Going into this, the 198th season of college football, these were the top 10 teams in terms of all-time victories: Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas, Nebraska, Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee and USC.
Here’s that list, including the year of the last national championship won by those schools: Michigan (1997), Notre Dame (1988), Texas (2005), Nebraska (1997), Ohio State (2014), Alabama (2015), Oklahoma (2000), Penn State (1986), Tennessee (1998), USC (2004).
Of the team’s on The Drought List, only Notre Dame has more championships than Nebraska. The Huskers have won five titles and this is the 20th anniversary of the most recent. And most likely, the last.
Last week, the school fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, an out-of-touch administrator who had been on the job five years. He was hired to replace the legendary former coach Tom Osborne, who took over the job to replace another out-of-touch AD, Steve Pederson. Osborne left his post as a U.S. Representative to rescue the Big Red athletic department. That’s how bad it was in Lincoln Land.
Eichorst’s biggest football decision involved firing Bo Pelini at the end of the 2014 season and hiring … Mike Riley? There were questions marks and heads being scratched all over the College Football World. Riley has a career winning percentage just a few ticks above .500 and has never won a conference championship. He was 62 when he jumped from an Oregon State job where his seat was getting warm to take over at Nebraska. That’s like trading in a beat-up Toyota Carolla for a Lexus.
Now that Eichorst is gone, Riley is without his benefactor and the clock is ticking on his tenure. He’s coaching a 2-2 team that plays at Illinois Friday before the schedule turns into a nightmare: Wisconsin, Ohio State, at Purdue, Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Penn State and Iowa. Riley had a 5-7 regular-season mark in Year One and the odds favor a final record this year closer to that than to last season’s 9-4 finish.
In the next two or three months, Nebraska needs to hire an athletic director who then will likely hire a new football coach. That means the speculation game is double the fun for the media and the fans in Big Red country. And the speculation is traveling in a DeLorean that is approaching 88 mph.
The back to the future folks believe the best man to replace Eichorst is just about 40 miles to the east. Former Husker Trev Alberts has been the AD at Nebraska-Omaha since 2009, helping the school transition to Division I. To complete the magical history tour, Alberts could hire UCF coach Scott Frost, who was the quarterback of the ’97 title team. And never mind that Frost is in just his second season as a head coach.
(Saturday provided the yin and yang to Frost’s candidacy. Lee Corso on College GameDay predicted that Riley will get a fourth season and then Nebraska will hire Frost, who Corso says isn’t ready yet. However, while the Huskers were struggling to put away lowly Rutgers at home, Frost’s UCF team was drilling Maryland, which had opened the season with a shocking victory over Texas, Nebraska’s greatest foil during its Big 12 days.)
Nebraska’s football program is at a crossroads. But if the expectations involve returning to national championship contention, it’s more like a dead end.
Hiring a competent, visionary and approachable athletic director will be much easier than hiring a top-notch coach. Nebraska is not the national brand it was 20 years ago and even the school’s last conference title, in 1999, occurred before current high school players were born.
Osborne’s final season as coach was 1997 when the Huskers completed a run of glory that included three national championships in a four-year span. Some of that success was helped by Nebraska being allowed to sign Proposition 48 qualifiers. That old NCAA rule has disappeared but when the school joined the Big 12, restrictions on Prop 48 recruits – a policy pushed by Texas – was the first fissure that led to Nebraska’s discontent and ultimate move to the Big Ten in 2011.
While joining up with Jim Delany’s merry band has enhanced Nebraska’s bank statement, it also cut off a productive pipe line to the football talent in the state of Texas. In 2010, the Huskers’ final season in the Big 12, there were 26 players from the Lone Star state on the roster. There are seven Texas players on this season’s roster.
Riley has tried to build recruiting bases in California and Texas. For what it’s worth, in 247Sports.com’s rankings of 2018 verbal commitments, Nebraska is 37th and there are seven Big Ten teams ranked above the Huskers.
And while every little boy in the state wants to grow up to wear the helmet with the red “N” on it, few grow up to be five-star recruits. In the last six recruiting classes, the state of Nebraska has produced just four “blue chip” (four-star or five-star) recruits – and none over the last four years.
The faithful fans who have sold out Memorial Stadium for the past 55 seasons know good football. It’s been awhile since they’ve seen it. If a new coach fields a competitive that that plays solid football, will that be good enough? Is aspiring to win the Big Ten West division enough? Or do they expect a new coach to squeeze water from a rock and produce national championship contenders?
Joke time: Why can’t Nebraska get served in a bar? It doesn’t have an ID. Who are the Huskers and what do they aspire to be? That’s a crucial question, no joke. Regardless of what the fans want, Nebraska’s administration needs to spend time gazing into a mirror.
Right now, the reflection isn’t promising. At the news conference announcing Eichorst’s dismissal, system chancellor Ronnie Green and school president Hank Bounds were men in the high castle when asked about their expectations for football.
“I’d love to be back in the mid-1990s, right,” Green said. “I don’t need to say more.”
To which Bounds added: “Why shouldn’t we have those aspirations here?”
Gentlemen, grab a calendar. It’s 2017. Reality is now and the glory days are long gone in the tall corn.