At Long Last, Frost Era Begins
A standing-room only crowd of reporters and television cameras filled a hotel ballroom in late July to listen to first-year Nebraska football coach Scott Frost kick off Big Ten Conference Media Days in Chicago.
But before Frost took center stage, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany gave his annual State of the Conference address, and then answered questions. The first question Delany fielded came from a national reporter wanting to know the effect of having Frost, who last season led Central Florida to a remarkable 13-0 record, including a Peach Bowl victory over Southeastern Conference giant Auburn, in the Big Ten Conference.
“The fact Scott played at Nebraska and has had an amazing series of success as a young coach,” Delany said, “really breathes a lot of enthusiasm into the fan base.”
When Frost, wearing a suit and bright red tie, took his turn before hundreds of reporters, he detailed how he and his staff would return Nebraska to its rightful place among the elite programs of college football. In following the winning formula Frost learned from his playing days at Nebraska, he promised to give Husker fans a product on the field of which they will be proud.
Of course, how long until this masterful formula is again producing championships at Nebraska, Frost isn’t ready to predict.
He did, however, deliver this message with some bravado:
“People better get us now,” Frost said, “because we’re going to keep getting better.”
At long last, Nebraska fans will get their first look at Frost’s rejuvenated football team when the Huskers host Akron at 7 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on FOX.
To be sure, emotions will be running high, as the 362nd consecutive sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium will be at a fever pitch to welcome back Frost, a Wood River native and quarterback of Nebraska's 1997 national championship team.
A plethora of newcomers will experience the sea of red for the first time, including Adrian Martinez, who will become the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in Nebraska football history. Yet Frost isn’t fretting about any of the 50-plus newcomers – or himself, for that matter – getting overly excited.
“If Husker Vision is doing their job,” Frost said two days before kickoff, “I’m going to be jacked up, so I don’t know how you can tell a guy running out there for the first time not to be.”
Ironically, the last season opener Frost took part in at Memorial Stadium, in 1997, was also against Akron. On a blistering hot August afternoon, the Huskers beat the Zips, 59-14.
This Akron team, coached by former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, is coming off a 7-7 season, a trip to the MAC championship game and appearance in the Boca Raton Bowl. Fifteen starters return, including quarterback Kato Nelson and receiver Kwadarrius Smith.
This is only the second meeting between Nebraska and Akron. The week after the 1997 game, Nebraska defeated Central Florida – the team Frost would coach nearly 20 years later in his first head coaching gig. Prior to joining the Knights, he served as wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator at Oregon, known for its high-powered, fast-paced offenses.
The Ducks didn’t lose often with Frost on staff. The games they did lose, however, were some of the most physical ones.
Ohio State. Auburn. Stanford.
“To be honest, we got beat a little bit physically in those games, and as a former Husker Power Nebraska quarterback that saw what made Nebraska great, it frustrated me,” Frost said. “I always said back then if we could take this offense and this speed development and scheme and marry it with old school Husker Power, we won’t lose a game.”
Frost said he was being facetious, but low and behold, when he took the head coaching job at UCF, he hired Zach Duval, a former student assistant and graduate assistant in Nebraska’s strength and conditioning program during the vaunted Husker Power days Frost had mentioned.
Almost immediately, the Knights – winless the season before Frost and Co. arrived, mind you – became bigger, stronger and more physical.
“We mixed it with our scheme,” Frost said, “and we didn’t lose a game.”
Will that happen at Nebraska? Perhaps, someday, but maybe not immediately. The point Frost was making was how a certain formula will work at Nebraska.
Frost knows, because he witnessed it work years ago, under a coach by the name of Tom Osborne, who led Nebraska to three national championships.
“Coach Osborne had the formula Nebraska needed,” Frost said. “Some of the things he did to make the program arguably the best in the country can still work today. Nebraska just went away from them, and we’re going to adopt a lot of those things again.”
Frost didn’t mince words when he described what he saw – or didn’t – within Nebraska’s program when he took control over the winter. Players lacked passion and unity. Leadership lagged overall. Players were out of shape, not lifting as much as they should. The walk-on program had been crippled.
How much pride does Frost take in the walk-on program? Two weeks before the season began, a reporter asked Frost how many walk-ons he would probably place on scholarship for the 2018 season.
He didn’t have a certain number then, but beamed when he said, “I can’t wait to put my first walk-on on scholarship. That will be a happy day.”
The following week, Frost announced Jacob Weinmaster, Wyatt Mazour and Bryan Reimers as walk-ons who are now on scholarship. Weinmaster is from Colorado, while Mazour and Reimers are from Nebraska -- which, if you know your area codes, you'll be able to tell this season, as Frost is allowing players to represent their homes by putting their area codes on the front of their helmets.
"I don't think that takes from our team-first thing," Frost said. "Being able to represent your hometown matters to these kids."
It's another example of how Frost, and his staff, has connected to these players, while earning their trust and creating a family atmosphere.
“I think this coaching staff is absolutely fantastic and turning this program around. It’s going to continue to build on itself,” sophomore safety JoJo Domann said. “These coaches have proved to us they live by it, and it makes it that much more compelling to listen to them, to draw from what they’re saying and execute it.
"They’re genuine, they’re honest. They’re real – they’re real. They take down all boundaries and just speak to us man to man, and that right there is a huge component in how they won the trust of the team.”
In creating the culture and building the program Frost knew from 20 years ago, he’ll have the support of hundreds of former players, too, some of whom played with Frost, like Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter, the intimidating defensive line duo who wreaked havoc on teams in the mid-1990s. They have been among a few former players to address the team during preseason camp.
Michael Rucker, a defensive end from 1994-98, also spoke to the team on the night of the first practice.
An encouraging Rucker stressed that these Huskers control the future.
“You’ve got a clean slate,” Rucker said. “You’ve got a new staff. You guys control the future. You draw the line in the sand and say, ‘We, from this day, we don’t go back across this line. We move forward.’ If it’s one step, it’s one step. If it’s 20, 30 … we’re moving forward. We’re not going backwards.
“Everybody matters. That walk-on. That guy that’s redshirting. Where’s your role? It’s not like you take off, you’ve got a year to hang out. You have a role in this machine. You have a role with this team.”
Frost took with him every single member of his coaching staff from UCF, but he’s also blending in some past familiar faces – those who helped Osborne and his winning formula. Longtime assistant coach Ron Brown is back as a director of player development, and Frost convinced Dave Ellis, who founded Nebraska’s nutrition program in 1994, to return to Lincoln after spending the previous decade in private business.
“Nebraska is a place with unbelievable tradition and great people,” Frost said, “with all the resources we need to be a winner.”
Frost, more than anybody, understands how Nebraskans are hungry for a return to excellence. The program’s next conference championship will be its first since 1999, and its next national championship game appearance its first since 2001.
“They’re excited to have a program that they can be proud of again, a winning program, something they can relate it to being part of again,” Frost said. “There’s some pressure that goes along with that. We’re carrying the hopes of a lot of people -- really the whole state of Nebraska on our shoulders.
“But you can’t think about that. All we can think about is trying to do the right thing every chance we get, try to work hard, trying to use the process that worked before, plug it in and be patient, but be diligent. I think if you get wrapped in the pressure of being home, it will probably overwhelm you. We’re just going to keep our head down and do the best job we can do.”
ESPN reporter Chris Lowe, who visited Lincoln in August, had a sit-down interview with Frost, and said he loved Frost’s response to his question about leaving a legacy in Lincoln.
“That thought doesn’t even come into my mind,” Frost told Lowe. “I just want the team to be great ... and to do as much as we can for the kids. Anybody worried about his own legacy has himself in mind and not others.”
Frost's legacy, at long last, now begins.
Time to plug in a winning formula. Bring back the Pipeline. Restore the Blackshirts. Wear down opponents. Win the fourth quarter.
And return Nebraska to Nebraska.
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.