LINCOLN, Neb. — It’s a watercolor from hell, funereal, the shades of grey in Big Red Nation extending to the skies above. A windy, dreary Monday feels more like early December than the second week of October. The line of Big Ten flags hanging in front of Brewsky’s in the Haymarket district flap loudly and angrily, and the mood inside isn’t all that kinder.
“People are pretty down,” explains David Wacker, Brewsky’s general manager. “There’s a lot of people that are railing about how disappointed they are right now. They’re really down.”
Like most locals, Wacker is a lifelong Nebraska Cornhuskers football fan. And like most locals, the Huskers of present (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) are driving him slowly up a brick wall.
Last Saturday saw the beloved Big Red snap a 20-game night-game winning streak at raucous Memorial Stadium with a 38-17 defeat to Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin. The 358th straight sellout crowd on Stadium Drive watched the No. 7 Badgers ramble for 353 yards and rush for 3 touchdowns.
“You can see it after the games,” Wacker says of his customers. “You can see it on Sundays. During Sunday is the biggest time that they’re talking about it.”
He’s worked in Lincoln for almost a decade now, watching Nebraska football endure better and worse, sickness and health.
“This is my third coach,” he laughs.
On Sunday, several Brewsky’s patrons posited whether Scott Frost, coach of No. 22 Central Florida and the quarterback of the Huskers’ 1997 national co-champions, ought to be Wacker’s fourth.
“Every week, someone brings it up,” he says.
“They bring up Frost and they bring up Bob Stoops, as if Bob would want to come here. And they bring up Les Miles, and how Les Miles’ kid [fullback Ben Miles] is here. These ridiculous names come up. But Frost is definitely the most [discussed].”
The tribe looks at Wisconsin and they see themselves, not that long ago. They look at Frost and they see hope — a bridge from the glorious past to a glorious future.
“All people talked about was Scott Frost, mostly,” Wacker muses, “and how they really want to see him come in and how he’s doing such a good job at Central Florida.”
With that, Wacker pauses.
“He also hasn’t played anybody.”
‘He’s been wearing UCF shirts and a Huskers hat’
The more the Knights (4-0) keep winning and the more the Huskers keep getting kicked in the teeth, the longer Lincoln’s line for The Frost Bandwagon extends down the block.
And yet among Huskers faithful, it’s worth noting that the bandwagon isn’t completely full, either. At 42 years old and in just his second full season as a college head coach, some Nebraska fans say Frost is still too inexperienced to step up to a stage where the spotlight burns this hot and this bright.
Others counter that his bloodlines — the son of two coaches and a native of Wood River, Neb. — and firsthand knowledge of Huskers culture, Huskers history, the Huskers Way, is exactly the shot in the arm a proud but inconsistent program needs to fix what ails it.
‘What’s really irritating is that Larry The Cable Guy seems to have control of the athletic department.’
— Nebraska fan and Lincoln resident Dave Duncan
Others say bailing on Big Red coach Mike Riley after three seasons would send the wrong precedent to other candidates, that the pipeline of speed and talent is only now flowing and that said talent needs more time to develop. Maybe Frost is the guy, they posit, but not now.
Casey Splattstoesser, a native of Grand Island, Neb., and a Lincoln resident for the last 17 years, pegs the #HireFrost camp at about 60 percent of the populace; he says that football wonks are more likely to want Riley to stay, while more casual and big-picture fans are less patient with the current optics.
One of Splattsoesser’s close pals, Dave Duncan, who manages a Village Inn restaurant in town, offers this:
“I’ve got a good friend of mine, who I thought was a ‘smart’ sports fan. He’s been wearing UCF shirts and a Huskers hat when he goes to the [Nebraska] games.
“I’d say [my inner circle] was about 70-30 that Scott is not the right guy. But at the same time, we’re 80-20 that that is who we’re getting.”
‘It’s going to be a bidding war for him’
On at least two points, though, Big Red fans almost universally agree. First, that watching the Badgers do to them what the Huskers did to everyone else for more than four decades — Wisconsin ran the ball 22 times without throwing a pass in the fourth quarter last Saturday, closing out the contest on a 14-0 run — is getting old.
And second, that some Power 5 program with gobs of money is probably ramping up to throw a bunch of it at Frost’s feet soon, assuming they haven’t thrown it already.
It’s the second part, really, that changes the stakes, to say nothing of the urgency. If Frost is your guy, your solution, you might have to bid — and then overbid — for him now, or risk not getting another shot for five years, six years, or forever.
“It’s going to be a bidding war for him,” says Splattstoesser, an IT professional who’s been coming to Huskers games since his grandparents first brought him with their season tickets back in 1992.
“It feels like the boosters are what’s driving a lot of this — the folks behind the scenes, they’re driving this. And so if they want Scott Frost, I feel they’ll put up the money and they’re the ones that are not going to want to give Riley another year. And I think he deserves another year.
“I’d like to keep Riley around, because this recruiting class is going to be pretty good. But at the same time, if Nebraska wants Scott Frost, they’re probably going to have to go out and get him this year. Tennessee, UCLA, Texas A&M, Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas are all going to have openings. Once he hits a major program, he’s going to stay there for a while. So I’m kind of waffling on it.”
And he’s far from alone. Despite Frost orchestrating some video-game numbers as the offensive coordinator at Oregon and now with the Knights, Duncan wonders if a Pac-12 style spread attack is the right look in a Big Ten West where Wisconsin and Iowa are content to run off-tackle and play-action to the tight end for hours at a time.
“I don’t think that [pro-style] offense works here,” Duncan says. “I couldn’t tell you why. I think it has a lot to do with the Huskers fans being impatient and wanting the ’90s [back].
“When Tom Osborne took the interim AD job, they asked him what he envisioned for Nebraska football, and he said he would run something similar to what Urban Meyer was running at Florida. So when he made the choice to hire [Bo] Pelini, that’s what he got and that worked in the Big 12. And the Big 12 is putting up basketball scores, and it got [Pelini] to two Big 12 title games … the Big Ten is such a more physical conference.
“You look at somebody like [Ohio State offensive coordinator and former Indiana coach] Kevin Wilson, somebody who knows how to recruit to the Big Ten. [Maybe] you’re bringing in some of these more obscure coaches who know how to recruit in the conference and know what they’re doing. When you’re just throwing out names — Scott Frost is just a name that Huskers fans know.”
He’s also a name that many Huskers fans love, and revere, from his playing days. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald are coming off galling home losses this week to Michigan State and Penn State, respectively. But each was an iconic player at their current programs, so a healthy chunk of fans — and the right boosters — have so far been willing to ride out most of the storms. Honeymoons last longer for native sons.
“I think [Frost] would have the same thing here,” Duncan says. “He could lose for five seasons, they’d still say ‘Give him more time.’
“One thing I’ve noticed, if you look at the demographics — and I’m going to be 40 real quick, I saw Nebraska in its prime, and I watched the fall. I think the older you get, the higher the demand for somebody like Frost gets. The younger you get, all you want is a guy who’s going to get the job done.”
‘People seem to think that it’s a magic pill’
Between friends and work, Duncan’s heard the debates on Frost, several times over, back to front. If you want to start a conversation with a stranger at the Village Inn, start with the Huskers.
“But it gets so frustrating,” Duncan says. “Talking football in Nebraska is kind of like talking politics. You’ve got to really feel it out. You’ve got to make real small talk about it. You’ve got to let them respond: ‘Did you see the run by Ozigbo?’
“And then you can move toward really tricky [stuff], like talking about quarterbacks.”
Or the coach. If you’ve got a spare week.
“I think Riley was brought in because he was the exact opposite of Bo,” Duncan says. “Bo was a jerk. [His firing] had very little to do with football. The 9-win thing was just an excuse because they didn’t like him. They brought Mike Riley in because he was the nicest guy in football.”
Big Red fans like Riley, personally. It’s his teams — the Huskers are 18-14 since 2015, 11-9 in the Big Ten — that they sometimes have a hell of a time embracing.
“What’s really irritating is that Larry The Cable Guy seems to have control of the athletic department,” Duncan says. “The Scott Frost thing, if you want to boil it down, is nostalgia and wishful thinking. And people seem to think that it’s a magic pill.”
Wacker has seen magic before, though. He was born and raised in Fremont, Neb. He remembers watching, incredulously, at a bowling alley in 1997 when Shevin Wiggins’ bicycle-kick volley of a deflected pass from Frost landed in the waiting arms of Matt Davison at Mizzou. He remembers seeing Tommie Frazier doing things to Florida in real life that a pixelated Bo Jackson used to do during games of Tecmo Bowl.
“A lot of people talk about how they want to get back to the running game and how they want to bring back the walk-on program,” Wacker says. “And they think they need more Nebraska players on the team because they’re the heart and soul of the team. Those are the major things that I hear.”
All the time?
“Only when we lose. When we win, everyone’s happy. They’re fanatics, man. And I hear it all.”
Scott Frost is the answer.
Scott Frost raises too many questions.
Guy’s a savior.
The truth is in the middle there. Somewhere.
“I don’t think there’s a proven record to crown him the next Tom Osborne,” Wacker says. “But he’s obviously doing something right.”