Sometimes, being married to a Hawkeye fan is really helpful (although, other times, not so much). Mrs. DXP – in addition to heroically putting up with all this nonsense – has provided some invaluable perspective as the soap opera we call Nebraska football has churned on. She was ahead of the curve in detesting Bo Pelini, and she adored Mike Riley to the point of considering wearing a scarlet-and-cream shirt.
And she’s already sick of hearing about Scott Frost. What pushed her over the edge, I’m pretty sure, was the fact that Frost’s long-awaited announcement as Nebraska’s new head football coach was heralded by the arrival of a Super Frost Moon in the sky on Saturday.
(As a side note, I should mention that I would watch the heck out of any anime titled “Super Frost Moon” right about now).
How, an exasperated Mrs. DXP asks me, can you guys get so excited about a 42-year-old guy who has only coached at a school for two years? What in the world is the big deal?
That’s fair, I said, and not only because I would prefer not to sleep on the roof for the next couple of weeks. Frost’s hiring has excited the Nebraska fan base in a way that no one else has. There was an element of this excitement when Pelini was hired – you can make the walk of shame now if you have a “My Bo-Friend’s Back” t-shirt stuck in your closet somewhere.
But this is different, for two distinct but related reasons.
Nebraska’s last conference championship was in 1997. But, really, Nebraska’s exile into the desert of college football irrelevance began with Miami’s 38-14 humiliation of NU in the national championship game. Since then, Nebraska fans have been longing for a return to that national limelight.
Bill Callahan sold hope to the fanbase with a revamped offense, an NFL pedigree, and top-20 recruiting classes. That lasted four years and died with a defensive collapse and a poisoned atmosphere from a fractured fanbase. Pelini sold hope in a no-nonsense toughness, and defensive dominance. That lasted seven years and died in ugly losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State and ugly demonstrations of anger and immaturity on and off the field. Riley sold hope with a pro-style offense and a calm demeanor. That lasted three years and died in .500 mediocrity.
Why did Riley get only three years, not even a full recruiting class? In part, it was a lack of unity within the program – more on that in a moment. But more importantly was the volume of losses, and the nature of the losses in year three, that extinguished hope in the fanbase that Nebraska could ever be successful.
In Rogue One, Jyn Erso said that “rebellions are built on hope.” So are sports fans. It’s the bedrock upon which everything in sports fandom resides. Why do we sit out in ridiculous weather to watch a game? Why do we spend thousands of dollars on tickets and merchandise and travel? Why do we tolerate the hypocrisies, little and big, that stain the sports we love?
We do it because we live in hope, that the team in which we have invested our emotional capital will give us back glory. We will put up with just about anything – disturbingly so, in some cases – in the hope that we can bask in that reflected glory of our team’s victory. And if that hope dies, then the underlying ridiculousness of fandom becomes much harder to bear.
By the time Minnesota – Minnesota, fer cryin’ out loud – hung a fifty-burger on the Blackshirts, any remaining hope that Riley could be successful in Lincoln died. And once that hope dies in a fanbase, those in charge of a program face an existential challenge, and have to act decisively.
The hiring of Frost brings hope back to Lincoln. In part, the hope is simply because he’s not Riley, the guy who failed. In part, the hope is based on the success he had at Oregon and Central Florida. In large part, the hope is based on the unity he can bring to both the fanbase and the program – again, more on that in a bit.
But Frost brings hope. And for a despairing fanbase watching the worst performance since 1961 by a Nebraska football team, that hope was something desperately needed and greedily devoured.
As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 created a schism in the Nebraska fan base, one from which it has never truly recovered. Since that firing, the fanbase has been split into warring camps, being either “current-coach-guys” or “not-current-coach-guys.”
Year by year, as Nebraska’s national relevance faded further and further into the mists of memory, that schism deepened. Each season of failure and frustration split that crack further apart, like a hammer blow on a wedge splitting a log. As Nebraska’s coaches and culture whipsawed from one pole to the other, each “camp” of fans took solace in the position that it was the other camp’s position that was responsible for Nebraska’s wanderings in the desert of irrelevance.
Which became, in many ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy by the time Riley arrived. As a man who overachieved at Oregon State, but never had won a conference title or achieved a gaudy record, Riley’s hire took Nebraska fans by surprise. And as an outsider, replacing a coach who still had a “camp” both inside and outside of the program even after his dismissal, Riley immediately faced a portion of his program and his fanbase that was at best skeptical of his ability to succeed – and at worst rooting for his failure.
This does nothing to absolve Riley of his failure, of course. Riley knew exactly what he was getting himself into, had every opportunity to succeed, and was singularly unable to deliver. His dismissal after three seasons, given his body of work, was not only justified but necessary.
Schisms are soul-crushing. Conflict is exhausting. Outside of sports, we live in a hyper-partisan world where your choice of religion or political party or pop singer identifies you and creates a group of mortal enemies who do not agree with your choice.
Since 2003, Nebraska football has fallen victim to the same disease of tribalism that has infected the rest of our land. But Frost’s arrival provides, for the first time since 2003, a healing of that schism and a moment of respite from our hyper-partisan lives. For now, the scarlet and cream family has come together around the returning son from Wood River, and Nebraska fans can bask in the glow of fellowship with their fellow fans.
Who knows how long this unity will last. Frost will never be more popular than he is right now – unless he wins Nebraska a national title, of course. Nebraska fans aren’t stupid, and they know that Frost’s hiring doesn’t guarantee trophies in the cabinet next year – or any year.
But they know that the hiring of Frost has brought them hope and unity. And, for now, that’s more than enough.
Image from KETV photographer Dan Grzekowiak.