For some, the start of the Nebraska coaching search of 2014 made them feel like a kid getting excited for Christmas morning.
The anti-Bo Pelini crowd was ready to move on from the fiery coach after he had fallen out of favor with athletic director Shawn Eichorst. Pelini’s inability to win a conference title or get Nebraska to a BCS/New Year’s 6 Bowl in 7 years in Lincoln played a part in that, as well.
With a new coach to hire, Eichorst took on the role of gift-buying parent. Nebraska fans spent the first week of December wondering what would show up under the tree on Christmas morning, or rather, when Eichorst came to his decision.
Would it be a shiny new toy (AKA up-and-coming offensive mind) like Tom Herman? Would a Lincoln native with a proven winning background like Craig Bohl be there on Christmas morning? Neither of those guys, however, were at the top of the wish list. That belonged to Scott Frost, AKA the former Husker national championship winning quarterback turned offensive coordinator who was in the midst of fueling Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy campaign.
Frost, to Nebraska fans, was the PlayStation under the tree. If the PlayStation was there on Christmas morning, excitement levels would’ve reached a new peak.
Instead, Eichorst’s big present that Nebraska fans opened on Christmas morning was … Mike Riley, who was essentially a run-of-the-mill vacuum.
It was more of a gift for Eichorst than anyone else. The vacuum, er Riley, wasn’t even on Nebraska fans’ wish list. Eichorst did the old “give them a gift that’s really for me” thing knowing that Riley was considered as nice as anyone in the sport. Eichorst wouldn’t clash with him like he did with Pelini. That was a gift for Eichorst.
It’s been 5.5 years since that decision sent Nebraska fans into an enraged frenzy. We know what happened. Riley was fired after he couldn’t win at a level that even sniffed Pelini, which cost the stubborn Eichorst his job. Bill Moos took over for Eichorst and delivered the PlayStation that Nebraska fans had been waiting for.
But after 2 years of Frost failing to get Nebraska to a bowl game — after Riley started off 15-11 with a winning B1G record — let’s revisit that dud of a Christmas gift.
Did Eichorst have a legitimate reason to not have the PlayStation under the tree?
Would Frost have been more successful than Riley?
If you ask the average Nebraska fan, they’d probably say that Eichorst’s decision to hire Riley set the program back and the Huskers are still recovering from that move. They’d tell you that Frost would’ve won instantly had he succeeded Pelini. After all, he totally flipped around UCF and was every bit the up-and-coming coach Husker fans thought he was by the time Nebraska began its search after the 2017 season.
Let’s get something out of the way. The fact that Eichorst never even called Frost about the opening was and is baffling. Truly. The fact that Eichorst was so dead-set on someone with head coaching experience fueled that. Part of that could’ve been how Pelini, who didn’t have head coaching experience before Nebraska, handled the fishbowl that is Lincoln.
Even though he spent 2 wildly successful years at UCF after his non-call from Eichorst, I’d’ argue that Frost is still learning how to handle the fishbowl. From his handling of the Maurice Washington situation to saying that he inherited a team with a “weak confidence” following Nebraska’s deflating loss to Iowa to miss bowl eligibility in 2019, there have been moments in which it’s been clear that Frost is still figuring things out.
At UCF, Frost inherited a Group of 5 team who went winless. A 6-win improvement in Year 1 that was followed by the magical unbeaten season in Year 2 didn’t exactly test how he’d handle losing with high expectations. He was never the preseason pick to win a division title during his time at UCF. He never had to deal with even being ranked in September. Those firsts both came during Frost’s second year at Nebraska.
When Frost’s UCF team went to Michigan and suffered a beatdown in 2016, it was his first game facing a Power 5 team. He raised eyebrows by saying afterwards that he thought his team “outhit” Michigan in a 51-14 loss, but he wasn’t subject to criticism.
Fast forward to 2018 when he coached in his first B1G game at Nebraska. Ironically enough, Frost’s team went up to Michigan and got trucked 56-10. That day, Frost instead admitted that they “weren’t ready to compete against a team like that.” He answered questions about “losing his team” after an 0-3 start, which prompted a rather blunt answer:
Frost said he’s not worried about losing his team because “the only ones we’ll lose are the ones we never had. …Inevitably that’s going to happen, the wrong type of people are going to jump off. That’s healthy for a team.”
— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) September 22, 2018
That’s been Frost’s default postgame answer for the “how do you move forward from this loss” question on seemingly a weekly basis the last 2 years.
That would’ve been exactly how he handled it had he gotten the Nebraska job in 2014. I’m convinced of that. And yes, there would’ve been massive expectations, and there would’ve still been losses. I’d still bet that Frost would’ve won more than the 5 regular season games that Riley won in Year 1, but in a year in which the B1G had 6 teams win 10-plus games, no, he wouldn’t have competed for a conference title.
In a weird way, the fact that Frost didn’t go from Oregon to Power 5 head coaching job probably made Eichorst feel like his decision was justified. Granted, that feeling undoubtedly changed during 2017 when Eichorst was fired after Riley lost a home game to Northern Illinois and Frost was in the midst of an undefeated season at UCF.
On one hand, there’s something to be said for limiting the candidates to those with head coaching experience. At least at a place like Nebraska. Part of that is the pressure. A Power 5 coordinator can be extremely popular, but he’s not the one who has to face a media room with dozens of reporters after a disappointing loss. That’s a head coach. The inability to handle that played a part in torpedoing Pelini’s time in Lincoln. Eichorst’s goal was to right that wrong.
The one thing Eichorst deserved credit for was correctly assessing that problem and hiring the perfect guy to deal with that. Say what you want about Riley being a bad fit to meet football expectations, but he handled the peaks and valleys better than both Pelini AND Frost. Obviously, that’s not nearly as important when you’re not winning.
Head coaching experience should’ve been a priority for Eichorst, but not the priority. Frost, had he taken over then, would’ve undoubtedly gotten the benefit of the doubt had he had a 9-win, Pelini-like season in Year 1. Fans and media alike would’ve handled that differently than a Pelini 9-win season. There’s no denying that.
There’s also no denying now that Riley, even though he had the most head coaching experience of any candidate, was the wrong person for Eichorst to hitch his wagon to. Frost could’ve still struggled with figuring out his head coaching style while doing it at his alma mater/childhood team. Based on how much he’s struggled in 2018 and 2019, it’s unfair to think he would’ve risen above the level of Pelini’s 9-win floor, and public opinion could’ve turned on him by Year 3 or Year 4.
So if Frost wasn’t ready and Riley wasn’t the right fit, what should Eichorst have done?
There were a few candidates with head coaching experience who, in my opinion, would’ve been better hires than both Riley and Frost.
In fact, if one of them had taken the job in 2014, I’m convinced that Eichorst is probably still in Lincoln and Frost isn’t. Let’s start with Bohl and Mark Stoops.
Stoops, for my money, is now one of the best 15 coaches in all of college football. He led the Wildcats to their best season in 4 decades and has somewhat quietly elevated the floor at a historical doormat, which isn’t an easy thing to do in the SEC. He overcame a lack of in-state recruiting talent and helped turn overlooked recruits like Josh Allen, Benny Snell and Lynn Bowden into stars. Yes, he could’ve copied that model at Nebraska.
But looking back, there was probably no chance that Stoops was getting hired.
Why? His background. I’m not referring to the fact that he was coming off his second year as a head coach, or the fact that was a defensive back at Iowa. Stoops is a Youngstown guy … just like Pelini. The former high school classmates are still good friends (Pelini once bailed Stoops out after he wrecked a car without a license). Seriously, they’re boys.
Happy Birthday to one of our favorite people, @UKCoachStoops !
— SDS Podcast (@TheSDSPod) July 9, 2019
Those guys are cut from the same cloth. If there was one thing we learned about Eichorst, it was that he was eager to go in another direction.
So why not Bohl? That could’ve been a few reasons.
One could’ve been that he only had 1 year of FBS head coaching experience coming off Year 1 at Wyoming, where he developed a habit of recruiting the overlooked in-state Nebraska players. Mighty Nebraska clearly wasn’t interested in a coach with 1 year of FBS head coaching experience.
That didn’t tell the full story with Bohl, though. He turned the North Dakota State program into an FCS dynasty with 3 consecutive national titles. He got that opportunity after spending 8 years as an assistant working for Tom Osborne and Frank Solich before he was fired in 2003. Still, Bohl had proven in-roads at Nebraska, and while that fishbowl at NDSU obviously wasn’t what it was in Lincoln, he built that program to the point where it was national news when they lost a game.
Maybe Bohl was considered a bit of a reach? Who knows.
The real “one that got away” probably wasn’t Bohl, Stoops or Frost. It was Paul Chryst.
That’s right. He had 3 years of head coaching experience at Pitt, where he led the Panthers to 3 consecutive bowl games. Chryst obviously went on to take the Wisconsin job, but if you recall, that wasn’t even open until Gary Andersen left Madison to replace … Riley.
The mild-mannered Chryst is the epitome of stability. All he’s done at Wisconsin is go 52-16 with 3 B1G West titles and 3 New Year’s 6 Bowl berths. Since taking over at Wisconsin, he’s 5-0 against Nebraska. He of course did that with neither a resources advantage or some massive influx of blue-chip recruits.
And even worse was the fact that Chryst and Eichorst had a relationship from their days at Wisconsin in 2009-11. There were rumors that Chryst, a former Wisconsin quarterback, knew that the Badgers’ job would open up and that he turned Eichorst down in hopes of returning to Madison. There was some validity to that with Chryst having ties to Wisconsin and the fact that he was also good friends with Riley, who apparently called Chryst when he got the Nebraska offer.
Whatever the case, it didn’t happen. Look back at the old tweets and you’ll see plenty of people questioning why Chryst could get the Nebraska job after a relatively mediocre stint at Pitt.
The weird thing was many felt Eichorst wouldn’t go with Bohl or Chryst because they wouldn’t have excited the fans. Of course, neither did Riley. Riley prompted far more Google searches than celebrations.
If Eichorst was going for excitement, Frost or Herman would’ve brought it. They both would’ve had their issues once the excitement wore off, though. Both of them had to go the Group of 5 route before getting big-time jobs, and if you ask them now, I’d guarantee that both would say they were better for it.
You can make a strong case that Eichorst set the program back a ways by hiring Riley. The vacuum wasn’t even functional after a couple years.
But maybe, just maybe, the PlayStation wouldn’t have provided unlimited joy, either.