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The only Husker in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach was in his office Tuesday afternoon in Athens, Ohio, and he probably shouldn’t have been there. He was sick. So sick even his co-workers barely could hear him speak. But that’s okay. Frank Solich is still in great shape and still tough-minded, so no one was suggesting he go home. And besides, even if he could talk, he would be the last guy in America to toot his own horn, especially when it’s an historical day in a storied program. It's extra meaningful, isn’t it, when an understudy becomes the first-ever coach doubly anointed in the Nebraska Chapter of the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame?
In some ways, Solich’s silence was golden because he would not have covered the same ground Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne chose to cover. Osborne was the one who called Ohio’s head football coach to tell him that he was a member of Nebraska's 2012 Hall-of-Fame induction class, but this time the honor was as a coach. Twenty years earlier, Solich was in the 1992 HOF class as a player. That was six years before Solich succeeded Osborne as head coach, and the man who laid the groundwork for that was more than willing to frame both the context and the result. “Frank had six good years here as a head coach,” Osborne said. “He was very valuable as an assistant. He was a big part of whatever success we had. He recruited such players as Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar and many, many others. Sometimes, a head coach gets all the credit and sometimes all the blame. But in reality, the assistant coaches make a huge contribution, and the reason I felt Frank would be a logical successor was because of the contributions he made over a long period of time.”
Most Spirited Standing Ovation in Southeast History
Solich was a key cog in the Nebraska football machine for 29 years – four as a player and 25 as a coach. A member of Bob Devaney’s first recruiting class in 1962, Solich set Nebraska’s single-game rushing record with a 204-yard game against Air Force in 1965, the same year he became an All-Big Eight fullback. Osborne watched Solich coach 13 highly productive seasons as a high school coach in Nebraska. He won back-to-back state championships at Lincoln Southeast in 1976 and ’77 and when he returned last January to become a member of Southeast’s Hall of Fame, about 230 of his most loyal supporters gave him the most spirited standing ovation in the history of that event.
Of course Nebraska fans would give Solich a Memorial Stadium roar this fall if he could skip one of his own games and be introduced with the 2012 Hall-of-Fame class when Nebraska hosts Idaho State. But that isn’t going to happen after Solich led Ohio to its first-ever bowl win with a 24-23 escape from Utah State in Boise’s 2011 Potato Bowl.
Osborne was glued to his television set watching that game in Lincoln. Solich coached Nebraska’s freshman team to a 19-1 record while working for Osborne. Once he was promoted to NU’s full-time varsity staff, the Huskers led the nation in rushing nine times in Solich’s 15 seasons as Nebraska’s running backs coach. Solich also coached at least one first-team all-conference running back in 13 of those 15 seasons.
Osborne’s Right-Hand Man for Three National Titles
Don’t forget that Frank Solich was also Osborne’s assistant head coach for all three of his national championship teams. “Frank understands football, and he relates to all the players,” Osborne told me last week before leaving for a well deserved fishing vacation. “Frank’s a hard worker, and he has great organizational skills. When he was here, he ran our football camps and that takes some doing. He also ran our coaches’ clinics, and I thought he had the ingredients to be a good head coach.”
Osborne still marvels at Solich’s 58-19 record in his six seasons as NU’s head coach after replacing Osborne. “That’s a winning percentage very near 76 percent (.753 to be exact),” Osborne pointed out. “Frank coached six bowl teams, including two in what would now be BCS bowls (one Rose and one Fiesta, plus two Alamo Bowls, one Holiday Bowl and one Independence Bowl). He won a Big 12 championship, and he played for the national championship.”
And that brings us to Osborne’s core message regarding Solich’s rightful place in Nebraska football history. “If you look across the world of college athletics in a 6-year period, Frank was in pretty fast company,” Osborne said. “His winning percentage would be the equal to what Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and some of the great coaches in the game achieved.”
Since Osborne was the one who set the bar that created the greatest of expectations, it’s only fitting that Nebraska’s Hall-of-Fame coach and soon to be 6-year athletic director explains what he understands, but very few others don't.
Osborne Knows What It’s like Following a Legend
“The unfortunate thing was Frank followed five years that were pretty unusual,” Osborne said, figuring I had a full grasp of his unprecedented 60-3 record from 1993 to ’97 – an almost unfathomable prelude to Solich taking over those golden reins.
“That 5-year record wasn’t going to replicate itself no matter who the coach was,” Osborne said. “The odds of that happening were very, very slim. So that was the yardstick by which many people measured Frank.”
If anyone can empathize with that, Tom Osborne can. “It was a little bit like it was when I took over for Bob Devaney,” he said. “In Bob’s last three years, he only lost a total of two games, and he won two national championships, plus three straight Orange Bowls. So that was the yardstick.”
In This Business, It’s what Have You Done Lately?
Osborne has known for half a century what business he’s in and what business Frank is still in. “This is always the business of ‘What have you done lately?’” Osborne said. “When you’re measured against what was done lately before you get there, it’s difficult. By almost any measure, Frank did a very good job at Nebraska, and he’s done a very good job at Ohio. That was not an easy job that he took over. Yet he’s done things there that haven’t been done before. So there’s no question in my mind that Frank is a very, very good football coach.”
By whatever yardstick you choose to measure.
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