The Nebraska football team is in Boulder tomorrow to butt heads with the Colorado Buffaloes. But the game itself has taken a back seat to a much bigger story: This could well be Frank Solich’s swan song as the Cornhuskers’ coach.
That, at least, is what the Huskers’ hometown paper is saying. “Athletic director Steve Pederson wants Solich out,” the Lincoln Journal Star has reported, and “will try to persuade the sixth-year head coach to formally announce his retirement” after the game.
Under Solich, Nebraska has sunk to its lowest depths since the early ‘60s. The Cornhuskers are 15-12 in their last 27 games and are coming off their worst home loss in 45 years, a 38-9 spanking by Kansas State. The team has further unsettled its fans in recent seasons by (a) failing to finish with a winning record (2002); (b) dropping out of the Top 25 (ditto); and (c) having the audacity to allow a school-record 62 points in a game (2001).
I’m reminded of something my friend Steve Marantz wrote in the Sporting News not long after Solich got the job in 1998. “New Nebraska coach Frank Solich ultimately will succeed,” Marantz maintained, “because [predecessor] Tom Osborne’s system won’t let him fail.
“Frank Solich has the easiest job in Nebraska. I say this in all seriousness, not only as a former Nebraskan, but as somebody who doesn’t want to see Solich become one if I’m wrong. No, Solich is not Admiral of the Nebraska Navy, Director of Tourism or Commissioner of Nightlife. He’s the new football coach of the Cornhuskers, which is pretty much of a sure thing, if you don’t mind doing booster breakfasts in Omaha.
“Let’s be honest: You or I could coach Nebraska and probably win a national championship. … In the long run, Solich is tilling a field too rich not to yield success.”
That’s what a lot of people thought, of course. But as we keep being reminded, not even the most storied football programs are recession-proof. Indeed, it’s not really the program that makes the coach, it’s the coach that makes the program.
Witness what’s going on at Alabama. The Crimson Tide trudges out to Hawaii this weekend hoping to avoid loss No.9 in Mike Shula’s first season at the helm. In the good old days, ‘Bama would be holding talks with bowl officials about now, deciding between the Orange, Sugar and Cotton, but the Tide has been banned from postseason play because of shady recruiting practices.
Which just goes to show you that Bear Bryant was right. “If you were to ask me if football is a coach’s game,” the Alabama legend once said, “I’d have to say it is. And always was.”
Once Bryant left Tuscaloosa in 1982, not long after winning his sixth national title, all heck broke loose. Ten points and an autographed picture of Major Ogilvie if you can name the seven coaches — yup, seven — who have followed Bryant. (Answer: Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Gene Stallings, Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula.) Granted, the Tide has had some nice moments in the post-Bear era, including another national championship in ‘92, but it also has made two trips to the NCAA penalty box and is barely over .500 (45-39) for the last seven seasons.
And who’s to say what will happen to Penn State after Joe Paterno is gone? Until about four years ago, this was a program that looked eternal — just as Nebraska’s and Alabama’s did once upon a time. You’ve got the huge stadium, the fertile Pennsylvania recruiting base. … Who couldn’t win in Happy Valley?
Well, Paterno, as it turns out. At 76, JoePa appears to have lost his touch. The Nittany Lions went 5-7 in 2000, 5-6 in 2001 and limped home at 3-9 this fall, the most losses in 117 seasons of Penn State football. Now it’s going to be doubly difficult for his successor. Not only will the guy have to replace one of the greatest coaches in college football history, he’ll have to take over a program that’s in less than A-1 condition.
Which brings us to Southern Cal, perhaps the most classic example of paradise lost. After a half century of Rose Bowls and Heisman Trophy winners, the Trojans leveled off in the ‘80s and ‘90s (and are only now returning to glory). And how did the school respond to this crisis? By bringing back John Robinson, one of the architects of the SC dynasty, for a second term. But not even Robinson could wake up the echoes. Once a program has lost its momentum, it can be hard to recapture.
So enjoy it while you can, everybody. Nothing is forever in college football, not even in Lincoln, Neb., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and State College, Pa. It just seems that way — until, suddenly, it’s gone.