Unofficially, The Dave Rimington World Tour is officially in recharge mode.
“I’m going to have somebody take a look at my knee and have it replaced,” Rimington, the iconic former Nebraska center, interim athletic director and avid shutterbug told Land of 10 recently. “It’s starting to slow down my photography. That’s the problem — my good knee is now my bad knee. And that’s worn down and the good knee is really messed up; I don’t know which knee to favor. I limp around like an old man.”
Next up: Latvia and Lithuania. Eventually. Fall, if the knees — expletive knees! — cooperate. That’ll make countries No. 94 and 95, a bucket list where even the margins are full of killer memories. And even better shots.
“Somehow I got to 93,” the Cornhuskers’ 1981 and 1982 Outland Trophy winner chuckled. “Damn, that’s a lot of travel right there.”
The old man’s still got it, kids. It’s not that the namesake of The Rimington Trophy — presented annually to the best center in college football — is slowing down, per se. It’s just that it’d be hard to top the flurry of the last six months of 2017 — during which the Omaha native and 57-year-old Rimington took a three-week sabbatical from his post as the president of the Boomer Esiason Foundation in the fall to hold the reins at his alma mater, bridging the gap from former athletic director Shawn Eichorst to Bill Moos.
A homecoming that, in hindsight, lit the path that helped to see another beloved Huskers football alum, Scott Frost, take over the football program and unite a fractured state again.
“In hindsight, it was an interesting year,” Rimington laughed. “And it was something that came out of the blue.
“Right after Shawn was let go, Chancellor [Ronnie] Green called me up and asked me if I’d be interested in taking over on an interim basis. I went into my I-Better-Ask-Boomer mode, and Boomer was kind enough to let me go. It took a little convincing to let me go. For the first time in a long time, I feel like Nebraska, as a fan base, is all behind the football team. They’ve always been behind the football team, just [not always the coaches].
“I think Bill Moos was a home-run hire. And I think he’s done a great job and Scott has a lot of fans behind him. And he has a lot of pressure behind him, but I think he understands what he got himself into.”
Since Moos came on board in October and hired Frost in early December to replace Mike Riley, the Big Red have been on a crazy roll — both within the football offices and the athletic department as a whole. Land of 10 caught up with Rimington to get his thoughts on the roller-coaster year that was, and the hopes among Nebraska fans for what’s yet to come:
What are you most looking forward to with Scott at the helm?
Dave Rimington: “I really want to just step back and let him do his magic. He’s proven his magic with Central Florida … I took a lot of heat [last fall] when I said I wanted to get this walk-on program back, and I’m tickled to death that he sees the value of it. We’ll see how it goes with putting a practice plans together, [how] he utilizes the increased numbers that he’s going to have.
“Nebraska had walk-ons the last 10 years, but they didn’t have the numbers and they didn’t have the practice plans to realize it. I [recall] times [where] what you saw is a lot of people standing around. You’ve got to develop them in the weight room and get them ready to play and get them reps … back in my time, guys were willing to put some time [in] and maybe not play right away. We had some good offensive linemen who didn’t play until their second or third year. When they’ve got to [develop], they don’t make mistakes, and that’s the kind of thing you saw with our team last year. We had young kids [up front] — a true freshman in one case — when you’re playing against the best of the best.
“The one thing about the offensive line — you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Like when I played, if you had a great defensive player, they lined him up over the weakest offensive lineman and caused havoc. So we’ve got to get to the point where we’ve got seasoning in the offensive line.
“Scott has proven he can do a very good job coaching. And you know that this should have been done a long time [ago] … this could have been done earlier, but the only reason it did happen this time was because we were so bad, they gave him a chance. Nebraska has been a place where they weren’t going to put a guy from Nebraska who had not shown success as a coach. It was so bad, we got the guy that we wanted. And I think he’s got the energy, he’s got enthusiasm, and his coaches do, too. They can do some wonderful things for us as fans. So it’s going to be interesting.”
So what’s a fair expectation for Year 1, this fall?
DR: “I don’t expect miracles. But I expect them to be ready to play. And if Plan A doesn’t work, they should have something as a backup plan. My hope is that they’ll be competitive in every game this year.
“This year is going to be one of the roughest years that we’ve had, schedule-wise, in a long time. That’s one of the reasons you’ve got to let Scott get in there and figure it out. He’s a smart guy. He’s a really smart guy. You can’t expect miracles. I know he’ll have the guys ready to play and I know [we need to] give it some time. He’s got a great strength coach. It looks like he’s working the guys hard and hopefully, we’ll get some guys who can compete physically.”
— Dave Rimington (@drimington) October 2, 2017
That said, how did you react to the news that two players — including wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey — had been hospitalized last month with rhabdomyolysis, a potentially serious muscle syndrome, after strenuous workouts?
DR: “I don’t really know all the specifics on that one. But as a strength coach, you never want your guys to go down in a heap. I guess he’s [using] the same program that they did at UCF. I don’t think he’s trying to run people off. I just think the guys weren’t ready to go. The team last [fall], it looked skinny and fat at the same time.”
OK, kindly elaborate on that one.
DR: “They looked long and fat, that was the thing. And that was a fat guy telling them they looked fat … I’ve got a lot of confidence. I know [strength and conditioning coach] Zach [Duval] has got a good reputation. We’ll see what he can do, what kind of magic they can produce. They’ve really got to get those offensive and defensive lines ready to go.
“They’ve got to develop some continuity. That was one thing I saw when I worked at Wisconsin [as a graduate assistant in the early 1990s], and I was there when they were just starting to get good, they said, ‘Hey, Dave, just work with these guys.’ We worked every day to get them strong enough to compete and they ended up winning the [Big Ten] championship [in 1993]. The one thing I learned is that I really enjoyed coaching. I don’t enjoy recruiting. I don’t enjoy the other crap that comes with it. The coaching part of it, that was a lot of fun. The light bulb goes off in their heads, starting [with] the weight room and went to the offensive line and defensive line … I loved every minute of it.
“At that time, I wasn’t ready to commit, coming out of pro football, it wasn’t easy to commit to being a coach. A head coach made a couple hundred thousand [then]. Now it’s several million. That wasn’t a very good career [move] on my part.”
And now the Badgers have having been using the verities that historically made the Nebraska program great — offensive lines, the running game, walk-on development, great defense, fundamentals, execution — to dominate the Big Ten West.
DR: “We’ve got to be [able to get it] back and be able to [be] competitive with the Ohio States and Michigans of the world — we’ve got to be able to stick it to those guys.
“But No. 1, we’ve got to beat Wisconsin. We’ve got to build a team from scratch that can beat Wisconsin. And we’ve been close, and the fact remains: If you don’t have enough to beat Wisconsin — the last three or four years we played Wisconsin, we played them tough, and the next week, we’d just get our doors blown off. Of course, playing Ohio State doesn’t help. We don’t have enough players to carry over — the guys left it all on the field [against the Badgers], then when we went up to Ohio State [in 2016] and just got creamed [62-3] and the wheels fell off.
“I don’t think we were as bad as we looked. I just didn’t see a whole lot of confidence last year. We just didn’t have any momentum, it seemed like, the whole year.”
So how far away is this football program — this roster — right now?
DR: “We weren’t that far off before. We just didn’t have the depth to continue after we played Wisconsin close. We played them close until the third quarter. Even last year, we played them close. I think we were close to winning the West [in 2016]. And that’s where we’ve got to start. And I think that can happen in a couple years.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen [this] year. I’m [reluctant] to say, ‘We’re going to win X amount of games.’ I’ve got a feeling we’ll start off really good and we’ll catch people by surprise, and that offense is going to surprise people, and [the schedule] is going to take a toll and as the season goes on, we’ll get into some rough games. I don’t know how we’ll respond. That’ll be the key. You’ve got to have guys up front who can carry the load. You’ve got to have those guys, and I don’t know if we’ll have them. Yet.
“I think the pieces are in place. We’ll find out. I think we’ll have a good football team where there’s a Plan A and a Plan B. And if Plan A doesn’t work, then we’ll start developing players [for Plan B], like we did in my day.
“Nothing comes instantly. The thing that [Frost] did at UCF was pretty phenomenal. But I just don’t think — the Big Ten is a tough conference because it’s a grinding conference. If you don’t have the people up front to play offensive and defensive line, it’s tough to be a consistent winner. Especially on defense.
“We need to get some people on the defensive line that will dominate and some guys that people, when they come up to the line, you’ve got to have [their] offensive linemen saying, ‘OK, where’s the linebacker? We’ve got to get a hat on him, get help on him, with a running back or a tight end.’ I didn’t see that last year. I tried to keep my mouth shut, but it was difficult. And you don’t want to bad-mouth anybody. It was really rough to watch. Especially the Ohio State game last year [a 56-14 home loss, the largest margin of defeat at Memorial Stadium for the Huskers since 1949]. I saw people just streaming out of the boxes at the beginning of the third quarter. But I don’t blame them, if we don’t put a product on the field [where] we can compete.”
Other than the October results on the football field, how did you take to sitting in that AD chair?
DR: “That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that. One of the main things I really liked was just the fact I got to see sports other than football.
“I think [Huskers volleyball coach] John Cook, I think he’s got a big part [in the fall/winter turnaround]. That [national title they won] gave everyone a lot of confidence. That said, ‘Hey, we’ve got people here that can win.’ And everybody seems to be buying in to what Bill is doing.
“My thing was not to screw anything up. My thing was, ‘Hey, I’m not going to pretend that I’m going to hire or fire anybody. I’m just going to keep [things] under control, and we’re going to get the teams in place in order to compete.’ And I think chancellor Green and [university president] Hank Bounds [went] for an AD that can do all that and get the pieces in place and make Nebraska a power not just in football, but all sports.”
— Dave Rimington (@drimington) October 5, 2017
Would you consider doing it again?
DR: “I don’t know. I’m 58, just about. I think Bill’s got a lot of energy. I think he can do it as long as he wants to. I just want to see us win. Is it fun? Yeah, but when I was there, I did all the fun stuff. I didn’t hire or fire [anyone]. And [when] I talked to the chancellor, he said, ‘You don’t want a guy who’s never done this, because this is a pivotal year, you want someone who’s hired a football coach before.’ So I think it would’ve been interesting to go through this whole process and see how Bill put this together, because I would have learned a lot.
“But I don’t have any designs on doing that job. I think I’m a little old. Football players age like dogs. I’m 57 and I’m [feeling] 110. Those steps killed me going to those volleyball games [laughs].”
Was it awkward working with Riley and his staff, knowing the pressure they had to be under at the time? What was that like?
DR: “With Shawn being let go, me coming in there and [then] Bill Moos, the coaches had to be thinking, ‘My God, I’m going to be out of this place no matter what happens.’ You don’t get rid of your AD without a plan. I know it didn’t look good for Riley. I know that I really liked [him], I thought he was a good man. But the goal as the coach is you’re going to have to win games. And if you can’t, you’re going to get pushed out of there. That’s how it goes.
“I think that everybody liked him. It’s just that you’ve got to win football games. I told somebody a long time ago, I said, ‘I had a really nice history teacher, but I wouldn’t want him to be my football coach.’ [Riley] was a .500 coach … I don’t think it affected him as much as it affected the fans. If affected Bo [Pelini]; he’d be affected when he lost games.
“Mike was always the same, always like Mr. Rogers. I was like, ‘Hey, show some emotion.’ You’ve got to be tough enough that the players fear you a little bit. I don’t think the players were afraid of them.”
It’s a fish bowl, and that passion can cut both ways sometimes.
DR: “The thing about Nebraska — it’s a great place. When it starts falling in on you, and I’ve seen it happen to a few coaches, and even, to some degree, to Bo. When the whole thing just implodes on you, it’s just got to be a killer. There are so many expectations, [fans] that just live and breathe Nebraska. And the one thing I can say about Mike is that it didn’t affect him as much. Some people, they’ll go half-crazy.”
You think Frost can handle that, even if the seas start to get a little choppy?
DR: “The big thing about Scott is that he’s been through it, so he knows exactly what’s going to happen. When he lost that Arizona State game [as quarterback in 1996, ending the program’s 26-game winning streak] when he first got to Nebraska, he took a lot of heat. And he came back and he performed and he ended up winning the national championship.
“I have a lot of faith that with Scott, the fans are going to give him as much time as possible. And I feel that he’s a really smart guy and I think he’s proven he can win. There’s no reason why we can’t be as good as we used to be. There’s a tremendous amount of support there. There’s fans. There’s the Big Ten money. You should be able to compete against anybody else. You always hear about, ‘We don’t have this and we don’t have that.’ We’ve got more than most people do. And it’s not like the pre-internet days. Nebraska used to be a little outpost in Lincoln. If the internet has done one thing, it’s leveled the playing field for everybody.”