LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska never lost its pride for football or, of course, its storied tradition.
But as the years mounted in the wait for a first conference title since 1999, chatter about a return to greatness in Lincoln drew dismissive looks from outside the borders of this state.
Then somewhere over the past decade, the talk all but stopped in every corner of Nebraska.
A return to the 1990s, when the Cornhuskers won 60 of 63 games over five seasons and a share of three national titles? They would be advised to first avoid embarrassing home losses and join the 41 Power 5 programs that have won 11 games in a season since 2001 — incidentally also the last year Nebraska beat a top-five foe.
The ‘90s became something of a sore subject, a source of discontent even among the people who work in the football and administrative offices of the building named after Tom Osborne on the north end of Memorial Stadium.
That is, until a big piece of a bygone era marched back into their lives.
New coach Scott Frost has made it fashionable again to long for the glory years. He has allowed a generation of fans that have never experienced a championship season to dream big and empowered those who remember it to talk openly about their feelings.
Just two months into Frost’s return, visions of greatness are wildly premature. They’re a symptom, in fact, of Frost Fever — a condition that has taken hold here since the school announced on Dec. 2 the return of its former national championship-winning quarterback and native son. Frost directed UCF to a 13-0 season last fall in his second year as a head coach.
“He’s a rock star,” said athletic director Bill Moos, plucked from Washington State in October to make the decisions amid a 4-8 season that led to Frost’s hire. “Nebraskans love him. They remember him. He gives them hope that the days of yesteryear can come back. And they can.”
In the past week alone, Frost Fever produced a sellout of the April 21 spring game — 85,000 tickets claimed, most at $10 a pop in less than two days — and much clamoring over the results of a recruiting class ranked 21st nationally.
Frost and his staff, transplanted in whole from UCF, built a class of 24 signees that sat outside the top 40 in the rankings two months ago. They landed eight prospects from Florida and won signing-day decisions for coveted targets from the Sunshine State, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and California.
“It’s one of the few times ever in college football where everything has been aligned,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “Where the administration, the school, the students, the fans, the alumni, the state, they all wanted one guy to be the head coach. And he became the head coach.”
Frost’s straight talk possesses widespread appeal.
“Our goal is going to be simple,” the 43-year-old coach said. “It’s going to be to get better, day by day to get better. And that means waking up and being better than you were the day before. Any challenge that comes in front of you, you’ve got to conquer it and overcome it, put your head on the pillow and get ready to do it again the next day.
“Nebraska football used to be built on being physical and tough and working harder than the other team. There’s some missing pieces here that we’re going to try to get back.”
Not surprisingly, the fan base, who have fueled 361 consecutive home game sellouts, fell collectively head over heels.
They showed up en masse to hear the new Nebraska assistants speak at banquet halls around the state last week in the wake of signing day.
“It’s more than I expected,” said Chinander, who first followed Frost from Oregon to UCF in 2016. “I’m a pretty realistic person. I thought I knew what to expect, but Scott was like, ‘It’s going to be crazy. People are going to know you everywhere.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think so. We’ve coached a lot of places.’”
Sure enough, Chinander said, it happened when he first rented a car in Lincoln. Another assistant was identified while shopping for a mattress.
“It’s crazy that they’re that passionate enough to know us by face when we haven’t even been in town,” Chinander said.
For Frost, though, the passion runs many times more hot. Before a visit last month to Omaha Burke High School, home to three elite 2019 and 2020 prospects with offers from multiple Big Ten and SEC programs, word spread that the coach was on his way.
Burke coach Paul Limongi hosted former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel at Limongi’s old school in Youngstown, Ohio.
“But nothing has been like Scott Frost [visiting],” Limongi said. “The excitement of the new beginning that everybody’s excited about, it’s really got people wanting to get a piece of him.”
Chinander estimated that Frost stopped 200 times on that day at various schools to sign an autograph or take a photo.
He’s got a bit of a Jim Harbaugh quality in that way; Frost draws unusual attention at every turn. But you likely won’t find him in search of the spotlight, in contrast to Harbaugh’s occasional brow-raising tweets and public appearances.
Frost reportedly won over the mother of Nebraska signee Caleb Tannor — a defensive end from Lithonia, Georgia who had offers at one time from Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Florida — by pitching in unasked to stack chairs in the high school cafeteria.
As for the spring-game interest, it’s unprecedented. Nebraska, despite drawing more than 60,000 for each of its past nine such events, has never sold out a scrimmage. Let alone sold it out in February. Last year, when the spring game attracted a crowd of 78,000, it took until March 28th to reach the same level of tickets sold in one day this year.
And that’s without selling seats to the general public (non season-ticket holders) until the second day, when the remaining seats were purchased in 90 minutes.
The secondary market for Nebraska spring game tickets is hot. In anticipation, the school took measures to prevent resale on StubHub of youth tickets, provided for free to kids in eighth grade or below with the purchase of an adult seat.
Season-ticket holders were allowed to purchase no more than 20 tickets.
Some have connected the energy around Frost’s return with the success of the basketball programs this winter. After struggling last year, the Nebraska men sit fourth in the Big Ten at 10-4; the women are third at 9-3.
“Right now,” said Diane Mendenhall, senior associate AD for tickets, premium seating and strategic engagement, “there’s just so much enthusiasm for Nebraska athletics. Football, of course, is always top of mind.”
Moos, in his first year on campus, loves it. He took Frost over the past five days to Omaha, Arizona and California for a private audience with donors.
“This was a fan base that just a few months ago was fractured and, from my observation, filled with apathy,” Moos said last week. “I think now it’s a legit feeling of, ‘We’re going to get back to where we once were and where we feel is our rightful place — and that’s in a position to compete for championships again.’”
The administration, you can see, is doing nothing to stop this talk of reclaiming lost glory. From 1970 to 2001, Nebraska won 34 more games than any team nationally and lost 18 fewer. Since 2002, its winning percentage ranks 29th in the FBS.
Moos’ bosses dared to get this talk started in September as they announced the dismissal of Shawn Eichorst, the athletic director who hired Mike Riley as coach in 2014.
“This is going to sound a little glib,” chancellor Ronnie Green said at the time, “and I don’t mean it that way, but I’d love to be back to in mid-1990s. Right? I don’t need to say more.”
Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska system, immediately added his two cents.
“The truth of the matter is,” Bounds said, “why not? Why shouldn’t we have those aspirations here?”
Aspirations are one thing. Expectations are another.
Both appear on rise, thanks in large part to Frost, at Nebraska.