You can tell them that the Earth is flat and the sky is pink. You can tell them that pigs fly. You can tell them that Elvis is still alive and playing Yahtzee in a bunker somewhere with Tupac and Andy Kaufman. But you never, ever, ever, ever, ever tell a Nebraska walk-on never.
“As for parity, when Coach [Tom] Osborne was getting beat by [Oklahoma coach] Barry Switzer, they said, ‘Nobody in the country can even compete with Barry. Let’s face it, they’re the greatest,’ ” says Jeff Makovicka, the former Cornhuskers fullback and backfield stalwart on Nebraska’s 1994 and 1995 national championship sides. “Now they’re saying, ‘You’re never going to be what you were before there was this parity.’
“Well they were probably saying, ‘You’re never going to win the Big Eight or a national championship.’ Or, ‘You’re never going be in the national championship because the Florida schools have got all the kids, there’s no way a Northern school can do it.’
“I think for time immemorial, there have been those arguments, that there’s no way you can do it again.”
And he’s heard ’em all. In the ’70s, it was Switzer. A generation later, it was Florida speed. Now enforced parity — scholarship limitations, television dollars flowing everywhere — is the hill to Nebraska football’s Sisyphus. Throw in a Big Ten that’s deep in quality coaches, deeper in fat wallets and 15 years of questionable hires in Lincoln, and you can see the obstacles strewn in front of new coach Scott Frost, who’ll make his spring debut on Saturday before a national television audience and a packed house.
Only Makovicka doesn’t see obstacles. He sees excuses.
“Parity seems to be the trend now as to why we can’t get back. But I think we can,” the fullback-turned-attorney tells Land of 10. “And I think we can with Scott.
“Here’s the thing — Scott gets it. I think we’ve had coaches in the past who were probably good coaches and they knew the Xs and Os and they knew how to coach a kid up. But they didn’t understand what works here.
“And that’s the biggest issue — is what works here. Coach Osborne knew what worked here. Coach [Frank] Solich did.
“Scott knows what works, and you can see that he does already. He’s tried to go out and get character kids and make them understand that the only way you win championships is through a lot of hard work.”
From 1970 to 2016, the NFL drafted more former walk-ons at Nebraska — 25 — than from 606 other universities, combined, over the course of pro football history.
Hard work starts with growing your own.
And, more to the point, keeping them.
“No. 1, get some of our home-grown guys a chance to fulfill their dreams of being Huskers,” offers Allen Lyday, one of those guys who turned his walk-on dreams at Nebraska into reality, then parlayed those dreams into an NFL career with the Houston Oilers. “Even having a state-wide tryout. Something that says, ‘We’re committed to our walk-on program.’ ”
The Xs-and-Os guys talked a good game, but they didn’t get it. Lyday and Makovicka, two of the more celebrated walk-ons over the last 40 seasons of Nebraska football, don’t just think Frost is committed to getting the Huskers back to their roots. They’re certain of it.
The new Nebraska coach and former Big Red quarterback announced in February that he’d hoped to bring in 20 walk-ons, twice the total of the previous season, and to expand the roster from 135 to at least 150 as a minimum baseline. More music to more ears.
“It’s part of a storied program that is one of the best stories in college football,” says Lyday, a second-team All-Big Eight selection at cornerback in 1982. “And that’s Nebraska football. It stems from coming from humble beginnings and taking those humble beginnings and restarting them.
“That’s one of the things that I take pride in, knowing that my school would let individuals fulfill their dreams and have a chance to do that, and that was through the commitment that the coaching staff and Coach Osborne had. Now with the new regime coming, maybe it’s just a modern twist on the history of the [program] itself.”
History isn’t pandering to the locals, patting one of Nebraska football’s most beloved legacies on the head and then locking it in a closet once the cameras are turned off.
You know what doesn’t work here?
Never has. Never will.
“There was an annual award each year for the top walk-on on the team — that just made me think that these walk-ons are considered something different, and it’s a special award for walk-ons,” Makovicka recalls. “I just don’t know if that was projecting the correct message to those walk-ons. Where [it should be], ‘Hey, you guys are no different than anyone else. Your award is getting a spot in the final 11.’ So that’s what formed my idea of how the walk-on program was being run after Coach Solich.
“I’m setting this up to get some of the guys that I’ve missed, some potential recruiting mistakes. Some kids that came from small schools in western Nebraska. Let them flourish in a merit-based system. Let’s not treat them any different. Let’s just let them in and see what they can do.
“That’s what it was like when we were there. You had kids that were walk-ons that came in that did make it and you had a lot of scholarships kids — I could name many highly ranked national recruits that came in with me that were gone after the first year. They didn’t make it.
“So I think that what you’ve got to do is just bring these kids in and let them compete, and whoever rises to the top, irrespective of how they came into the system, give them a shot. And that’s how you do it. You don’t make that kid feel any different. Coach Osborne treated me like a scholarship kid, any other kid.”
‘Scott has got to convince kids that, hey, this is how the program is going to be run going forward. You’re going to get a shot and you’re going to win a scholarship and you’re going to get those kids to turn down the South Dakota State scholarships. You’re going to get those kids that are on the cusp.’
— Former Nebraska fullback Jeff Makovicka
Limits on staff time? Program dollars? Excuses.
“Yeah, it’s going to be hard,” Makovicka says. “But I think how you address it is, you have to have a coach — Scott has got to convince kids that, hey, this is how the program is going to be run going forward. You’re going to get a shot and you’re going to win a scholarship and you’re going to get those kids to turn down the South Dakota State scholarships. You’re going to get those kids that are on the cusp.
“They’re not coming to Nebraska anymore because a) they think the walk-on program isn’t the same; and b) I think a lot of kids, if Nebraska was winning national championships and conference championships the last 15 years, I think you would have had a lot more walk-ons that turned down South Dakota State scholarships because they want to be a part of championship football.
“You have to produce an awesome product on the field, and then you have to convince them that it’s different now, that the walk-on program is going to be like it used to be, and we’re going to give you a shot. And as a coach, I think you have to believe in it.”
Be Wisconsin, the pundits chirp, and the irony stings. Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez is a Nebraska alum who built a Big Ten West dynasty on the eternal Cornhuskers verities of Osborne and Bob Devaney: strength training, teaching, power, discipline, fundamentals, smarts, blood, guts and in-state pride.
“If I was Nebraska, my goal would be to be better than Wisconsin’s walk-on program,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo notes. “And Barry has Nebraska-ed Wisconsin. Their success isn’t based on numbers of walk-ons — it’s based on quality of walk-ons. So you could have 150 guys out there and get nothing done.”
To that, Makovicka laughs.
“If we went back to the way Wisconsin is doing it, we’d be winning national championships,” the former Nebraska fullback says. “We have the kids, and the facilities and the [resources] in the program and would develop national championships out of it.
“It’s not just plug-in and video-game football, dissecting the best play and telling the kids, ‘You run this on [this down], because you’re going to be wide open.’ You may have the best coaches in the world, the best football minds. But if he doesn’t know how to make it work here, you’re going to have the same result you’ve had the last 15 years.”
Makovicka knows. Lyday knows. Frost does, too. The loin in Lincoln is starting to feel those old wings again, and it’s only a matter of time before this little piggy soars.