with all of our teams. But let’s consider reality before jumping off the cliff of dissent along with those who see through the lens of instant gratification at the speed of social media.

    Consider this: Think about what Bob Devaney had time to build and enjoy and then transitioned to Tom Osborne… and what Osborne had time to adjust and modify and tweak and enjoy and then handed to Frank Solich… who began to adjust (with a new defensive coordinator) before an unwise, in retrospect, ending to the culture that began with Devaney. (Even with Osborne, there was discussion then of getting rid of him because he couldn’t beat Barry Switzer… He even considered overtures from schools like Colorado.)

    Consider further: Paul Chryst learned much of the smash-mouth style from none other than Mike Riley… More importantly, Chryst inherited a smash-mouth culture from Barry Alvarez and his protege, Bret Bielema. (Andersen was hardly there long enough to change much. He left for family reasons and because of Wisconsin’s “high academic standard” that he felt inhibited recruiting.) When Alvarez went to Wisconsin, he had to completely change the culture. In his first three seasons at the helm, he won a total of 11 games. Would that fly today? Fortunately for Badger fans, Wisconsin was patient… and it paid off in the long run. If Chryst doesn’t win the National Championship, would we think Wisconsin was crazy to fire him and hire a West Coast offense coach? You bet! But Alvarez will never do that…

    The point here is that: Wisconsin’s smash-mouth football culture is embedded from as far back as Alvarez. We keep rebooting ours and trying different styles. If we go with Frost, that’s yet another identity and culture shift. Riley’s is closer to Wisconsin’s.

    What did Riley inherit? A floundering culture shift with Bo Pelini that showed promise at first in the Big XII, but — as we entered the B1G — had dissolved into baffling blowout losses, a surly “us vs. them” mentality, and an ever-increasing fractured fan base. Of course, Pelini’s culture shift was rebooted from another failed culture change experiment under Bill Callahan with the relatively successful West Coast offense and better recruiting, but an increasingly pourous defense.

    It appears Riley has at least righted (or is in the process of righting) much of what he inherited, especially in saying and doing the right things and in revamping our recruiting from a culture that produced one lone NFL draft pick last year (who did not make the final roster). Let’s not minimize what Riley faced when he came on board. Remember how we felt when Pelini answered questions to those blowout losses with a shrug of the shoulders? Or how we felt after he burned the bridges on his way out of Lincoln? Obviously there is much that needs to be done to finish the culture shift. But that was clearly a tough hill to climb… much less inherit!

    (And, as has been pointed out: who was realistically available at the time, without the benefit of hindsight, that could have come into our situation and dealt with the mess?! Many of the “hot names” mentioned at the time were not realistic [Tressell, RichRod], or the jury is still out [Narduzzi, McElwain, Fuentes], or faded away [DeReuyter, Hudspeth], or were simply not an option for lack of HC experience given our situation [Frost, Herman], or they were not leaving… yet [Richt, Patterson, Mullen]. Given our options, Riley was a surprise, yes; but also the antithesis of Pelini — probably what we needed to help salve the wounds.)

    So the questions remain: Do we continue to be patient with monumental culture change — focusing on the glimpses of hope (Nebraska nice is back, good recruiting is turning the corner, the 3-4 install of Diaco looks occasionally truly promising, the young talent shows flashes of greatness, and more is waiting in the wings)? Or do we, in what appears to most of the country as a sense of entitlement… reboot the culture… again — for a fourth time since Solich — to one that is not what we think it is (fast-paced finesse vs. smash-mouth).

    The bottom line is: we want to compete well each week and win Championships. Which is the right way to do that? We’ve tried two culture changes… and are now in the midst of a third… We keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Do we continue to let our impatience drive the train to a fourth? A fifth? and also expect (unrealistic) instantaneous Championships? Or do we give the coach we hired more than two and a half years to complete the culture change to ball-control, smash-mouth football?

    • Paul Edwards

      October 10, 2017 at 2:27 PM

      Well written !!!

  2. Brandon Cavanaugh

    October 10, 2017 at 11:53 AM

    I think that’s a fantastic overall look and what I was hoping to convey. The schedules in the upcoming years are not going to be kind, but for some reason these stud 17-18 year old athletes see something that Riley wants to accomplish. Many fans only see the scoreboard in the here and now assuming that’s how it’s always going to be.

    It reminds me a lot of the Callahan hire I referred to, though that was just botched from the get-go and he didn’t fit at all. I still stand by my assessment that Riley is implementing a culture that’s the closest I’ve ever seen to Osborne’s.

    Now, the identity is different as TO said he’d like to see a spread/option hybrid closer to what Florida did with Tebow, but he also once said, “I’m not locked into any one offensive system or defensive system. You can make most anything work if you have the right people. I think the main thing is coaches have to coach with what they’re familiar and comfortable with.”

    That was in a Lincoln Journal Star article from 2007 (

    There are two other things that I feel are key to Nebraska football culture. One is the blessing from Osborne. If he were to come out publicly and give Riley his backing, I feel the heat would drastically die down.

    The second is that Nebraskans have long found an identity in their football program, something near and dear to the heart of just about everyone in the state. Blue collar, tough-nosed, ground and pound football is an identity many Nebraskans can relate to and when they don’t see that, it begins as irritation and grows into anger.

    However, it’s my belief that Nebraska could win by passing via firing the ball out of the QB’s backside and Husker fans would accept it because the Huskers would be achieving the ultimate goal: winning.

    As you mentioned — and as I tried to relay — constantly changing attempts at setting the foundation for an identity/culture is only going to set the program back further and further until Nebraska is officially Minnesota with a bigger budget for good.

  3. flyergil

    October 10, 2017 at 12:40 PM

    Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Brandon. Sadly, I think folks like you and I are not the norm; or, at the very least, we are not the flavor the social media wants in terms of instant gratification.

    I see so many comments along the lines of, “Well, I’ve seen coaches come in and immediately turn a program around.” Of course, these are almost always situations where either the table has been set or the culture is in place.

    The lone examples I can think of that support that jackpot approach are perhaps Bob Stoops with Oklahoma and Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Michigan. But those are by far not the norm. For every Stoops, there are a dozen Charlie Strongs.

    On the flip side of the immediate success coin are dozens of examples with cultural blueprints either in place or in the works. We already mentioned Wisconsin, but there are other recent examples.

    Bill O’Brien (one of Bill Belichick’s lauded offensive coaches) began to turn around Penn State, then left to take on a dream job. So James Franklin comes in, with a similar background in terms of offense acumen, and continues O’Brien’s culture shift — reaping the rewards within the first few years.

    There is always, of course, the Miami example. Howard Shnellenberger came in there with the program about to get canned. Instead, he rebuilt the culture from the ground up — winning it all against us 🙁 and then leaving behind a culture for Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis and even Larry Coker.

    After things got out of control under Coker, Miami tried to right the ship by bringing in Randy Shannon as a disciplinarian. It took another in Al Golden (trying to wade through their self-imposed sanctions), followed by Mark Richt to begin to see the tide change in their favor.

    Beyond all of this, we have numerous examples of where universities — including Nebraska — tried to change the culture built by successful coaches. Oklahoma floundered for a decade after Switzer, Alabama did the same after Bryant, and again after Stallings. Georgia left Vince Dooley’s culture behind and struggled.

    Naturally, I also agree with your take on Scott Frost and how he should carefully consider what he would be getting into with the Huskers. Our situation has a number of variables at play that do not factor favorably as it relates to a coaching change at this juncture. That’s why I sure do personally hope that the new AD does not act rash and make the change.

    It’s so hard for people to accept, but Riley has a vision and is doing so many of the right things. As we said, imagine the current crowd as it would relate to Barry Alvarez in 1989. He won 11 games in his first three years. Did he have the twitterverse immediately stating platitudes such as, “You cannot argue he is turning things around. This is year three, so there should be no excuses…”? Fortunately for Wisconsin, the answer is no.

    But here we are, stuck in the middle of reactionary voices and some desire for immediate gratification with an underlying sense of entitlement. SMH.

  4. Paul Edwards

    October 10, 2017 at 2:16 PM

    Couldn’t agree more. Look, before this season started we were as excited as we’ve been in a long time and things were really looking up, primarily because of recruiting. As bad as it’s been on the field, recruiting is still solid…at least our best commits are still committed. That frankly is more important than on field results right now. The remainder of this season and all of the next are essentially throw away seasons. It’s not going to go well at any rate most likely. So what. We knew this is a re-building process. i think if it gets really toxic though from fans, recruiting suffers…maybe a key staff member leaves. The one thing we need more than anything else…maybe more so even than identity, is talent and time. I think it needs to be made clear though that an embracing of Huskers past is now a requirement to this coaching staff…emphasis on strong defense and even stringer O line play is a must as well as a run centric approach. Top notch recruits are about 60 days away from signing folks. Wise to stay the course right now.

  5. Paul Edwards

    October 10, 2017 at 2:51 PM

    Just thought of something…if we made the change right now in a new HC, we wouldn’t reap any benefits for at least a few years anyway…by that time, where could we be if we had stayed the course and let Riley implement his ideas and let recruiting happen and development in staff happen, our systems improvement happen, our culture, everything all happen? We’d probably be ahead of the game and not being paying 2 ex coaches and an ex AD for one.

    • flyergil

      October 10, 2017 at 5:00 PM

      Exactly right. That’s why the sentiments Brandon posits — especially in those last three paragraphs — are spot on (and hit home to many of us)!!

      The question that remains is: Does Husker Nation have the intestinal fortitude to be patient. If recent history is any barometer, we already know the answer… and shudder at the thought of starting over again with a fourth culture change (that will also take about 5 years to bear fruit).

  6. Michael

    October 10, 2017 at 7:08 PM

    FlyerGil – You seem to be a knowledgeable and passionate fan. Nebraska and its next AD need to be concerned about fan apathy. I know of long time fans that have just “given up” on Nebraska – the curious hire of a perennial .500 coach was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The half empty stadiums, the losses to Northern Illinois, a fan base that may be moving on – all should be of concern to the University.

    • flyergil

      October 11, 2017 at 6:46 AM

      If hiring Riley was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for those fans, one would have to question whether or not they were true fans in the first place, or were simply along for the ride when times were good. As fans sing the fight song, they say, “We’ll all stick together in all kinds of whether for Dear Old Nebraska U.” But let’s set that aside for the moment.

      If hiring Riley was the “straw,” than that tells us there were other decisions that began a process that led to “fan apathy” or fans “giving up on Nebraska.” Thus, to point the finger at a particular coach is simply pointing out the bandage needs to be addressed instead of the core issue that is the root of the problem.

      As Brandon so eloquently stated, and as I have also attempted to put forward… the root issue here is multiple attempts at culture change, exacerbated by a lack of patience and reactionary ADs responding to the court of public opinion.

      We are in the midst of a third attempt at re-establishing “the Nebraska way.” Of the three attempts, the one that most resembles what Devaney and Osborne and Solich built and expanded upon is the work, at present, of Nebraska Head Coach Mike Riley.

      You mention that he is a perennial .500 coach. That is somewhat true. But you are implying that he is not a successful coach. He was brought into several scenarios that were out of his control, and a handful that were in his control. But you cannot deny that he is universally lauded by coaches and players. This is why so many coach’s sons and player’s sons are drawn to him.

      Mike Riley is, however, credited with winning two Grey Cups in Canada. He also was the offensive coordinator for many of the successful USC teams in the 1990’s under coach John Robinson. While at USC, he heavily recruited Tom Brady… and wanted to draft Tom Brady when the Head Coach of the San Diego Chargers.

      Do we even need to get into the scenarios he was handed with Oregon State? Not unlike we mentioned with Barry Alvarez, Oregon State was the Wisconsin of the Pac-10 — perhaps the worst facilities in the conference, and unlike Madison, a challenging location to recruit to in Corvallis. Not only that, he inherited players recruited for Jerry Pettibone’s wishbone offense. Riley, of course, ran a pro-style smash-mouth offense like he ran at USC and when he won the two Grey Cups.

      Riley is credited by Dennis Erickson (who replaced him after Riley left after two years) for laying the foundation for the teams to come. Riley was so lauded in what he accomplished at Oregon State that he was hired by the San Diego Chargers. NFL teams do not just hire college coaches for fun. They hire coaches because they can coach, records be damned.

      With players Riley recruited, Erickson helmed the Beavers to an 11-1 record and the Pac-10 Champions two years later. (Note: That team pummelled Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl in a game Nebraska should have played in… Instead, because of early selections and favoritism towards ND, we fell to the Alamo Bowl and destroyed Northwestern, 66-17.) Erickson, to his credit, always gave Riley credit for setting the table for him at Oregon State.

      Riley has stated publicly that one of his biggest regrets was to leave Oregon State and coach the Chargers. If he was such a terrible coach, why did San Diego bring him in in the first place? They were a terrible team under Kevin Gilbride (who had replaced Bobby Ross), and had traded away future first round draft picks to draft Ryan Leaf. Thus, they needed someone to come in and help Leaf and pick up the pieces with the promise of difficult drafts ahead.

      Why did Riley regret the decision? Because, at that time, San Diego went through three different general managers, three different approaches to the draft, and three years in which the only sense of direction the organization seemed to have was down. Indeed, to obtain Ryan Leaf, San Diego had traded away their first round draft picks for Riley’s first two years. That’s a difficult scenario to inherit. The GM who drafted Leaf was fired. The GM who instructed Riley not to draft Brady was fired. And a third was bought in for Riley’s final season.

      So Riley went to the Chargers and inherited a horrible team and a horrible set of circumstances (with no first round draft picks during his first two years) — asked primarily to turn around a bad draft pick in Ryan Leaf. Note: he did not draft Leaf; and since Leaf was clearly a “lost soul,” Riley eventually released Leaf and was forced to turn to aging veteran QBs such as Jim Harbaugh and Doug Flutie. Both Harbaugh and Flutie loved playing for Riley and credit him with much of their success.

      It must also be noted, that none other than Mike Riley is responsible for drafting LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees, as well as bringing in an Offensive Coordinator named Norv Turner, and a Tight Ends coach named Paul Chryst. But before he could enjoy the fruits of success, he was let go when Marty Shottenheimer became available. Shottenheimer has noted that Riley and Turner helped set the table for him for years to come by drafting Tomlinson and Brees. But of course, Riley is a .500 perennial coach, so that matters little to the short-sighted.

      So Riley went back to Oregon State following Erickson’s departure to coach the 49’ers. Again, despite horrible facilities and frankly, limited support for anything, his teams were generally pretty solid, given the tremendous facilities other teams were blessed with in the Pac-10. Indeed, Riley had to fly coach on airlines to recruit, while teams like Oregon (infused with money by Nike exec, Phil Knight) had their own business jets and loads of recruiting money.

      To turn around a program takes time. And it takes someone who has the proven ability to do so… or an up-and-comer who learned from someone who has done it before. Solich was righting the ship; and I think we can all agree, he was wrongly let go just as things were getting better. Callahan was about the 4th choice in a hiring debacle. He was/is a great offensive coach (and a recruiter); but his system was too complex, and he disregarded Nebraska traditions, and he was too loyal to defensive coaches who has lost the flick. Bo showed promise coming into the Big XII (wich many of Callahan’s recruits), but bravado and swagger only go so far. When it came time to actually be the CEO that Head Coaches must be, he seemed lost and became more and more surly as time went by. What he left for his successor was a team in disarray, with glimpses of talent for an offense with no identity, and a fractured fan base. We needed someone with the character and turn-around capability that Riley brought to the table.

      Let’s not lose sight of how yes, Riley is a .550 coach, but one who has inherited complete messes almost everywhere he has gone. He turned around the Winnepeg Blue Bombers and won two Grey Cups. He turned around Oregon State and left before enjoying the success (that would have improved his record). He worked wonders with the Chargers, setting the table for their success (that would have improved his record). He went back to Oregon State and did a lot with little. And the mess he inherited from Bo Pelini (and a failed culture change with Bill Callahan) was/is no small challenge.

      So instead of giving him the time he needs to get the culture back to something that resembles what Devaney, Osborne, and Solich built… impatient Husker fans, who on some level feel somehow entitled to perennial championships, cannot see the forest for the trees. Instead of focusing on a higher level strategy to completely revamp Nebraska culture, we are stuck with year-to-year bitching and moaning from “fans” who apparently are willing to abandon ship during challenging times. These fans refuse to look at the challenges Riley inherited and look at how much of his past he has set up teams for success. Instead of thinking strategically, many are so burned out by the past that they point to his record and want unrealistic instant success.

      Nevermind that what we are experiencing at present are largely the results of what Riley inherited. Nevermind that the glimpses of hope we see are the results of what Riley is doing: good recruiting, embracing Husker traditions, revamping the o-line, making executive decisions (such as bringing in Diaco). Many of these things are the items fans have complained about in the past. Yet, here Riley is doing those things and they still are not satisfied. So what are we to do? What is the solution? Patience people! Riley clearly has a plan and a track record of turning around bad situations. Will we give him the time he needs? Will we support him during these tough times, or abandon ship because we don’t want to be affiliated with struggles?

      I for one, support Mike Riley. I think he’s doing great, considering what he inherited. And I see the bigger picture and am willing to be patient. Why? Because I think he is setting the table for great things to come.

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