Solich welcomes challenge of building a program

Frank Solich, starting over again at Ohio University, has seen college football at the highest of highs.

He's been a part of national championship teams, coached Heisman Trophy winners, recruited the best high school players in the country and understands unequivocally the meaning of win, win with style and win now.

After 29 years at Nebraska as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Solich was unceremoniously booted from his alma mater following the 2003 season.

That's after going 9-3, no less, and playing for the national championship two years earlier.

Nebraska athletics director Steve Pederson's rationale: He feared the Cornhuskers were "gravitating toward mediocrity" under Solich.

If Solich enjoys that same kind of "mediocrity" in his new job, they might rename the town after him.

Solich, following a yearlong hiatus, is back in the game and raring to go at a place known more for its sports administration master's program than its football program.

And that's just fine with Solich.

"I did take over one of the top programs in the country at Nebraska," said Solich, who succeeded his longtime boss, Tom Osborne, in 1998 after the Cornhuskers had won or shared the national title in three of the previous four years.

"There's a challenge in keeping a program of that stature going. But it's a unique challenge and different challenge in building a program from the ground up. Everybody here is doing what they can to make it work. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it could."

Solich, who turns 60 in September, has his work cut out.

Ohio knows its way around the Mid-American Conference cellar. Only twice in the last 22 years have the Bobcats enjoyed winning seasons.

They haven't won a MAC championship since 1968, the longest drought of any program in the league.

Solich's predecessor at Ohio, Brian Knorr, went just 11-35 in his four years in Athens, including a 4-7 season a year ago.

For the most part, this has been mid-major football at its worst, which begs the obvious question.

What is Solich doing here?

The simple answer: He wasn't ready to walk away from coaching, and when the offers didn't come pouring in, Solich said it was almost cleansing to go somewhere he really felt wanted.

"I always felt I had something to offer, and at some point, believed I would get back into the profession," said Solich, who hit it off immediately with Ohio president Roderick McDavis.

"When Ohio first contacted me, I ended up spending an extensive amount of time with the president. That meant everything to me. I have a great feel for what he's all about and the fact that he wants the program to be successful. I know I have his backing, and at this point in my career, that means everything to me."

Solich doesn't hide his feelings about his ouster at Nebraska. He says it was more about egos and personalities than it was the bottom line of winning and losing.

Either way, Pederson took over as the Cornhuskers' athletics director in January 2003, and Solich was gone 11 months later.

"I'm bitter about what transpired there, but I have not let that direct my life," Solich said. "In coaching, and I learned it from Coach Osborne, you cannot hang onto things -- good or bad. You learn from it and move on.

"If you have a bad defeat, you move on and don't let it ruin the rest of your season or your life. I was not going to let that defeat me in regards to not being able to move on. I preached that all my career under Coach Osborne and as head coach at Nebraska. You go onto the next one, and that's what I did."

But not before getting in a subtle dig at Pederson.

"One of the things I've found is that I enjoy being around people who do not have huge egos," Solich said. "That makes life an awful lot easier for everybody."

Sitting out the year was sobering for Solich, who had been coaching football since his days of playing fullback for the Cornhuskers were over in 1965.

But instead of retiring to the recliner, Solich hit the road. He spent time with the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL and visited with the college staffs at Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Texas, Miami and Wisconsin.

An option purist at Nebraska, Solich wanted to broaden his horizons offensively.

"I've got more pass patterns drawn up than you can possibly imagine," Solich joked. "But seriously, I chose programs that I believe were developing the ability to both run the ball and throw the ball. I want to put together a balanced team."

His first order of business is getting the players to believe in themselves. Losing has a way of becoming a habit.

That may be made difficult because there won't be much of a buffer when it comes to the schedule. The Bobcats open with Northwestern and then play Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech the next two weeks.

"Once you believe in each other, then you lay it on the line for each other," Solich said. "We've got to learn how to practice and how to play four quarters of football. We can't control how Northwestern, Pittsburgh or Virginia Tech plays, but we can control how we play and maximize our talent.

"We'll come out of that nonconference schedule and continue to get better and see where conference play takes us."

Still, the irony of it all isn't lost on Solich, whose hiring has helped the Bobcats sell 500 more season tickets (in their 24,000-seat stadium) than at this time a year ago.

At Nebraska, nine wins led to the unemployment line. At Ohio, nine wins might lead to sainthood.

"That's going to get done, too," Solich said. "It won't be easy, and it won't be quick. But we're going to get it done."

Chris Low covers college football for The (Nashville) Tennessean.