LINCOLN, Neb. -- Those looking for a sign -- some indicator Nebraska football will be back soon -- got none Saturday.
|New offensive coordinator Barney Cotton will try to move the Huskers with the short pass.(AP)|
The faithful brought faith.
Football-wise, there is little to go on four months after 7-7, Nebraska's first non-winning season since 1961. But in his sixth year as Nebraska coach, it seems Frank Solich has gotten wise about football.
A 49-16 record isn't enough, not at Nebraska. In the offseason, six coaches were either fired or retired. In their place, a crop of new, younger, vibrant assistants were brought in to begin the overhaul.
Once again that disclaimer: The football isn't noticeably different, but the feel of the program is. New defensive coordinator Bo Pelini left the Packers to rebuild the Blackshirts. During one notable spring practice, he stepped in to break up a fight -- with his nose. Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton was imported from New Mexico State, where the former Husker ran Nebraska's basic offense under former Huskers assistant Tony Samuel.
"After the great '90s, Nebraska kind of became bigger than life," said Cotton, an offensive guard under Tom Osborne in the 1970s. "People began to find a chink in the armor. But this place is loaded with tradition. The strength is in its people.
"I have faith in the people here."
You can't see it, smell it or touch it, but that's all Huskers fans have to go on right now. Faith. The mantra is: Trust us.
Solich himself went corporate, chatting up an Omaha CEO on leadership techniques. On one hand, it's almost embarrassing Solich is seeking outside help on leadership in his sixth season. That might be the reason David Sokol, chairman of MidAmerican Energy Corp., refused to be interviewed for this story.
On the other, Better-Red-Than-Deaders have to love Solich's current reading list:
- Leadership Principles of Attila the Hun
"Frank knew that changes had to be made," Sokol told the Omaha World-Herald. "But he was uncomfortable where his athletic director stood on it. I asked him, 'How often does your athletic director come in your office and say, 'What can I do to help you?' Frank said, 'In the last four years? Never.'"
Solich was basically dropped into the job without a manual when Osborne named him as his successor in December 1998. He worked for a boss, Bill Byrne, who had not hired him. He began with players who had been recruited by Osborne.
Critics say when the Osborne pipeline ran out in 2002, the result was that .500 season. Give Solich credit -- he knew the Nebraska blueprint, or part of it, had to be blown up. Meanwhile, Byrne left for Texas A&M and Nebraska hired Pittsburgh's Steve Pederson, who had been at the school when Solich was Osborne's running backs coach.
"There is so much more (energy)," senior defensive tackle Patrick Kabongo said. "Coach Solich is our head coach and he's relaxed. This year, I think his only job is to be a head coach, not to be an offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator.
"Obviously, now we can see, we can hear, we see it, it's different. He only has one assignment."
The best head coaches delegate, which Solich is starting to figure out. A good conversation starter in Nebraska is the play-calling. Solich used Osborne's old shuttle system, receivers bringing the play from the sideline to the quarterback. Cotton is using a more efficient system, signaling in plays from the sideline.
"What we're hoping now is the next step," Solich said, "get the ball snapped with more time left on the clock."
That signifies one of the main gripes in Husker Land: Solich was overloaded as his own offensive coordinator. Nebraska head coaches had also been offensive coordinators since Osborne briefly called plays for Bob Devaney in the late '60s and early '70s.
But give Solich credit -- he is trusting his assistants while asking fans to trust him.
Much-maligned defensive coordinator Craig Bohl was let go. Longtime assistants Milt Tenopir and Dan Young conveniently retired. George Darlington (secondary) and Nelson Barnes (defensive ends) were fired.
"The thing that made it OK in the transition is that he hired a bunch of guys who were Nebraska guys," Cotton said. "If nothing else, this place breeds loyalty. Once you're here, you've got a piece of Nebraska in your heart forever. Loyalty in the staff is one of the most important things."
If nothing else, after the so-called "Monday Massacre" in December, the Huskers skewed younger -- and sassier -- coaches. Asked why the Nebraska job is better than being in the NFL, Pelini said: "It's a better job, because I took it."
Attitude is good. It's something that has been lacking at Nebraska even during the good years. Insiders report varying amounts of paint peeling off the walls during Pelini's first meeting with the defense. Getting tagged while breaking up the fighting only added to his growing legend.
Pelini, 35, attended the same high school (Cardinal Mooney) as the Stoops brothers in Youngstown, Ohio, playing under their father, Ron. In fact, his no-nonsense attitude is reminiscent of the Stoops, who will stare you right in the eye and tell you that they love you.
Or that you stink.
"You grew up in an environment where it was important every week," Pelini said. "It wasn't just important to be part of a team, it was important to win."
The scheme, 4-3, will be the same, but Pelini figures to add emotion and hustle to a unit that coughed up the Independence Bowl to Mississippi. Read between the hash marks, and Pelini has been saying the defense is going to be better because he is there.
"That is the culture we want to be all about," he said, wearing a Packers NFL Equipment insulated T-shirt after the spring game. "Every single one of those players would agree they see a difference. That's positive.
"I haven't been in the college ranks for a long time. It will be interesting to see where they go to find out what kind of system we're going to run."
Cotton plans to throw more short passes, which should benefit Lord, who completed fewer than 47 percent of his throws. That percentage was OK when Tommie Frazier was tossing it around. The difference is Lord replaced Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, and the decline has been dramatic. Lord makes too many bad decisions and doesn't throw that well, forcing him to run a team-leading 251 times last season.
The defense? Well, it will take more than the will of Pelini. The Blackshirts gave up at least 27 points in half of their games. Can a dynasty get well in one season?
The answer was blowing in the drizzle Saturday. Solich and his coaches purposefully held back. No use in trotting out the new model when the enemy is expecting last year's model.
"It's not about tricks," Pelini said. "We're not trying to trick anybody. We have a certain system. There will be a certain element of surprise when that first game comes.
"I just chose to hold back."
The Huskers won't look much different, but they will have to be better or risk the further decline of one of the last remaining dynasties in existence.
"I just know that for 30 or 40 years, everybody has been looking for a seven-win season out of Nebraska," Cotton said. "Still, some people may call it a chink. You're still looking at 34 consecutive bowl seasons. It's not like you had a losing season, it's not like it was a season without a bowl game.
"Maybe it's not what people were used to, but it wasn't a losing season."
Until 2003, have faith. It's about all Nebraska has.