The year was 1999. That’s the lasts time the Nebraska Cornhuskers won a conference championship. It’s a dry spell that spans eleven years in the Big Twelve, and the first five in its Big Ten existence. For a program with the proud history of Big Red, that’s an eternity in purgatory.
With each year, the optimism builds, then fades fast after losses mount. And so it is in 2017 again. The tide of optimism this time was squarely mounted on the shoulders of Tulane transfer quarterback Tanner Lee, but after a loss in which he tossed not one, but two pick sixes to MAC foe Northern Illinois, the expectations for this season have yet again been pulled back to modest terms.
Yes, I know it’s still early on in the season and it’s possible that Nebraska pulls up its britches and soldiers on with a shot at some things still on the table. But hasn’t that been the case for years now?
But how did Nebraska get here? And even more importantly, will it ever enjoy being at the top ever again?
Those are not easy questions to answer, but to try and do so, you have to understand the dynamics and changes that have happened with today’s game of college football, and the Nebraska program in general.
Up first for debate is the geographical footprint the ‘Huskers sit in. The state isn’t exactly churning out an embarrassment of riches with football talent. Simply putting a fence around the state and keeping home grown kids present, isn’t enough. Instead, the ‘Huskers have to mine for talent in other areas of the country.
And while that was easier to do with everything rockin’ with a stud head coach, once that momentum is lost, it’s awfully hard to get back. It’s not like a team in Florida, Texas, California or Ohio where a pipeline of talent is continually churning out stud football players.
A Problem Passing the Baton
There was also a transition problem with the loss of Tom Osborne, a Hall of Fame coach that started the whole loss of inertia. If you don’t get the right hire in place for the guy after the guy, things can spiral down fairly quickly. That’s not to take anything away from Frank Solich, it just didn’t work.
Once things started to slide a little, it was hard to pull back. Next thing you know, coaching changes are bantered about and the negative recruiting and perceptions become real.
There’s also a culture issue to address. Nebraska used to have a well-stamped identity. It was one of tough, aggressive defenses (Blackshirts anyone?), physical line play, and the ground game to go along with it. Often times, there was a dual-threat option type QB running the show with Heisman caliber skills and leadership attributes.
That all changed when Bill Callahan tried to bring a pro-style offense to Lincoln. It felt like as much of a fit as a polar bear in spandex, and it only further buried the proud identity of the program. Things tumbled down the abyss even further, and here we stand after a hot-headed coach gone wild with Bo Pelini, and now the Mike Riley experiment that seems to be a slow burn at best.
We’ve also seen the proliferation of spread offenses, hybrid defenses heavily peppered with defensive backs, and an up-tempo break-neck speed that flies in the face of everything that Nebraska used to stand for.
The Hard Question
So what if this is just what Nebraska is anymore? What if it’s never able to get back to what it was with the recruiting challenges, cultural issues and change in dynamics with today’s game.
I don’t believe that question’s uncalled for any less than it is in South Bend or Knoxville. The game has changed, the recruiting has changed — and frankly — the Cornhusker program has changed. And before you throw Twitter shade my way, fifteen years of mediocrity would agree. This is not a down-turn any longer, it is a trend and new status quo. Nebraska fans don’t want to hear that, but it’s reality.
That brings us to the million-dollar question. Can this program be restored to its former glory? The short answer is yes, but it’ll take more drastic measures at this point than just hiring a decent coach and letting the machine run. After all, the machine needs some fine tuning.
Mining for Solutions
Nebraska has to go out and get a rock star coach if it doesn’t all work out with Mike Riley. Look, Riley is one of the good guys in the business, and you’d be a steely tin of sardines not to root for the guy. Who knows, maybe he becomes that type of coach when all the stars align with some improving recruiting classes.
But if not, the ‘Huskers will need to follow the Michigan blueprint. And yes, I know Jim Harbaugh has yet to actually win anything, but you and I both know that program got instant credibility with his hire. The recruiting is taking off, and the product on the field really is better. And it’ll continue to be better than where it was when the Maize and Blue went through a similar — albeit shorter — mid-life crisis (insert a Rich Rodriguez shout-out here).
Maybe it’s even time to go back to the triple-option. Why not? Get back that culture and way of doing things that is dripping with Nebraska lore. Something that gives the program a competitive advantage over the norm for today. Something that gives opposing defenses a different look. If it works for Navy, can’t it also work in Lincoln as it once did before?
Not that unusual. Most Nebraska fans would prefer the triple option to come back to Lincoln ASAP.— Velvet Milkman (@mjwild00) December 9, 2016
I ask what’s the alternative? Keep hiring an unproven coach with a main-stream offense and just see how it goes for four or five years, then rinse and repeat? That’s clearly not working so it’s time to shake the foundations a bit, open up the pocketbook and go get a guy that can coach his tail off (young or seasoned) who can instantly bring in the goods again, and who can provide an X’s and O’s advantage.
I do recognize there’s not many of those out there, but if and when the time does come, the brass has to pull the trigger and get creative.
We are all waiting, and have been for quite some time.