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Oregon's Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers: Is it a Match?

Scott Frost is a Cornhusker legend, but has never been a head coach. Will the Mothership be calling him home?

The coach with his quarterback.
The coach with his quarterback.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The last thing a fan wants when their team is having a big season is to see one of the big-money vultures from a rich school circling overhead with their assets spread out like a peddler and his wares.

The timing is by definition bad. Because while top-shelf teams are preparing for their most critical games, the mediocre and bad already have fired their coaches and gone hunting. Their quarry are the best of everyone else’s coaching staffs.

Oregon, apparently, has come into sharp focus in the viewfinders of the hunting party out of Lincoln, Nebraska. Rumors have it that the Ducks’ quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Scott Frost—a Cornhusker legend and national champion—may be one of their favored targets.

They are sizing up the rack now against the others like they would an elk foraging grass on a far-off hillside. The hunting party is making notes on the best path to a potential kill shot.

Frost, to his credit, is not looking up to survey the landscape while the Ducks’ season is intact. That is a fair comfort to the worried fan.

"Listen, I got a job to do here," Frost told the assembled media after Monday’s practice. "These kids and this staff put too much time and effort into this to be distracted. We got a job to do and we’re getting ready for [the Pac-12 championship] Friday."

But the reporters, obnoxious as only reporters can be, asked the same question again about Nebraska, but in slightly modified language.

"I would let you know if I wasn’t completely focused on Arizona," Frost replied.

Not satisfied yet that they had bothered their man enough, the gadflies buzzed in again, altering the trajectory just enough to make it a slightly different question.

"I would let you know if I wasn’t completely focused on Arizona," repeated Frost, altering nothing.

There it is, and Oregon’s athletic department stated in an email that their coach would not be available for media until after the championship game.

But as it stands now, is Frost a fully-matured coaching target worth bagging for the folks back home? Not an easy thing to say.

Frost is 39-years-old and will be forty in January. It is young, but there have been many his age and younger. The hang-up is this, only a few of them have been any good as head coaches.

Two recent examples, one good and one less so, come right to mind.

James Franklin was 39 in 2011 when he got his first head coaching job at Vanderbilt. He was superlative—taking a road-kill football program to back-to-back nine win seasons that were competitive in the SEC East championship race. The final two campaigns he topped with bowl victories. The performance was a tour de force of energy and long-term vision.

Franklin has been the cream of the recent bunch of young coaches. He parlayed his performance in Nashville into the Chief’s position in Happy Valley—which as a football school is the same level of prestige as Nebraska.

A first-time head coach who was hired age-31 at Northwestern has been much worse. Pat Fitzgerald—another former player who led the home-school to glory on the field—has been the portrait of mediocrity.

In Fitzgerald’s nine seasons, the Wildcats’ are 12 games under .500 in the Big Ten; they've won one bowl game in five attempts. His squads struggle every season to carry out the basic football tasks that every decent team executes consistently.

In handicapping Franklin and Fitzgerald a little more thoroughly, several critical differences appear. The discrepancies make Frost a lot more like Franklin, the good, than Fitzgerald, the underprepared.

Franklin apparently hung the whistle around his neck as a cradled infant with a preternatural instinct for how to order about football players. Despite being made a head coach as a young man, he had spent 15 years wandering creation as an assistant coach, including a spell as offensive coordinator with the Roskilde Kings, in Denmark, where they don’t play football. Watching the precocious little general yell at soccer players for not using their hands must have been the very portrait of true ambition.

Back in America, Franklin coached tight-ends, wide receivers and defensive backs from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam—ranging all the way from Idaho State to the Atlantic seaboard—including the 2005 season in the Heartland with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

He was a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Kansas State, and then an offensive coordinator at Maryland for three years before being commissioned by the Commodores to run its then-irrelevant football program.

Franklin had lived the life of many coaches, learned the trade from laboring at its specialties, and was ready to set off on his own. He knew the game six ways from Saturday.

Fitzgerald, by contrast, had played middle linebacker and coached linebackers exclusively for seven seasons at four different schools, two of which had coaches directly connected with his playing career in Evanston. Four of those seasons were spent at Northwestern itself—where he also was a recruiting coordinator—before he got the job as head coach in 2006.

Northwestern may not have hired Fitzgerald if it wasn't for the tragic sudden-death of head coach Randy Walker just six weeks prior to fall training camp. It was an unfortunate circumstance under which to take control of a football program, but since then, because of his sentimental connection to the program, to Walker, and the 1995 Rose Bowl season, it has been difficult for the university to objectively evaluate Fitzgerald’s performance, which has been essentially dismal.

Spend some time around Northwestern as a sports writer and you will quickly understand that the football side is a mess. The program has been run amok by professional public relations people—awful "brand managers" who conduct personal interactions with all the human-touch of cyborgs programmed by actors. They are zealously promoting a football program in Chicago that is incapable of backing up their gold-standard advertising slogans.

Nebraska won’t have a problem with sentiment if Frost is not any good, but does the school want to risk the potential of an ugly situation with one of its own? Nebraska has every bit of the promotional department of Northwestern, but the critical difference is that the Cornhuskers are expected to fulfill the promises.

Frost definitely has reached that threshold where you can start considering a coach widely experienced enough to command ship safely through the treacherous shoals of a college football campaign. When that course goes properly it is akin to a midshipman advancing with a promotion to ensign, and second lieutenant, then first lieutenant, and there establishing a record of success for competent leadership. Accurately divining the moment he is ready to handle his own charge becomes the final job. Picking a good head coach is not a science, it is an art.

Frost’s apprenticeship came in two graduate-assistant stints at Nebraska in 2002, and Kansas State in 2006. Great places to begin, especially under Bill Snyder in Manhattan. Snyder is a genius of football organization and coaching in every way.

Frost left K-State in 2007 to become linebackers coach at Northern Iowa, and one year later was promoted to co-defensive coordinator. That 2008 Panther’s defense was the best in the Missouri Valley Conference in multiple categories. The team finished 12-3, knocked out in the Final Four of the FCS playoffs by Richmond.

That stop in Cedar Falls marked an interesting turn in Frost's career, because he was exclusively an offensive player in college. He had led the Cornhuskers to the 1997 national championship as a rush-first quarterback with only yeoman’s passing skills. He had excelled in Tom Osborne’s super-innovative I-backfield triple-option offense.

In five seasons in the NFL, Frost was moved around from quarterback to defensive back and special teams. He has practiced at and played those positions professionally. All of that adds up to a thorough education on both sides of the football, in addition to experience on special teams.

That specific background seems ideal for the hybrid game that’s taken shape over the last 10-years. The breadth of the education is something a new-school head coach ought to have.

Frost has spent the last five seasons in Oregon’s powerhouse program, three as wide-receivers coach and the last two as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The Ducks’ scheme, their offensive strategy, is as original as anything in football, college or professional. If Frost has inherited not just the experience, but the understanding of what it takes to stay ahead of the competition, he could be a tremendous coach in Lincoln.

The landscape of college football has changed radically since the 1990s when Nebraska was dominant. Attempting to reincarnate those days under similar conditions will prove as futile as trying to visit the old haunts in a big city that never stopped knocking itself down and rebuilding. The land is still there but everything that made it vital is gone. It is for the dead and the historians to work over, not the living.

The Cornhuskers are no longer one of a few teams that play big games on national television every Saturday. Their old walk-on program as it existed under Osborne has gone away. Their once-innovative I-back triple-option is obsolete However, the fact that it was once a unique, in-house creation, could point to the blueprint for Frost to bring another new-fangled creation that matches the players Nebraska can recruit.

But are his qualifications robust enough for a first-time coaching job at one of college football’s most tradition-rich programs?

The expectations at five-times national champion Nebraska remain dead set on the pinnacle of college football. Those three championships in the 1990s are still close enough to taste—they are visceral things for fans who have sold out every football game played in Lincoln since 1962.

The man Nebraska just fired had a perfect resume of triumphs as defensive coordinator at some of college football’s greatest schools, but Nebraska had been his first head-coaching job, too. He had been good, not great, and Nebraska chose to cut the bait.

Frost’s coaching mentors make a dazzling list, but mentors mean little if the person listening to them does not have talent. That is what you are really betting on, a man’s talent for making his vision become reality through a combined force of leadership and personality.

It is clear that Frost still regards his time at Nebraska under coach Osborne some of the most important years of his life.

"I think there’s good coaches and there’s great coaches," Frost said in a video-taped interview with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

And it doesn’t always have to do with football and Xs and Os, or wins and losses. I’ve been around great football coaches. I’ve played for super bowl champions and national champions and I always go back to Tom Osborne at Nebraska. Not only did he win, but there are literally thousands of young men who played for him who are different people because they got to spend some time around him. I think the example he set for us changed a lot of lives.

Frost looks the part of the man coaching at a rugged football school from the American high-plains: A hard-jawed, flinty eyed, thick-necked fighter. He could be the sheriff from one of the old Western movies who would gun down a Black Hat and take the untroubled rest of the righteous each night.

He is strongly and vocally Christian, too—which plays well in the middle of the country. His great quarterback at Oregon—Marcus Mariota–was all-in with Frost on that matter. Both have said that the Belief made a solid bonding point for their relationship.

But football is a religion onto itself in this country, and for a lot of people it's kept with more fidelity and intensity than the quiet peace offered of a sanctuary on Sunday morning. Frost understands that, too. His peace, should football fail, comes from another place. He explained his philosophy in the same interview with the Fellowship

If football is the most important thing, and I’m all-in for football—with football first—then I’m building my house on the sand. And once something goes wrong with that then you’re completely miserable and your whole world gets turned upside down.

I think it’s very powerful when you can be all-in for god first and then all-in for football second, because then no matter what happens with football, even if you’re competing for a national title and lose a game, you know you’re competing for god first and your foundation is on the rock and you’re not going to be shaken.

Coach Osborne, who had a similar mindset when it cam to faith, competed hard over 21 autumns for a national title that continued to dance just out of his reach. But he was never shaken in his belief. Is Nebraska ready to take a chance, and have that virtue of patience, with another one of his disciples?

It did not work well the first time under Frank Solich, but who amongst you will cast the first stone at the prospect of a second chance?