And so they beat on in Nebraska, boats against the current, Osborne back ceaselessly into the past.
Nebraska football wants to be Nebraska football again, the definition of Nebraska football being the team that beat you up at the line of scrimmage and ran past you on the edges. It was about as exciting as Tom Osborne, the taciturn mastermind who averaged 10 wins a year for 25 seasons in Lincoln.
The Nebraska football we’ve seen of late has done little of that. It has been Jay Gatsby, the midwestern poseur trying to outstyle the stylish. Even Scott Frost, the Wood River High quarterback who led the Huskers to their last national championship, didn’t come home to make Nebraska Nebraska again. He went out in the world and immersed himself in the new fashion. Frost went undefeated at UCF in 2017 and brought that new fashion home to Lincoln.
Didn’t work, old sport.
“Scott said, ‘I want to have the Husker toughness and the Oregon finesse,’ ” Bill Moos, the retired Nebraska athletic director who hired Frost, said Tuesday. “That recipe just never really folded into a good product.”
Toughness used to be the Nebraska trademark. Linemen who could fill a doorway and block the light behind it. From 1970 through 1997, the Huskers had an All-America lineman in 25 of 28 seasons.
“I went to practice every Wednesday just to watch the game plan being put in,” said Bill Byrne, the athletic director when Nebraska won three national championships in the 1990s. “I watched the wars on the line of scrimmage. And it was a war.”
Once-mighty Nebraska is just another team in a league that doesn’t treat it as old money. The Big Ten’s old money resides in Columbus and Ann Arbor. Nebraska is a team without a traditional rival in a sport that reveres traditional rivalries. Nebraska is a team in a conference that doesn’t fear it. The Huskers moved to the Big Ten a decade ago for financial security. The price they paid has been steep.
“The Big Ten, to many of those fans, never felt right and still doesn’t,” said Moos, now retired and living on his farm in eastern Washington. The Big Red that used to pile in its station wagons and fill opposing stadiums in the Big Eight is still traveling. But it’s hard to drive to West Lafayette and East Lansing, to State College and College Park.
“It always kind of felt like a shoe that didn’t fit,” Moos said. “It kind of hurt.”
For some of us, the game Saturday against No. 6 Oklahoma brings a glimmer to the eye, a memory of the classic Huskers-Sooners battles of the 1970s and 1980s. That’s no one younger than 40, and that’s the most depressing sentence I will type all season.
If athletic director Trev Alberts decides that he wants Nebraska to be Nebraska again, interim coach Mickey Joseph is in a tough position. He can’t change the scheme in midseason, especially with Mark Whipple running the offense. No one is better at spreading a defense and playing fast than Whipple. Joseph will have his hands full with all the other worries of an interim coach, keeping the players and the assistants focused on the team instead of their own uncertain futures.
“In the Big Ten, you got to close your splits, put your hand in the dirt and play physical,” Moos said. “A part of it is the black-and-blue image and legacy and tradition of the Big Ten. They can throw it. They have great skill players. But you get into the last half of October and November, you better be able to run the ball and you better be able to stop it.”
Matt Campbell has installed a physical run game at Iowa State. Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien won despite huge handicaps in his two seasons at Penn State, and O’Brien is out of the Belichick-Saban-O’Leary school of toughness, so that base is covered. Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule resurrected programs at Temple and Baylor, and turned them into 10-win teams.
The definition of power football is different. It’s not the default high school offense anymore. It’s not what attracts high school recruits. But the next guy will understand that it’s easier to rebuild a team in the age of the transfer portal. Look at what Mel Tucker did last season at Michigan State.
“You have to recruit the same way they did when we were there – nationwide,” Byrne said.
He thinks Nebraska can win again.
“It’s going to be hard,” Byrne said. “I think the Big Ten is more rigorous than the Big Eight was.”
Wherever Alberts turns, the clock will continue to tick. The last Nebraska national championship is 25 years old, so long ago that the Huskers beat a Tennessee team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning to win it. The last conference championship is 23 years old. The last division championship is 10 years old. The last winning season, for heaven’s sake, is 6 years old.
Maybe it can be done. Ask Jay Gatsby.
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He may not be the best person to ask.