Nebraska did not play a spring game on Saturday. It held an exorcism.

There’s no better way to describe what Matt Rhule attempted to accomplish in his Nebraska debut.

Within the first 5 minutes, we saw the following things at Memorial Stadium:

  • 45-yard lines painted to honor Frank Solich, who wore the number as a Nebraska fullback from 1963-65.
  • The first play: a fullback dive, another tip of the cap to Solich and Cornhusker tradition.
  • The game ball presented to Solich, who was Tom Osborne’s trusted assistant before running the program from 1998-2003, when he was unceremoniously fired for the sin of going 9-3.
  • In a moment many Nebraska fans felt they may never live to see again, the opening drive culminated in a field goal attempt that went through the uprights.

Every piece felt like a needed touch to move on from a malaise that has affected the Huskers for the better part of 20 years.

Solich, albeit jokingly (half-jokingly?), proclaimed the curse lifted.

Undoing the mistakes of a regrettable era

2003 remains the undisputed turning point in Nebraska football history. The Cornhuskers have not been viewed as a legitimate national power since parting ways with Solich.

Of course, the past 2 decades have done some revisionist favors for Solich’s reputation. At the time, there was no doubt Nebraska’s program had lost a step. But his firing remains among the clumsiest in college football history.

A deflating 62-36 loss to Colorado to close the 2001 regular season pierced a bubble of invincibility that had sheltered the program for a decade. A 7-7 finish in 2002 saw Nebraska drop out of the AP Poll for the first time in 348 weeks. And a 38-9 loss to Kansas State that determined the 2003 Big 12 North champion was the last straw for AD Steve Pederson.

In that context, it’s understandable Nebraska was desirous of a change. Unfortunately, the person in charge of that change was Pederson, one of the great dopes in the annals of college athletics.

The red flags were there before Big Red hired Pederson. He stripped Pitt’s iconic script font and insisted on calling the program Pittsburgh, both of which have since been undone.

He ended up doing far more damage to Nebraska’s brand.

It was one thing to be ready to move on from Solich after 3 straight years of failing to reach the Big 12 championship game. But to have no actual plan for replacing him was the ultimate slap in the face to a man who had given the better part of 40 years to Nebraska’s program.

It took a stunning 40 days for Pederson to find a coach after firing Solich.

Pederson’s first target was then-Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, whom he assumed would accept the job without bothering to check if Spurrier was interested. Houston Nutt renegotiated his contract with Arkansas while a plane intended to take him to Lincoln sat at the Fayetteville airport.

The best Pederson could do was Bill Callahan after the latter was fired by the Oakland Raiders. And the rest, as they say, is history. Of the worst kind.

The resulting stench has lingered ever since.

Solich only deserved to be fired if Nebraska had an ace in its back pocket — similar to Wisconsin replacing Paul Chryst with Luke Fickell this offseason.

Instead, Pederson played a 4 of clubs, and Solich’s estrangement from Nebraska was entirely justified. And it has been a cloud that casts a shadow over the program.

That’s what made Saturday’s Solich homecoming such an important moment for Nebraska football.

The lack of wins over the past 2 decades has made it impossible to move on. Thanks to AD Trev Alberts’ persistence in getting Solich back in the fold, now there is a way forward for the fanbase from a psychological perspective.

And it isn’t just empty symbolism. The fact players will now be changing in the Frank Solich Locker Room means he will have a permanent imprint at Memorial Stadium. This is how you atone for your mistakes.

It’s the most important mistake of Pederson’s tenure that Alberts has corrected. But it’s not the only one.

Return of the real Herbie

It may seem silly to focus on a mascot in regard to the overall health of a college football program. Because, well, it is.

Except in this case.

The coaching change wasn’t the only major move Nebraska made in 2003. It’s also the year the original Herbie Husker was replaced.

Herbie, as you might expect, was a Cornhusker. A farmer, who husks corn. Pretty simple concept.

But during Pederson’s reign, Herbie transformed.

He went from being a blond-haired, blue-eyed farm boy in overalls to a brown-haired dork wearing a red button-down shirt. Much like his elimination of the script Pitt, it symbolized how out of touch Pederson was with the traditions of the places he worked.

After 20 mostly sorry years with dorky Herbie, Nebraska decided to commit Herbicide.

Outside of Solich, no one at Memorial Stadium received a bigger ovation than Nebraska’s new Herbie. The blond-haired, blue-eyed farm boy with an ear of corn in the back pocket of his overalls is back.

It’s a simple change, but it speaks volumes. Alberts gets what matters to Nebraska fans. And so does his new coaching hire.

Based on how sloppy things were on the field Saturday, it’ll probably take Matt Rhule more than 1 season to get this mess fixed.

Off the field, though, the ghosts are gone. Nebraska is a family again. And that’s an important step in bringing Nebraska’s future closer to its now-distant past.

Photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics.