Same story, different state. Star quarterback turned star coach comes back to rescue his alma mater, to lift a blue blood gone wrong. In December 2014, it was Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Almost exactly three years later, it was Scott Frost at Nebraska.
And yet, after three seasons, not everything in Ann Arbor has landed right side up for Harbaugh, who has yet to finish higher than third in the uber-competitive Big Ten East. Do the cards hold the same fate for Frost in Lincoln? Former Michigan and NFL running back Chris Howard and Land of 10 writer-columnist Sean Keeler wondered what Frost and his staff could learn from Harbaugh’s ups and occasional downs since the fall of 2015 …
Q: WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCOTT FROST COULD LEARN FROM JIM HARBAUGH’S FIRST THREE SEASONS AT MICHIGAN?
CHRIS HOWARD: MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
I knew Jim Harbaugh played at the University of Michigan, achieved tremendous success as an NFL quarterback, college football coach and as an NFL coach, but I didn’t know his intimate history and what he meant to all those who grew up hearing the Jim Harbaugh stories and watching him lead the Maize and Blue to victories over its rivals. When the rumors of his coming back to Michigan started to surface, the mania surrounding the program was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. To the Michigan faithful, this was the closest thing to a real-life superhero returning home to shake up the status quo.
I, like many NFL pundits, shared the similar misguided opinion that Harbaugh would never turn down the NFL to return to the college ranks. In the end, the love for his alma mater — and perhaps a sense of duty to the teachings of Bo Schembechler — was too big for Harbaugh to walk away from.
Harbaugh’s return brought back, as he would say, “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” to the program. With back-to-back 10-win seasons, all had seemed restored in no time at all. I personally believed it would be three or four years before we would see 10 wins simply because of how bad we were in the past. But to my surprise, Michigan was relevant again and being discussed among some college football elite programs. I think Harbaugh enjoyed and relished the approval and praise he received from the Go Blue Nation.
However, with success comes even greater expectations. With a 1-5 record against his chief rivals, an abysmal 2017 season and no Big Ten championships, you get a sense the bloom is falling off the Harbaugh rose.
As a coach and as a player, you don’t have the luxury of worrying about the opinions of those on the outside. Your job is to continue to rebuild, get better and find the right pieces to make your program a contender. Despite the setbacks, Harbaugh evaluated his staff and himself and made changes. The standard is still high, but the pedestal fans placed Harbaugh on seems a little shorter than a year ago.
That’s not a bad thing, in my opinion.
How can you manage the expectations of a rabid fan base that’s desperate to return to the big stage of college football? The short answer is, you can’t. In today’s world of “I want it now,” it’s impossible to control the expectations of others. But you can manage your own by setting a clear direction of what and who you want to be as a football program, but be flexible enough to adjust when needed. Because nothing goes as according to plan, not even home-run hires such as Scott Frost to Nebraska.
Frost is entering an identical scenario as Harbaugh. Frost isn’t just a former player returning to coach his alma mater. He is a hero to all those who grew up watching him and his teammates dominate opponents and win championships. He is a familiar reminder to what use to be. They’re already calling it the Big Red Revival.
The problem with that kind of enthusiasm is it trivializes the process of rebuilding a broken program and turns it into a slogan to sell on T-shirts and bumper stickers. The Scott-Frost-to-Nebraska hire was the right choice. The program took a step in the right direction. But it’s also just the first in many to follow before Nebraska football reaches the level of its storied past.
Frost is another good coach that has entered a league full of good coaches who aren’t going to just lay down and let him have his way. What he was able to achieve at Central Florida in a short amount of time is spectacular. Regardless if Scott Frost is an instant success or not, what he can take away from Harbaugh’s first three seasons at Michigan is simple. With his wins and his losses, his detractors will come from within and from the outside. Understand he will never be able to control the expectations of others, but he can manage his own, stick with what got him here and be flexible enough to adjust when needed because nothing goes according to plan.