Title talk turns to coaching speculation at Nebraska
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Traditionally, the talk about Nebraska's football team as autumn nears is about whether the team will challenge for a national championship.
This year, the conversation has changed.
For the first time since 1969, the Cornhuskers aren't mentioned in the preseason rankings. A conference title, let alone a national title, is seen as a long shot.
This year's buzz is about whether Frank Solich and his shuffled coaching staff can make last year's 7-7 record an aberration and, if not, whether they will be around for 2004.
Solich, whose contract runs through 2006, said he blocks out such speculation.
"It's never served a purpose. It's never helped you coach better," he said. "If you're not careful, it can work the opposite way and you'll get distracted from what you're doing."
Athletic director Steve Pederson says there's no magic number of wins needed for Solich to keep his job.
"To draw a timeline and a number of wins and losses is pretty hard to do -- and generally a mistake if you feel as an AD that the program is headed in the right direction," he said.
Pederson said he's measuring progress in large part in intangible ways, such as quality of coaching and the character of the players recruited.
So far, Pederson said he likes what he's seen since Solich overhauled the staff in December and January. Six of the nine assistant coaches were fired, retired or reassigned in the biggest overhaul since 1962.
Pederson said he was impressed with the players' off-season work, the way the team practiced in the spring and the first three weeks of fall camp.
"But we haven't played a game yet," he said.
Next Saturday's opener against Oklahoma State will be unlike any first game for Nebraska in decades.
Opening opponents typically have been soft fare. But there are no done deals now that the Huskers are coming off their worst season since 1961.
The question is whether Nebraska will continue its slide into the field of also-rans in major-college football or return to a place among the nation's elite.
Not only does the future of Solich, his new assistants and the entire football program hang in the balance. There's also the fiscal health of the university's athletic department, which relies heavily on football to keep its 23-sport, $53 million machine running.
Football generates $19.7 million in net revenue. "Everybody benefits from the success of the football program," Pederson said. "It drives the entire program."
He said non-revenue sports would take funding cuts if there were a sustained down cycle in football. He said that would be true in any football-driven athletic department.
Tom Osborne, now a congressman, voices confidence that his hand-picked successor can restore the football program.
"But it's not a real comfortable position for Frank," Osborne said.
Solich removed himself as offensive coordinator and hired Barney Cotton to call the plays. He fired defensive coordinator Craig Bohl and brought in Bo Pelini from the Green Bay Packers.
Cotton and fellow first-year assistants Jimmy Williams (linebackers) and Marvin Sanders (defensive backs) are former Nebraska players. Tim Albin (running backs) is a former graduate assistant. Scott Downing (tight ends) previously coached the Husker freshmen.
Assistant head coach Turner Gill (quarterbacks), Jeff Jamrog (defensive line) and RonBrown (receivers) are holdovers.
"If he's got good enough players -- and I hope he does -- things will go well," Osborne said.
The program's slide started in earnest late in 2001, when Colorado trounced the Huskers 62-36. Despite that, the Bowl Championship Series' controversial formula pitted the Huskers in the national championship Rose Bowl game against Miami. That 37-14 loss was further evidence that Nebraska couldn't run with the big boys.
The Huskers enter this season having lost nine of the last 16 games. Five of those losses were by more than 20 points.
They've seen the end of streaks that had been the program's points of pride: Winning seasons (40 years), nine-win seasons (33) and consecutive weeks in The Associated Press poll (348).
Solich says his goal is for players and coaches is to "max out" on their potential this season.
But Solich balks at specifying how he'll measure success.
"I don't know that I'm going to discuss that right now," he said. "We're just building toward our opening game. We'll see where we're at. I feel good about the staff and the players and how they've meshed together. We're preparing to play great football."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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