- To hear the last Huskers quarterback to win a national title tell it, Nebraska football has lost its way. But Scott Frost has a plan to make his alma mater a national factor again, and the Huskers are banking on the return of a program legend to give them some desperately needed momentum.
LINCOLN, Neb. — Many coaches’ offices look out at their programs’ football stadium. Some overlook their practice fields. The head coach’s office at Nebraska looks down into the Cornhuskers’ 20,000-square-foot weight room.
“Everything we did started in there,” Scott Frost says.
The Huskers’ new head coach, who returns to Lincoln 20 years after he quarterbacked Nebraska to a national title, wasn’t the one who laid out the football offices this way, but it is an ideal vantage point for him to oversee the project he is undertaking now. After all, Nebraska’s football dynasty was built on Husker Power.
These days it’s not uncommon for big-time college football teams to build hype machines around their strength and conditioning programs, especially in April, three months away from real, live games in both directions. But Husker Power is an institution synonymous with the development that Frost said made this place so special when he played here. The program’s official website touts Nebraska as the first NCAA school to hire a strength coach, in 1969, and its football team as “the first to lift weights in-season, the first to take a portable weight room to a bowl game and the first to computerize lifting progress charts for individual student-athletes.”
All that broken ground makes it so odd that for much of the two decades Frost was gone, a program that prides itself on laying the foundation for modern college football strength training had lost its identity—and lost a hefty number of the games it used to win as a result.
As a senior in 1997, Frost led the Huskers to a perfect 13–0 season, crushing Peyton Manning and Tennessee 42–17 in the Orange Bowl. That capped off a year in which Frost became the first quarterback in Nebraska’s storied history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing in a season. Twenty years later, he still looks like he could suit up and play QB, or even linebacker. In truth, Frost is probably in better shape than many of the players he inherited were last year. A son of Wood River, Neb. (pop. 1,325), he’s a bit of a low-talker, but his presence seems to fill up the room he enters, with a vibe that’s more Army Ranger than 43-year-old football coach.
Frost sits back in his new office, wearing a Nebraska sweatshirt and a Tennessee Titans hat—a nod to Marcus Mariota, who led the Oregon offenses Frost coordinated under Mark Helfrich to a national title game trip and a Heisman Trophy. (“He’s an even better person than what you hear,” Frost says of Mariota. “He’s an incredible human being.”) Before we chat about his return home, Frost fields a call from Dolphins coach Adam Gase, who wants to pick his brain about a few of his former players from the Central Florida team Frost took from 0–12 to 13–0 in two seasons. The Knights have a projected first-round pick in defensive back Mike Hughes and the draft’s most compelling story in one-handed linebacker Shaquem Griffin. But another big key to UCF’s meteoric rise was the play of quarterback McKenzie Milton. Like Mariota, Milton was an unheralded three-star recruit out of Hawaii who thrived in Frost’s offense, an offshoot of the Chip Kelly attacks that turned Oregon into a trend-setting national power and set the upward trajectory of Frost’s coaching career.
“I’m proud of the fact that since I’ve become quarterbacks coach and OC, Marcus was a Heisman winner and led the country in passer efficiency,” Frost says. “The next year Vernon [Adams] led the country in passer efficiency, and this past year, McKenzie was second to Baker Mayfield. Our scheme puts QBs in positions to do things well, and [Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, who was on Frost’s UCF staff] is as good as there is at training them.”
Frost’s unique pedigree casts him as the perfect savior for a once-vaunted program that has backslid into irrelevance. The pride Frost has in this place, in the people who built a championship program decades ago, is too powerful for him to conceal the anger—maybe even disgust—in his voice when he talks about what happened to Nebraska football.
“There’s a formula that worked at Nebraska for 30 years,” he says. “If you were in any business and your company was the best-performing business in the sector or in the top two or three—and Nebraska was arguably the best program for 30 years—and then for the next 15 years you have average-to-poor performance, you’re stupid if you don’t look back and say, ‘What made our company the best in our sector?’ Well, the leadership on campus and in the AD office ruined this place because it was either guys who thought, I wanna do it my way, let’s go get a West Coast offense guy, or they didn’t understand what made Nebraska so good for all of those years.”
Frost called the departure from the formula that drove the teams he played on “alarming.” How exactly did things go so far off the rails, and what was lost in the process?
“Everything,” he says. “We used to have 160 guys on the football team, but it wasn’t just that. We took those 160 guys and developed them better than anybody else in college football. We had the best strength and conditioning program in the country. We had the best nutrition program in the country. We had the best academic support program in the country. We practiced in a way where everybody was getting reps, where you had four units—four teams going at once so the whole team was getting reps and you developed the roster from the top to the bottom.
“You took kids that were a cut below some of the five-star kids going other places, and by the time they left school here, they were bigger, faster and stronger than those other guys and they got 100 more reps a week than those other guys. There was a toughness here, a work ethic here, a unity of purpose at Nebraska that was better than everybody else. Everybody knew what we were, knew their role, was pulling in the same direction, supported each other, and they just took a 180-degree turn from that.
“People forget Frank Solich averaged almost 10 wins a year and that wasn’t good enough for them. Then they tried to go a different way with the West Coast offense and went 5–6 and seven-and-something. Then they go get Bo [Pelini] and he did a lot of things right. There was a seven-year span where only three schools won at least nine in a row for all those years—Oregon, Alabama and Nebraska. But Bo could never get over the hump.”
Pelini’s volatility, put on public display in the form of his frequent sideline meltdowns, clashed with the administration led by the previous athletic director, Shawn Eichorst. Pelini’s teams were almost always good, but never close to great, and he was fired in 2014 with a 67–27 record and five Top 25 finishes in six years. There was speculation at that point that Nebraska might hire Frost, who was then considered a rising star at Oregon, but despite a lot of support for that return to Nebraska’s roots around the program, Eichorst hired Oregon State’s popular, pleasant Mike Riley. Riley’s personality was the polar opposite of Pelini’s, but he never found traction over his first two seasons in Lincoln, and by the end of last fall’s 4–8 campaign, both Riley and Eichorst had been shown the door.
Frost didn’t aspire to coach. That in itself seems surprising considering his father spent 40 years coaching high school football and his mother spent around 30 years as an assistant football coach. Larry Frost was a starting wingback for the Huskers, and Carol, a former track coach at Nebraska, threw the discus in the 1968 Summer Olympics. A finance major at Nebraska, Frost worked summers for Burlington Capital in Omaha, building amortization schedules on Excel spreadsheets and learning about loan repayments under Mike Yanney, who had become a mentor. But once his playing career ended and Burlington Capital became his day job, Frost lasted eight days.
“I was miserable,” Frost says. “I said, I don’t think I can do this.”
“I can tell,” Yanney replied. “What are you gonna do?”
Frost credits Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris, his defensive back coaches when he played safety for the Buccaneers, for inspiring him to go into coaching. Frost calls Tomlin, now in his 11th year as the head coach of the Steelers, the best position coach he’s ever been around.
“I love his approach to coaching,” he says. “He and Raheem treated you like men. Both of them are teachers and unbelievable technicians. I think that kind of thing gets lost in this day and age where most guys just wanna sign a new free agent that can play or you just wanna go sign a four- or five-star kid that can play. But actually teaching and developing is coaching.”
Frost can still rattle off a 40-second string of Tomlin coaching points from the first time he sat in the coaches’ meeting room, without pausing or taking a breath. “He went through it 100 miles per hour,” Frost says. “My head was spinning. He had these buzz phrases and catchphrases for every technique that you heard every day, and that’s important in our offense because we play so fast. Mike T. was the best at that.”
Those buzz phrases are now the backbone of Frost’s own up-tempo scheme, and they figured into the glory days at Oregon, where Kelly and Helfrich created a lexicon that keeps growing for an offense that keeps expanding. As an assistant at New Hampshire, Kelly realized his verbiage needed to be short but meaningful. Players who spent time in the system Kelly and his protégés run say the resulting terms become ingrained in you, like a way of life.
“Because we play so fast and there isn’t a whole of time to coach, the first thing [Frost] taught us as coaches is to have a catchphrase for everything,” says Huskers offensive coordinator Troy Walters, who followed Frost from UCF. “Instead of bringing a kid over and, ‘Hey, you gotta do this and this.’ We don’t have time. [Instead] we use a catchphrase.”
One example: Firm Feet. For the receivers, that means Get your feet set and get your eyes on the coverage. “Our receivers—once their feet stop moving, we can snap the ball because if they’re shuffling, it’s illegal procedure and we can’t do that,” says Huskers QB Noah Vedral, who transferred to Lincoln after spending his freshman year at UCF. “But if we hear ‘Firm Feet,’ we’re good to go.”
The staff gets feedback from the players, asking how they remember each phrase. “Everything you do on the field has to be quick and to the point,” says Walters. “In this offense with our guys, it’s all about how fast can they process the information and then do the details and the fundamental part of it.”
But Frost’s Nebraska overhaul is about more than merely streamlining the language.
No one ever questioned the toughness of legendary coach Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams, squads defined by powerful linemen and bruising fullbacks. There’s no doubt Frost wants his team to be tough at the point of attack, but he also wants top-to-bottom physicality. In 2017, the Knights routinely had four or five receivers playing on kickoff coverage units; when Walters studied 2017 Nebraska film, he didn’t see any Husker wideouts on there.
“What made us great was because we had receivers who were tough, physical and selfless,” Walters says. “I told our guys here, our skill guys are gonna be known as the Playmakers. I don’t want it to just be about receivers. I want it to be about special teams, scout team, as a receiver, as a running back. It’s a mentality. Off the field, on the field, wherever I go, I impact other people because I’m a Playmaker. Once we get guys who don’t mind running down on kickoffs or don’t mind blocking on the perimeter, [that’s when your team shines]. In year one at UCF, we didn’t block a soul. In year two, those guys embraced being physical and embraced blocking, and it took our offense to a whole other level.”
That mentality takes buy-in, but Frost’s coaching colleagues knew long ago that he would have no trouble securing that. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander met him at a coaches convention a dozen years ago, when Frost was a graduate assistant at Kansas State looking for a full-time job. “He had just It—whatever it was,” Chinander says. “If you find one of those guys, you’d better follow along.”
The viability of Nebraska has been a subject of college football fascination for the past decade. Since 1970, only Alabama has won more national titles than the Huskers’ five. However, since a 37–14 whipping at the hands of Miami in the Rose Bowl with 2001’s BCS title on the line, Nebraska has not finished ranked better than 14th in the country.
Several of the Huskers’ contemporary powerhouses have gone through similar droughts: Tennessee hasn’t finished the year in the AP top 10 in the last 16 seasons; Miami has gone 14 years without a top 10; Texas is now up to eight. Yet Nebraska, with its relatively small in-state population and distance from traditional recruiting hubs, is most often cited as the program that has been left behind in the modern era in which almost every FBS program is on national TV every week, not just the handful of bluebloods that enjoyed that exposure in the ’70s and ’80s.
A sampling of the other popular excuses for why the pack has caught up to Nebraska: population shifts, conference realignment, flashier uniforms in sunnier locales. Frost isn’t buying any of them.
“I keep hearing how the recruiting landscape has changed and blah and blah, but we have everything we need here to build it back to what it was,” he says. “Since Frank [was fired in 2003] it’d been a departure from what made Nebraska Nebraska.”
Frost’s best argument sits almost 500 miles northeast of Lincoln, where defending Big Ten West champion Wisconsin has five top-10 finishes in the past 12 years and enters the fall as a legitimate playoff contender. The Badgers’ rise—led by Tom Osborne disciple Barry Alvarez, first as head coach and now as athletic director—has mirrored the Huskers’ decline. Before Alvarez arrived in Madison in 1990, it had been 27 years since Wisconsin’s last top-10 finish. The Badgers built themselves into relevance without a single recruiting class ranked better than No. 30 in the past 17 years, according to 247Sports.
“Barry Alvarez came from here and saw what worked, and he used Nebraska’s blueprint more than Nebraska has,” Frost says. “We should be able to out-recruit Wisconsin. We’re not anywhere near huge talent bases, but we’re closer to it than they are. People say Lincoln’s cold. Wisconsin is cold. Michigan is cold. Minnesota is cold. We should be the highest-rated recruiting class at least in our half [of the Big Ten] every year with the facilities we have to offer and with the tradition we have here. We don’t need the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. We just need a top-25 class every year, and we can develop it.”
Frost’s offensive success paved the way for him to leave Oregon and take on his first rebuilding job as a head coach. UCF ranked 126th in scoring offense and finished 0–12 the year before his arrival. In his second season, the Knights ranked No. 1 in scoring offense and had a 13–0 record, capped off by a Peach Bowl win over an Auburn squad that beat both national title game participants. But it took more than a scheme shift to turn the program around. Players who had been buried on the depth chart were unleashed and inspired by Frost’s staff. Griffin went from a career total of 29 tackles in his first three seasons before Frost’s arrival to AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“When people talk about the culture of a football program, what is that? Well, I think it’s the players genuinely loved the coaches,” says Walters. “They trusted us. In year one, there were some guys half in, half out. It was, ‘I’m still trying to get to know the staff.’ But in year two, there was total buy-in, total confidence in the system and the coaches. Then I think that brought confidence out of them and then it took off, and they knew the system so we were able to be more creative in our game plans.”
“I always said at Oregon that if we could combine our scheme and speed there with old-school Husker Power, that we wouldn’t lose a game,” Frost says. “And that’s what we did [at UCF]. We got as good a strength coach as there is in the country, who knew Husker Power and modernized it. We trained for speed and ran the schemes that we ran at Oregon for the most part.”
UCF’s schematic transformation opened the eyes of many around the country. The old Ducks staffers had been careful with what they shared with other staffs, but they knew it was a copycat game. “It used to take two years before people catch up with you,” Frost says. “Now it’s not even two games. We ran a play at Oregon one week and did well with it. The next week, the team we played and two other schools ran the same thing.”
With Kelly returning to college football at UCLA after five years in the pros, all eyes are on how one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds will adjust his approach now that elements of his scheme have been picked up by countless imitators. While Kelly went off to the NFL, his star pupil proved in Orlando that he was able to stay far ahead of the curve.
“The beauty of this system, and I give Chip so much credit for this, is the best schemes that I’ve been a part of on both sides of the ball are complete systems, which means it’s not just a play inserted here or there,” Frost says. “There’s answers built in with everything you do. It’s an actual complete scheme and system, so you can make little tweaks just by changing a term and the kids get it."
Frost admits he and his staff were surprised that UCF broke through as fast as it did. “The same thing will happen here,” Frost says. “We’ll be a little better this year than they were last year, but it takes some time for the kids to really understand the scheme, and the systems and the details that make it work. We need a couple of years of training in the weight room and a couple of years of getting the culture established. Year two is when it’s gonna take off around here—and taking off doesn’t mean we’re gonna go undefeated, but we’ll be a really good team in two years.”
If you think his projection sounds overly confident, you should feel the aura that now permeates the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex. Spend a couple of days around Frost’s coaches and players, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a speck of doubt that this place is about to become a college football giant again.
After Nebraska formally hired Frost in December, Tom Shatel went to Atlanta to cover Frost’s UCF finale for the Omaha World-Herald. The Knights he saw take the Peach Bowl by storm called to mind another upstart from Florida whose postseason takedown of a heavily favored powerhouse he witnessed in person: Miami’s upset of No. 1 Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
“It just reminded me so much of that Miami team,” Shatel says. “The UCF players were jumping up and down constantly on the sidelines. There was so much energy. They just seemed to be on fire. That approach and body language is the exact opposite approach of what they’ve had here lately. I think it’ll be kind of a culture shock for the fans. It’ll probably freak some of ’em out.”
The postmortems diagnosing what went wrong for Nebraska football in recent years can be almost as draining for the players as the on-field losses themselves. The veterans knew there were issues beyond Riley’s control, drama in upper management that kept everyone from pulling in the same direction. “It slowly trickled its way down [to the players],” says senior offensive lineman Jerald Foster, a team captain in 2017.
The low-point for Foster came at Minnesota on Nov. 11, a 54–21 loss to a Golden Gophers team that finished 5–7. “We weren’t playing at all together—the sideline was dead,” he says. “It’s not that I wasn’t trying to push people forward. When you see your team hanging their heads, it’s hard to pull them out of that because yelling and screaming, which is what a lot of people think leading is, doesn’t work all of the time.”
Other upperclassmen say a fractured staff exacerbated by the arrival of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco prior to the 2017 only made things worse for the players—much, much worse.
“Last year to me was miserable,” says defensive lineman Khalil Davis. “It was just a waste. You could look in the guys’ eyes and tell they didn’t want to be here. Getting Frost here was definitely appreciated.”
Frost is the third head coach for this senior class, including nose guard and 2017 captain Mick Stoltenberg, who is now on his fourth defensive coordinator and fourth defensive line coach at Nebraska.
“One thing I have learned is no transition will be smooth unless there’s a full buy-in,” Stoltenberg says.
Many coaches jumping from a Group of Five job to a Power 5 job leave their old program as quickly as possible after they’re hired in an effort to try and cobble together a recruiting class and new coaching staff in the mere handful of weeks until National Signing Day. Frost didn’t want to abandon his UCF staff. Throughout the hiring process, as rumors swirled about where the coaching carousel would stop for one of its hottest names—Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, Florida State, an extension to remain at UCF—Frost counseled with all of his assistants to get their feedback. He wanted them together with him, wherever he ended up.
“If they’re good enough coaches to take guys from 0–12 to 13–0, they’re good enough to coach anywhere,” he says. “We had an unbelievable rapport with each other and our kids. We had a bunch of meetings to talk about what we wanted to do. At the end of the day, with 10 other guys in the room who are smarter than me, we came to a consensus that this was the best opportunity.”
Frost was able to build off the recruiting gains he had made at UCF once he got to Lincoln. He quickly landed four-star dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez, a former Tennessee commit who appears to be a great fit for the scheme. Martinez loved Frost’s staff when the Knights offered him, but he wasn’t sold on the fit at UCF.
“When they came here, it all lined up,” says Martinez, now in a battle with Tristan Gebbia for the 2018 starting job. “They’re great coaches. It’s a stable situation and also the school, these fans are so supportive, whether you go to a basketball game or a volleyball game. There’s something very special about this place.”
Frost didn’t take long to win over the players he inherited, either.
“The first time I met him, he just has this confidence about him, the way he walks, the way he shakes your hand,” says defensive lineman Carlos Davis, before his twin brother Khalil finishes the thought: “You can tell he just knows what he’s doing.”
“The smoothest cat I ever met in my life,” says senior wideout Stanley Morgan. “Everything you might hear about him is real. Just never panicked. Always has control of the situation. It’s not fake. I come to practice and see it every day. He comes into the building with a walk, with a cockiness. I notice that he always has his hat turned to the side. He’s confident.”
If there’s a strength of this team that Frost inherited, it’s at receiver. The 6'1", 195-pound Morgan caught 10 touchdowns in 2017 and fell just 14 yards short of the first 1,000-yard season in Nebraska history. J.D. Spielman, son of Vikings GM Rick and nephew of Ohio State legend Chris Spielman, is coming off a season where he made Freshman All-America as a tough slot receiver/return man.
The team’s most dynamic weapon might be sophomore Tyjon Lindsey, a five-star Las Vegas product who seems poised for a breakthrough season. The bond between player and coach has aided that process. Walters realized their connection was really taking root when Lindsey came in on a Friday in early April and told Walters his life story. “We gained his trust,” Walters says. “I think that’s one of the things this staff has done. Guys know that we are here for them.”
The buy-in has been just as big from the fan base. In February, tickets for the Huskers’ April 21 spring game at 85,000-seat Memorial Stadium sold out in a little more than 24 hours and were going for over $500 a piece on Stubhub. Still Nebraska’s new leading man doesn’t seem worried about any overinflated expectations or fans losing perspective.
“I think they’re hungry to just see effort and enthusiasm,” Frost says. "They want a good product. Honestly, I think this first year they’re gonna be more worried about having a team they can be proud of. We never measure our success based on wins and losses. It’s, are we better than we were yesterday?”
For Huskers fans and players, that answer is already a resounding yes, thanks to a coach who understands their glory days better than anyone.