clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Nebraska Football’s Enduring Identity Crisis

The Cornhuskers fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst this week. Head coach Mike Riley might be next. The program keeps changing course in an attempt to reclaim its spot atop the college football pecking order, but is a return to glory even possible?

Nebraska football head coach Mike Riley Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s an old saying that only two things matter to the people in Nebraska: the weather and the Cornhuskers. My dad grew up on a farm near Hastings, a small town about a hundred miles west of Lincoln on Interstate 80. He was two years behind Tom Osborne, the legendary Nebraska head football coach, at Hastings High School, and shared his passion for the sport. Some of my earliest memories are watching the Big Red Machine tear through teams from all over the country, one option run at a time. From 1993 to 1997, the Huskers went an unfathomable 60-3 and won three national titles. Given everything that’s happened since, that feels like a lifetime ago. For the players the program is now trying to recruit, it might as well be.

I was 9 years old the last time Nebraska won a national championship. The Huskers haven’t won a conference title since Bill Clinton was president. On Thursday, five days after an embarrassing 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois, the school fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst. Times have changed in Lincoln, and no one knows how to turn back the clock.

Nebraska is 16-13 in two-plus seasons under head coach Mike Riley, who Eichorst hired to replace Bo Pelini in December 2014. Football coaches and ADs tend to go in pairs, and Eichorst picked the wrong guy. Riley was an unexpected hire who’d spent the previous 14 years at Oregon State, where he went 85-66 from 2003 to ’14. And without the man who brought him to Lincoln, Riley faces long odds to retain his job beyond this season. In the press release announcing Eichorst’s ouster, Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green said that the school’s fans “deserve leadership that drives the highest level of competitiveness.” To quote Clint Eastwood, though, deserve got nothing to do with it.

Nebraska is a storied program with one of the most passionate fan bases in the country. But that’s not enough to be nationally relevant in 2017, much less to return to the glory days of the 1990s. The Cornhuskers want to be a powerhouse again. Is that even possible?

On the surface, nothing about Nebraska suggests that it should be a college football power. Unlike blue-blood programs such as Alabama, Texas, USC, and Ohio State, Nebraska doesn’t have a talent-rich recruiting pool to pull from. The state has a population of only 1.9 million people, less than the total in the city of Houston. According to Rivals.com, there’s only one four-star recruit from Nebraska in the Class of 2018. That qualifies as a bumper crop: The state didn’t have any between 2014 and ’17.

The Huskers peaked with Osborne, who went 255-49-3 before retiring in 1997. Nebraska won at least nine games every year from 1969 to 2001—a 33-season streak that might never be broken by any program. After Osborne, the program ran on autopilot for a few years under Frank Solich, but signs of slippage eventually surfaced. The inflection point came during the 2002 Rose Bowl, when Miami blew Nebraska off the field, 37-14. The Huskers were labeled as big and slow, a team with an outmoded offense that could no longer keep up with faster, more explosive squads. Never mind that Miami was on one of the best runs in recent history, with a team featuring as much talent as any college football roster has ever had.

Solich lasted two more seasons before Nebraska let him go and hired former Raiders coach Bill Callahan in an attempt to modernize its offense. In the ensuing 14 seasons, the school has gone back and forth between contrasting styles of coaches, none of whom have been able to recapture the magic of the Bob Devaney and Osborne eras.

Nebraska Coaching Tenures

Coach Tenure Record Conference Titles
Coach Tenure Record Conference Titles
Bill Callahan 2004-2007 27-22 0
Bo Pelini 2008-2014 67-27 0
Mike Riley 2015-2017 16-13 0

Callahan was the first coach in more than 40 years to take Nebraska’s top job without having ties to the program. He was hailed as an offensive guru in the NFL and he’s still considered one of the best offensive line coaches in the game at that level. But he proved a terrible fit for the college game. His pro-style scheme never took at Nebraska, and he hasn’t returned to the NCAA ranks since he was fired in 2007.

The school shifted in the other direction by subsequently hiring Pelini, a fiery former defensive coordinator who resonated more with the fans than Callahan did. Pelini was a model of consistency, notching at least nine wins in each of his seven seasons at the helm. But he could never make the jump from good to great. The closest he came was in 2009, when a Ndamukong Suh–led team lost to Texas, 13-12, in the Big 12 title game. Pelini also had a temper that got him in trouble off the field—an audiotape of him cursing out the famously polite Nebraska fan base leaked in 2013—and he was shown the door in 2014. Once again, the school set its sights on finding a replacement who was the polar opposite, and Riley’s nice-guy persona seemed to fit perfectly on the Great Plains.

Only he hasn’t worked either. Riley went 6-7 in his 2015 debut campaign, dropped four of his final six games in 2016, and is 1-2 this fall. It’s been nearly 20 years since Nebraska played like a title contender, and its reputation as one of the sport’s brand names is fading. Even its place in the conference landscape has changed: In 2011, it left the Big 12 to join the Big Ten. While the school makes more money in media-rights deals, it lacks annual matchups with traditional rivals like Oklahoma. Nebraska wants to go back to what it was, but doesn’t seem to know what it is.

Memorial Stadium Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The first thing the Huskers need to figure out is their program’s identity. Unless they can convince Omaha native Warren Buffett to start writing checks like Phil Knight or T. Boone Pickens, they should embrace the idea of thinking like an underdog. Nebraska is never going to be able to recruit at the same level as Ohio State, so maybe it’s foolish to think that it can run the same schemes with inferior personnel and compete. The Huskers would be better off using a contrarian system, one that values different types of athletes and makes them more productive than they’d be anywhere else.

This is the philosophy Texas Tech used in 2000 when hiring Mike Leach, who went on to popularize the air-raid offense. When Leach took over in Lubbock, the notion of going uptempo, playing four receivers at a time, and chucking the ball 50 times per game was unheard of. College football is a copycat sport, though, and these days almost every major FBS program runs some variation of the spread.

The good news for Nebraska is that there’s one style of offense that is seldom used, has proved it can work, and is tailored to the preexisting strengths of the program—the triple option. The option was Osborne’s preferred approach, and it’s pure, old-school football: There are three running options (the quarterback, the fullback, and the halfback) on every play, each of whom can get the ball depending on how the defense reacts. It’s angles, leverage, and running lanes all the way down.

While an option offense is a rarity in the modern game, it’s found success basically everywhere it’s been tried. In the 16 seasons since Paul Johnson installed the offense at Navy, the military academy has gone 124-71. Army has gone 52-132 over the same period. Johnson left for Georgia Tech in 2008, and has since won a conference title and Orange Bowl without ever having a recruiting class higher than 39th in Rivals.com’s team rankings.

Nebraska and the surrounding states have plenty of big-bodied farm boys who could be molded into run-blocking offensive linemen with the proper strength and conditioning. If the Cornhuskers were to build their program around them, they could dominate the line of scrimmage, shorten games, and keep their defense off the field. Even in its heyday, Nebraska never won with prolific passing games. Tommie Frazier finished second in Heisman Trophy voting in 1995 with 1,362 passing yards, and Eric Crouch won the award in 2001 with 1,510. Most Division I schools don’t recruit guys with their skill sets to play QB anymore. Nebraska could have its pick of elite high school athletes who want to play quarterback at the college level but don’t have the passing ability to do so in a spread offense.

And the triple option could be even more effective in the future. Football looks more like basketball on grass every year. The top high school players spend all summer competing in 7-on-7 AAU-like tournaments, and teams at every level spend less time hitting and practicing in pads due to concussion concerns. Defenses are going smaller and faster to limit offenses that want to spread the field with receivers, and linebackers who can quickly diagnose blocking schemes and take on pulling linemen are disappearing. It’s more difficult than ever to prepare for an opponent that wants to punch you in the mouth 60 times every game.

As Nebraska’s choice to fire Eichorst shows, the gap between the Huskers and the Big Ten’s glamour programs (Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State) is wider than ever. Yet the thing Nebraska has going for it is its tradition. In a time when answers are hard to come by, the school going back to its Big Red Machine roots might represent its best chance at moving forward.