For the seventh time since Tom Osborne's retirement in 1997, Nebraska is looking for a coach. That fact is both a surprising and depressing trend. Native son Scott Frost was fired Sunday having gone 16-31 three games into his fifth season. Even when they made modest improvements in other areas, the Cornhuskers were consistently bad at a couple things: special teams and losing close games.
Frost tried everything: changing coaches, changing approaches. Nothing worked to the point Georgia Southern sealed the deal Saturday night by gaining 642 yards in hallowed Memorial Stadium where Heisman Trophy winners and national champions used to dwell.
Nebraska is not the same quality of job it used to be. In moving from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, the program lost its identity. Traditional recruiting grounds in Texas and California were either ignored or eventually shriveled up. Nebraska has no natural rival in the Big Ten, as much as some want to make Iowa that team. Instead, it's seen a far-flung outpost in a league that suddenly boasts a presence in New York, Chicago and soon Los Angeles.
Can the Huskers rebound? Absolutely. Look at the teams against which they have lost. Northwestern has played in two of the last four Big Ten Championship Games. Georgia Southern's Clay Helton was the first coach fired last season at USC. Almost a year to the day, he had a hand in beating Nebraska and ousting Frost.
Nebraska can turn its program around quickly; it just hasn't done so as of late. The next hire must hit because the hamster wheel of coaches since Osborne is worn and rusted. Meanwhile, a once-proud program suffers.
Nebraska coaching candidates
Mark Stoops, Kentucky coach: Stoops has spent a decade methodically developing the Wildcats into an above-average, competent SEC program. Twice since 2018 he has won 10 games, perhaps prompting his angry comeback recently when John Calipari suggested Kentucky is far more focused on basketball success. Coming off one of his biggest wins Saturday at Florida, there is evidence Stoops may have peaked with the Wildcats. Nothing against Stoops, but no one is beating Georgia anytime soon. He'd have much better access to the Big Ten Championship Game (as opposed to the SEC Championship Game) playing in the Big Ten West. His culture, tireless work ethic and no-nonsense approach would appeal to Nebraska. If you don't want to call him the new Bo Pelini, fine, but don't forget Pelini's legacy (67-27 in seven seasons) looks damn good right now. Stoops may be even better than that … without the baggage.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State coach: Several sources have told CBS Sports that Campbell is interested in Nebraska. It's certainly more highly resourced than Iowa State, especially with the Big 12 moving down in the pecking order with the forthcoming departures of Texas and Oklahoma. But Campbell has to get to a certain level this season to be in the mix. That means 6-6 or even 7-5 might not be good enough for Nebraska, which absolutely has to hit a home run this time around. Campbell (10-7 in his last 17 games) may have simply hit his ceiling at Iowa State. Prior to this development, insiders were saying Campbell was interested in only two jobs: Ohio State and Notre Dame. Both are filled at the moment.
Mickey Joseph, Nebraska interim coach: Joseph has a lot of support as Frost's associate head coach and a fellow former Huskers quarterback under Osborne. Like Frost, Joseph worked his way up the coaching ladder most recently at LSU where he developed what some say is the best group of wide receivers in history. Like Frost, he has a national championship ring (LSU, 2019). He would also bring continuity to the program. With the timing of the firing being almost all about recruiting -- Nebraska is swallowing $15 million to fire Frost before Oct. 1, when the buyout dropped to $7.5 million -- Joseph would be able to pick up where Frost left off on the trail.
Bill O'Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator: "Obie" already has Big Ten experience as the first Penn State coach in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. There is no healthier coaching tree from which to pick a coach: Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. He has coached both a Heisman Trophy winner (Bryce Young) and the G.O.A.T. (Tom Brady). The feeling right now: If O'Brien goes anywhere, it's back to the NFL perhaps to replace Belichick one day.
Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator: Like Oklahoma's Brent Venables, Leonhard has turned down a lot of interest from head coaching opportunities. Like Venables at Clemson, Leonhard has to be figuring he has a better job right now. His next gig has to be the absolute right fit. Moving within the division to suddenly chase his old boss, Paul Chryst, and alma mater doesn't seem like an ideal move. Leonhard is a brilliant defensive mind, but does Nebraska want to put all its eggs in the basket of a hot assistant who had never assembled a staff or been responsible for recruiting?
Gary Patterson, Texas analyst: This makes so much sense. GP has plenty left in the tank at age 62 after a bitter departure from TCU. (Consider this: How many guys with statues on campus are fired during the season?) Patterson's skills were on display Saturday as he teamed with Longhorns defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to limit Alabama to its fewest points in a true road game since 2017. Patterson knows Nebraska and its culture; he would come out of the box blazing on the recruiting trail. Blackshirts? They'd be back.
Urban Meyer, Fox analyst: The Huskers wouldn't … would they? Desperation seems to find guys like Meyer whose winning percentage has to be ultimately balanced against off-field issues. The latest were internal issues with Jacksonville Jaguars players last season. Meyer, a three-time national championship coach at Florida and Ohio State, was responsible for hiring OSU assistant Zach Smith, whose wife accused him of abuse. That cost Meyer a three-game suspension at the beginning of the 2018 season, his last with the Buckeyes. Meyer didn't even make it through a full season in 2021 with the Jags. Meyer can coach college, but can he keep from becoming the focus for all the wrong reasons?