Chasing Ghosts: Will Nebraska Escape The Shadow Of Tom Osborne?
The Nebraska football program has now gone over twenty years grappling with the legacy of the great Tom Osborne. One could make a very strong argument that Osborne is the greatest college football coach of all time. (Perhaps only Nick Saban could make a similar claim.)
Icon: Tom Osborne
Seasons coached: 1973–1997
Key accomplishments: 3 national championships, 13 conference titles, 21 major bowl appearances, 255–49–3 record (.836 winning percentage).
Tom Osborne successfully followed legendary coach Bob Devaney. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Osborne’s great career was just his sheer consistency. Nebraska never won fewer than nine games in one season and appeared in a bowl game in all of Osborne’s twenty five seasons at Nebraska. As a matter of fact, Nebraska won 5 out of every 6 games and averaged 10 wins per season.
The Huskers won 83.6% of their games between 1973–1997. Second place during that period was Penn State, which had a 78% winning percentage. Nebraska had the fourth highest winning percentage during the 1970s, were number one in the 1980s and were number one in the 1990s before Osborne retired. No college football program in history has finished in the top 5 in three consecutive decades.
The Nebraska football program reached its zenith between 1993–97 when Osborne won 60 out of his last 63 games. During that period, Nebraska won 3 out of 4 national championships and played for the national championship in 4 out of 5 seasons. No team had won three national titles in four years since that feat was accomplished by Frank Leahy and Notre Dame between 1946 and 1949.
Ranking The Osborne Chasers.
4. Mike Riley (2015–17), (19–19 record), (.500)
The Riley hire will probably go down as one of the dumbest hires in the history of the game. At the time he was hired by Shawn Eichorst, Riley was 62 years old and had a mediocre record at Oregon State where his seat was warming up. If he had stayed at Corvallis, he probably would have been fired at the end of the 2015 season.
Riley’s tenure in Lincoln was disastrous. His 2015 team lost several games due to inexplicable coaching errors and his failed attempt to implement overnight what were radically new offensive and defensive schemes that didn’t fit the personnel. In 2015, the Huskers went 6–7 and recorded their only third losing season since Bill Jennings was coach back in 1961.
In 2016, Riley led Nebraska to a 9–4 record that was sullied by embarrassing, lopsided losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee. The bottom dropped out for Riley and the Huskers in 2017 when the team had the worst season in Nebraska history since 1961- finishing with a 4–8 record. Riley was fired shortly after a humiliating 56 to 14 loss to Iowa in Lincoln.
I never bought into the Riley hire due to his poor record at Oregon State. It was clear that the Corvallis native was well past his prime when Eichorst shocked the world by hiring Riley. Knowledgeable inside sources told me that weight lifting sessions and the training table were essentially optional when Riley was the coach. That would (partially) explain the numerous ugly losses suffered by the Huskers during Riley’s reign of error.
3. Bill Callahan (2004–07), (27–22 record), (.551)
Callahan was a desperation hire by Steve Pederson because nobody else would take the job after he fired Frank Solich. The problem Pederson faced was that good coaches don’t want to work for a chancellor and athletic director who fire 9–3 coaches. They (correctly) perceive there is no job security at a program that fires a well respected coach with a good record like Frank Solich. Well informed sources told me that Pederson’s interview with Callahan consisted of the athletic director begging Callahan to take the job.
Callahan turned out to be a good recruiter but a very poor coach. Nebraska had two losing seasons in the four years Callahan was at the helm. The 2004 season was the first year Nebraska failed to go to a bowl game since 1968.
Disaster struck for Nebraska when they were blown out at home by USC early in the 2007 season. Callahan chewed out his staff and his team after the loss. As a result, the team became demoralized and gave up. Callahan’s stock with the players was already low before then because he was cool and aloof towards the players after they signed a letter of intent. After finishing 5–7, Callahan was fired the day after a 65 to 51 loss to Colorado by Tom Osborne.
2. Bo Pelini (2008–14), (67–27 record), (.713)
Pelini got off to a very good start at Nebraska. The Husker made appearances in the Big 12 title game in 2009 and 2010 and narrowly lost those two contests. During his first three seasons at Nebraska while the Huskers were still in the Big 12, Pelini’s teams won 29 games, including two bowl games.
In 2011, Nebraska joined the Big 10. Becoming a member of a new conference created a new series of challenges for Pelini since his players were recruited to defend finesse, spread offenses and he hadn’t scouted any of the Big 10 teams. Despite the transition to the new league, Pelini consistently won 9 or 10 games every season. In 2012, Nebraska made an appearance in the Big 10 title game but they got crushed 70 to 31 by Wisconsin.
In 2014, Nebraska went 9–3 and narrowly defeated Iowa in the final regular season game. Most fans thought that Pelini’s job was safe — no chancellor or athletic director would make the mistake of firing another 9–3 coach. Perlman and Eichorst shocked the football world when they fired Pelini two days after the Iowa game. In my opinion, Pelini was terminated largely due to his toxic relationship with Perlman. It has been described to me that Perlman had a personal vendetta against Pelini.
In my estimation, Pelini will always be a bit of an enigma. He was a good (but not great) coach and the players liked playing for him. In addition, the players stayed out of trouble and performed well in the classroom. Perhaps Pelini wasn’t temperamentally suited to be the head coach at a pressure cooker like Nebraska. (Pelini also had the misfortune of working for an incompetent administration that didn’t support him in 2013–14.)
In his final, controversial meeting with the players shortly after he was fired, Pelini said: “ Man, this is killing me. I don’t want to die doing this job. And I meant it. I was like, I don’t want to have a heart attack doing this job. ” Tom Osborne while praising Pelini’s good qualities also said: “Bo won a lot of games, but I didn’t really know probably enough about his character, and some of those things jumped up and bit him and bit the program. There were a lot of good things about him, but he didn’t relate well to the press, and in many cases did not relate well to the fans. ”
1. Frank Solich (1993–2003), (58–19 record), (.753)
Tom Osborne’s successor got off to a strong start — going 42–7 in his first 49 games as head coach. In 1999, the Huskers won their last conference title, went 12–1 and finished second in the country. In 2001, Nebraska played Miami in the national title game but lost 37–14.
The end to the 2001 season, though, cast a pall over Solich’s tenure at Nebraska. After getting off to an 11–0 start, Nebraska lost two consecutive blow outs to Colorado and Miami to end the season. Things got worse in 2002. The Huskers badly missed Heisman trophy winner Eric Crouch and finished 7–7.
In response to the disappointing 2002 season, Solich shook up his staff and hired some young, promising assistant coaches. Bo Pelini, Barney Cotton and Marvin Sanders joined the Nebraska staff in early 2003. Solich’s new staff significantly improved Nebraska and the Husker went 9–3 during the regular season. Up to that time, a 9–3 season was (justifiably) seen as a successful season in Lincoln.
Bad losses to Texas and Kansas State were unsettling to many fans and boosters. However, Texas had Vince Young as their quarterback and Kansas State crushed undefeated and top ranked Oklahoma 35 to 7 in the Big 12 title game.
The day after Solich won a victory over Colorado in Boulder, he was fired by Steve Pederson. This was the first time in the history of college football that a program had fired a 9–3 coach. (Solich’s staff went on to defeat Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl and the Huskers finished 10–3 in 2003. They haven’t done that well since. )
The Solich firing will probably go down as the worst decision in Nebraska football history. The Husker program hasn’t done as well since he was unfairly terminated. Most fans now recognize that the 2003 termination of Solich was a blunder.
Since he left Nebraska, Solich has been a very successful head coach at Ohio University. Under Solich, the Bobcats have played in bowl games during 10 out of his 14 seasons in Athens and in 9 out of the last 10 years. (Before Solich, Ohio hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1968.) Ohio has also won four divisional titles in the MAC. Solich is widely regarded as the best coach in the MAC conference.
Scott Frost — A 21st Century Version Of Tom Osborne
I didn’t rank Scott Frost since he has only completed one season at Nebraska. In my opinion, Scott Frost will be a big success at Nebraska and escape from Tom Osborne’s shadow. Due to his time playing for the great teams in 1996–97, Frost knows what it takes to win at Nebraska. The Wood River native believes in a physical team, running a unique offense that is difficult to prepare for in one week and a strong walk on program.
The future of Nebraska football under Coach Scott Frost is bright. The Huskers finished strong last year — winning 4 out of their last 6 games. The only two losses were close ones on the road at Ohio State and Iowa. (Those two teams finished with a combined 21–5 record.) I believe Nebraska will be much improved in year two of the Frost era and will be a serious contender for the Big Ten West Title. I can hardly wait until August 31. Go Big Red!