When a scribe joked that UCF was probably the second-favorite team of choice for Nebraska faithful this fall, Scott Frost played along.
“Well, the more fans the better,” the former Cornhuskers quarterback and first-year Knights coach countered. “I guess that’s good, because it means I didn’t make too many people mad in Nebraska in about 30 years of living there.”
Some crushes are lost to the breeze. Others stick. The 41-year-old Frost holds a special place in several hearts across Big Red Country as a native son (Wood River, Neb.); a two-year starter for the Huskers (1996 and 1997); the final signal-caller of the Tom Osborne era (1973-1997); and as one of the key cogs of the last national champion (to date) in the program’s history.
We’ll circle back to that last one in a minute.
“But I’m focused on what we have to do down here,” Frost continued. “And we need as many fans as we can have in the Orlando area. And, hopefully, nationally. So it’s an honor to have anybody rooting for us.”
Some 10 months after signing on at UCF, where he’s trying to change the narrative at a program that went 0-12 last fall, Frost finds himself squarely in the Big Ten orbit, one of the more interesting sidelights to one of the less-tasty nonconference matchups on the Week 2 docket. The Knights (1-0) visit Michigan (1-0) this Saturday and host Maryland (1-0) on Sept. 17.
In his head coaching debut last week, Frost steered UCF to a 38-0 stomping of FCS foe South Carolina State. The upcoming fortnight? Different story.
“It was just exciting for me to see these kids get rewarded for the hard work they put in,” said Frost, who came to Orlando after six seasons as an assistant at Oregon, the last three as the Ducks offensive coordinator. “They were hungry for a different way of doing things coming off last year, and they adopted our style and our process from the very beginning.”
Frost’s influences in the profession run the gamut: He played for Bill Walsh at Stanford and, after a transfer, for Osborne in Lincoln; for Bill Parcells with the New York Jets; for Butch Davis in Cleveland; Mike Sherman in Green Bay; and for Jon Gruden while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He coached under Frank Solich at Nebraska; Ron Prince at Kansas State; Mark Farley at Northern Iowa; and Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich in Eugene.
But more than that, it’s in the blood. Frost’s father, Larry, was his head coach at Wood River High School; mother Carol also happened to be one of Larry’s assistants. Dad played halfback with the Huskers from 1967-69. Mom threw the discus at Nebraska and later competed with the U.S. Olympic team at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
Frost is a legacy, and legacies leave a mark in Lincoln, too. There’s even a Facebook page titled “Bring Scott Frost Back to Nebraska.” As of Wednesday afternoon, it had 710 likes.
Last December, the former Huskers standout agreed to a 5-year contract in Orlando with a base salary of $1.7 million. After the first 24 months on the job, both sides have the option of a two-year extension. And Frost told CBSSports.com last month that “when the (Huskers) job was open a couple years ago (after Bo Pelini’s firing), I didn’t even get a phone call. My mind is here. There’s no part of me that is thinking about doing anything to get another job.”
So there’s that. Although it’s not hard to look at Frost at UCF and see — if the stars align — the Knights as a potential launch pad for a Power 5 job, somewhere, someday, somehow. Maybe even a Big Red somewhere, someday, somehow.
Of course, Frost has bigger fish to worry about in the short view, namely a visit to a Michigan team hellbent on destruction; the Wolverines opened the week as a 34.5-point favorite. You wonder if Harbaugh, once the game is in hand, will start looking up at the scoreboard to check the latest load Urban Meyer just dropped on some poor soul and try to match carnage for carnage.
It’s also a bit of delicious irony that the first FBS opponent on Frost’s plate as a head coach is Big Blue, whose fan base hasn’t really forgotten him. Or forgiven him.
In January 1998, in the eons — it feels like eons — before the College Football Playoff, before the Bowl Championship Series, the best way to settle a dispute over who was No. 1 was to politick the hell out of it.
Frost was the starting quarterback for a 13-0 Nebraska team in a season that also saw Michigan finish 12-0. The Wolverines had vaulted the Huskers in the polls prior to the postseason and were expected to retain the Associated Press’ No. 1 slot after a 21-16 victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl. So at the news conference following the Huskers’ 42-17 pasting of Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, the final game in the career of the retiring Osborne, Frost leaned into the microphone and appealed to coaches to split the crown:
“I’m so proud of this team and Coach Osborne, I don’t want to see him go out without a championship. I basically have two points for the coaches:
“One, if you can look yourself in the mirror and say if your job depended on playing either Michigan or Nebraska to keep your job, who would you rather play? You watched the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. Michigan won with a controversial play at the end. We took apart the third-ranked team in the country.
“The second point I have is: I can’t see how any coach outside the Big Ten or the Pac-10 would vote for Michigan. Because if somebody from North Carolina, Florida State, West Virginia, Notre Dame — wherever it might (be) — if they were undefeated and won the Alliance bowl game, they would expect to share the national title.
“It’s been split before. Colorado and Georgia Tech split it. Washington and Miami split it. It’s OK to split it. It should be split and it’s up to the coaches.”
It worked. Among the coaches, Nebraska won, 1,520-1,516 in total points and 32-30 among first-place votes.
In hindsight, Frost’s comments were another nail to the coffin of the bowl system as it was, another blow to the anachronistic idea of letting a bunch of pollsters determine the national champion by subjective vote. Without Frost, we might never have had the BCS as we knew it, or the dissatisfaction it generated that begat the CFP in its stead.
So … thank you? Kind of?
“That’s fine if it’s a narrative,” Frost said of his infamous speech. “I don’t think my players are going to care at all.
“But there (are) probably some people that’ll care. Listen, it was a long time ago. It’s unfortunate that, in that day and age, the two best teams in the country didn’t play each other. We felt like we were the best team. They felt like they were the best team, and we’ll never know. Yeah, it was a great year for me. And it has absolutely no bearing on this Saturday.”
Well, except maybe for this: Both quarterbacks from the great undefeated 1997 debate — Huskers or Wolverines? — will be in attendance Saturday at Ann Arbor: Frost on the sideline with UCF and former Wolverines signal-caller Brian Griese as an analyst with ABC. Old scores, forever unsettled.
“Of course I feel like we would’ve won. I’m sure Brian Griese feels like they would’ve won,” Frost said. “We feel like we were going to beat everybody we played. And they probably did (too). And I don’t really see how that’s really relevant to Knights versus Wolverines.”
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler