Is Nebraska football too far gone, even for Scott Frost?

Is it Frost or bust for Nebraska Football? (1:44)

Hallie Grossman details the mood surrounding Nebraska football that if Scott Frost can't fix the program, maybe no one can. (1:44)

Editor's note: This story on Nebraska football coach Scott Frost was originally published on Nov. 13, 2019. Watch the 1997 "Flea Kicker" game Sunday at 7 ET, part of a National Nebraska Day special on ESPNU.

SCOTT FROST DROPS back at the 30-yard line in Memorial Stadium. It's hot outside -- late September hasn't surrendered yet to fall temperatures in Lincoln, Nebraska -- and though it's climbing into the 80s by 10 this morning, Frost has opted for a long-sleeved black T-shirt to go with his black gym shorts and backward red Nebraska hat. He steps back, whips to face the right sideline, then fires a bullet in the direction of a wide receiver. Dem Franchize Boyz blares from speakers -- Lean wit it, rock wit it -- and, oh right, this isn't 1997 at all.

Frost does this on Fridays, jumps into the fray of actual drills. Even from far away on the sideline, it's easy to catch that black shirt straining, easy to catch that Frost still lifts weights and does things like traverse the Grand Canyon to keep in playing shape. Which is why the Huskers' former quarterback and 44-year-old current head coach is able to tangle with freshman Myles Farmer on a kickoff, and sprint to the line of scrimmage to raise his right arm back like he's a defensive end refining his swim move, and charge at No. 99, pulling up just short of tackling him to the ground.

Frost's parents, Carol and Larry, watch the whole affair unfold from up high, on the stadium's third floor. Larry started coaching high school football in 1969 and spent much of his career in the state of Nebraska; Carol came on board not long after and coached receivers and defensive ends for her son's teams for 25 years; and they both still turn around to find out who needs them when a Nebraska player calls out for "Coach Frost." His parents started timing Frost's 40-yard dashes when their son was 2. Most parents scratch marks into the walls to chart a child's growth; they logged 40 times to memorialize speed progression. "It's in his baby book," Carol says. "I have a record of him from 2 through 18. He went from 13.8 to 4.5."

They're sports junkies, is the point, and since they live exactly eight minutes from campus, they try to make it to practice at least two or three days a week.

Tom Osborne does too. He stewarded Nebraska football for 25 years, won national championships in three of them, and now returns to campus twice a week himself -- usually on Mondays, to see how the team is recovering from that weekend's game, and Wednesdays, to catch the heaviest workday. He patrols the sideline and keeps to himself, while Frost, the quarterback Osborne coached to the school's last national championship 22 years ago, does the coaching. It's now Frost's job -- birthright? -- to steer Nebraska back to Osborne's heights.

Frost is the redeemer come to rescue Nebraska from itself -- the (literal) prodigal son returning home; the wunderkind unleashing the prowess that turned his previous charges at Central Florida from winless to undefeated in two years' time. There's a perfect storm of gauzy nostalgia and modern-day hype, and Frost lives in its epicenter. That's why this 2019 season, with its blowout losses and alarming regression -- from the quarterback to the team's ability to even feign competitiveness with the Big Ten's best -- feels like something worse, more foreboding, than merely a lost year.

"I think he feels the weight of the thing," Osborne says.

After practice one day that week, Osborne is sitting in a balcony that, perhaps appropriately, looms large over the indoor football field. He looks like the statesman he became -- he represented the state's third congressional district in the House of Representatives back in the early 2000s -- after retiring from coaching: pressed khakis, a light blue dress shirt, gold watch and a ring on his left hand showing an "N." Frost will confirm as much -- that he does, in fact, feel the weight of this thing -- in his office later.

"Doing this in my home state with all the hopes and aspirations of all Nebraskans on our shoulders adds a little bit of pressure," he says. "You have that everywhere. It's just a little different when it's home."

He says he enjoys it, though, the fact that this rebuilding project of his is happening here, in Nebraska, where he grew up, and at the University of Nebraska, where he played and won. "It's just neat to have the people who are closest to me so close to this," he says.

So his parents come by. And Osborne. And sometimes Nebraska's women's volleyball coach, John Cook, who has known Frost since the early 2000s. And occasionally teammates from the old days like Jason Peter, Nebraska's former All-American defensive tackle captain and three-time national champion.

They all come to bear witness. Nebraska was so monolithic for so long and then, poof, it wasn't, so they come to see whether this is the time and this is the person to really, finally, restore the program's good name. Peter called his former linemate Grant Wistrom after one practice to tell him there was a brawl that day. That never happened under Frost's predecessors, Bo Pelini or Mike Riley, but it happened all the time when Peter and Wistrom and Frost played under Osborne, and Peter loved that. It looked like the '90s out there.

Before Frost took the job, Cook called another of Frost's old teammates and told him: You've got to do this. You've got to get your boy back. Well, he's back, and now they hold their collective breath. Watching him. Waiting on him to make this right.

Back on the balcony, Osborne is so soft-spoken you have to lean in to actually hear him say it, to speak out loud the unease that gnaws at the people who love this state and its football team. "A lot of people feel that if this doesn't work with Scott," Osborne says, "it's probably not going to work, period, you know?"

IF NOT SCOTT Frost, then who?

It's a jarring notion, even a quarter-century removed from the days when the Huskers ruled as giants, that they might not even be sleeping giants at this point. That this -- 4-8 seasons ad nauseam and conference championship wastelands and national irrelevance -- just might be what Nebraska has to offer now. That so many, whether Nebraska athletics brass or former Huskers themselves or Joe and Jane Nebraska, think if this one person can't rev this sputtering jalopy, then maybe, at this point, no one can.

Frost balks at the idea of himself as some sort of Midwestern savior. "I wouldn't use that word," he says.

Maybe he hesitates because he hasn't done any saving yet. Quite the opposite, in fact. After some seriously unwarranted expectations, in retrospect, for Nebraska heading into the 2019 season, the Huskers have flatlined. They got mauled by Ohio State 48-7 (not shocking); they got mauled by Minnesota 34-7 (less shocking in hindsight, but still ...); they fell to Indiana at home and Purdue on the road, Big Ten teams Nebraska faithful will have you know they should always beat anywhere. And they still have Wisconsin and Iowa -- the prototypes for what Nebraska wishes it could be in the 21st century -- threatening ahead. It's all enough to make you want to scream-plead for their mercy. Stop! They're already dead!

"Everybody in Nebraska wants the same thing we want," Frost says. "They want this program to represent the state of Nebraska well."

It's a goes-down-smooth euphemism. Because here's what they really want: They'd like to get back to winning, please and thank you, and put a rush on that order.

If you were a freshman in 1994 and stuck around for four seasons as a Husker, you experienced fewer losses (two) than national championships (three). If you played in Lincoln anytime from 1962 to 2001, you didn't suffer a losing season once -- not one time in 40 straight years. And if you were an Osborne-era Husker, if you played during his 25-year reign, from 1973 until 1997, there was a good chance you were on one of his 18 teams that finished in the AP top 10. Gravity existed; Nebraska was great at football.

The question now is whether gravity matters anymore. When it will cease mattering. Every day that ticks by is one more day between now and then, when Nebraska was something special, when its place among the sport's powers felt less well-oiled-machine and more manifest destiny. Jason Peter likens the Nebraska conundrum to Army. (To Army!) The Black Knights were good too once. They had Heisman winners and championship runs also. Those days are too far gone to help today. Nebraska's fall from prominence is distinct from Army's, of course, and far more recent -- the Huskers' plummet due to changing NCAA scholarship rules and changing cable landscapes and changing conference alignments and the drip-drip-drip of those changes rusting the program's sheen. But are Nebraska's days too far gone also? Has too much time passed since all those teams that pockmark the best-of annals -- 1971 and 1983 and 1994 and 1995 and 1997? Not now. Not yet. But here's the but.

"If Scott isn't able to get it fixed here," Peter says, "I don't know if we're too far removed from those glory years that it can be of any use."

A FEW MONTHS after Frost came home from Orlando, he sat in a tent 30 miles outside of Lincoln in the wee hours of the morning, talking in hushed tones to Tom Osborne. The two were turkey hunting, had been there since 5:30, before it was even light outside, waiting with their turkey call. They whispered about football and politics and Osborne growing up in St. Paul and Hastings. They could hear a few turkeys come close, but never close enough. Osborne was disappointed ("I felt so bad because I always get a turkey," he says), and Frost wasn't. He likes talking to Osborne, likes being the listener.

"If I'm not, I'm foolish," he says.

Like pretty much the whole swath of Nebraska, Frost is an Osborne acolyte -- which is why the Nebraska football program isn't trying to reinvent the wheel in 2019. It's trying to bring back the wheel it invented in the first place. Since taking over the Huskers in December 2017, Frost has repeated himself so much it's practically become a daily affirmation. "There was a formula that worked here for a long time. And I think there was an intentional departure from that formula," he says in his office, and not for the first time.

"A lot of people feel that if this doesn't work with Scott, it's probably not going to work, period, you know?" Tom Osborne

He wants up-tempo, no-one-standing-around, players-can't-wait-for-this-to-be-over practices. Were there practices from his playing days that he just. wanted. to. end? "Every day. It was every day."

He wants local kids who want to be here with renewed fervor, an enthusiasm he inherited from Osborne, and which Osborne proselytizes still. "Coach Osborne came and spoke to our team in Orlando," says Barrett Ruud, Nebraska's inside linebackers coach. "He said, 'The guys that we really had to beg to come here usually weren't our best players.'"

He wants a walk-on program to push this team like it pushed the teams he was a part of all those years ago. "We've got to get the kids and we've got to develop, develop, develop, develop," says defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, reciting the mantra.

These are Osborne-era reduxes that make sense because Frost himself is something of an Osborne redux. Just how much of Frost the coach is pulled from Osborne the coach?

"I don't know," his mother says. "Everything, maybe."

Frost provides his own spin, naturally. It's tough to picture Osborne, for instance, stashing a guitar in the corner of his office, just a few feet from where a bust of Paul "Bear" Bryant sits, a coach of the year award Frost keeps out on display. "I have a video of Zac Brown playing that guitar right there," Frost says. "He jammed out, then he told me I had to get a proper guitar. This one's not expensive enough. It's a piece of crap."

Mostly, though, the resemblance is impossible to miss. Frost, like Osborne, is so quiet, you have to inch forward to not miss his point. Frost, like Osborne, is even-keeled enough that you want to check for a pulse at times. "I don't think I've seen Scott lose his s---," says Peter, who tried to make Frost lose said s--- when Frost transferred from Stanford to Nebraska and was, in the eyes of his new teammates, jumping back on a bandwagon he had opted to forsake. Peter and the rest of the defensive line, four future NFL players, went head-to-head in practice with Frost when he was on the scout team the year he transferred and "tried to make him quit every day" via extracurricular shoves and verbal parting shots.

That Scott Frost evokes Tom Osborne is hardly an accident. Osborne was his coach. He still is his coach in ways that matter. "I'm going to run any tough decision by Coach Osborne," Frost says, sitting in his head coach suite in the football complex.

He doesn't say whether one of those tough decisions was what to do about Maurice Washington -- his sophomore running back who shows flashes of brilliance; his top-ranked recruit from the 2018 class; his player who is facing two charges, one of which is a felony, for allegedly sending his ex-girlfriend a video that depicted her performing what she says were non-consensual sexual acts. She was 15 years old when the video was recorded. The case is pending adjudication in the California legal system, and a preliminary hearing is set for Dec. 12.

Washington sat out the first half of Nebraska's 2019 opening game, but Frost, along with the athletic director and chancellor, initially opted to allow Washington to play otherwise, save for one other half-game suspension imposed for infractions that were unrelated to his ongoing legal issues. Sitting in his office in September, Frost bristles a bit at the idea of handling Washington any other way. "Our players know there's some unbreakable rules, some things they can't do if they want to be part of this football team," Frost says. "Anything short of that, it's our job to try to help them."

Osborne tried to help his players any way he could too, Frost says, and he loved Osborne for that. All the players loved him for that. "I always felt that it was important not to sacrifice a player on the altar of public opinion," Osborne says. "I may have been wrong, I may have been right. I took some heat for it on occasion."

He doesn't mention Lawrence Phillips by name, but he doesn't need to. In 1995, Phillips, who was the Huskers' star running back, was arrested on assault charges and accused of throwing his ex-girlfriend to the bathroom floor, then dragging her down three flights of stairs. Although Osborne initially dismissed Phillips from the team, he was reinstated after a six-game suspension, then played out the 1995 season, including the victorious championship game. (It was Frost's apartment that Phillips allegedly broke into to get to his ex-girlfriend.)

After Phillips died in 2016 -- he took his own life while serving a 31-year prison sentence for offenses including choking his girlfriend and driving a car into three teenagers -- Osborne spoke again of how and why he navigated his troubled former player's actions. "I felt the only thing I could put in place that would keep him on track was football because that was probably the only consistent organizing factor in his life," he said.

In a new time and under different circumstances, Frost offers an awfully similar philosophy. "I'm not going to crumple a kid up and throw him away and turn my back on him," he says.

It's a refrain he'll repeat just a few weeks later, in late October, even as he announces that Washington is no longer on the team's depth chart and is not a part of the team's "immediate future." His removal, Frost says, is related not to his felony charge but to some other red line that Washington crossed. He says that although he and his staff tried to do everything they could for Washington and wish "things would be a little different," he wouldn't have done anything differently.

If that sounds familiar, well, that's because it is.

HERE'S A STORY often told among Nebraska faithful. They were close, thisclose, to giving up. The losing was too hard and too insidious. Like one Nebraska alumna who told her husband toward the end of the Mike Riley era in 2017, "Get rid of them." She was ready to surrender the season tickets they'd had for decades. A few weeks later, when Nebraska officially brought Scott Frost back into the fold, she called her husband: "Don't do it! Don't get rid of the tickets!"

They are made of resilient stock, these fans. Or haven't you heard of the 373-games-and-counting sellout streak at Memorial Stadium that began in 1962, thrived in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and has weathered this 21st-century crisis?

As much as there can be unanimity among the capricious hearts of college football fans, Scott Frost is a pretty universal hit in Nebraska. Though, to be sure, he is testing the bounds of goodwill as the team's stalled progress stalls further. For comparison's sake, Willie Taggart, who was named Florida State's head coach three days after Frost was hired at Nebraska, went 9-12 in Tallahassee before getting fired. Frost is 8-13. It sure does help that he's as close to getting Tom Osborne back on the sideline as just ... getting Tom Osborne back on the sideline. And fans and administrators and fellow coaches have bought into Frost because Frost buys into them. For here's another oft-told tale. More than his undefeated second year at Central Florida, more than the offensive wizardry he helped uncork with talent such as Marcus Mariota and McKenzie Milton under his tutelage, there is a deep, overriding belief: Scott Frost is one of the best coaches in college football, but he is the best coach for Nebraska football.

"As great as there are coaches that are out there in this country," says Ryan Held, the Huskers' running backs coach, "not all of them would be great at Nebraska."

Frost is of Nebraska more than he is from Nebraska, as though the land and the cornfields and maybe even the Runzas, those strange sandwiches native to this region, course through his bloodstream. (At one point, a Nebraska assistant coach finishes his lunch at the athletic complex's training table, then whispers his confession like it's a sin. "Runza," he starts, then shakes his head. He can't bring himself to go on because it's sacrilege around here. He's just not a fan of Runza, the 70-year-old purveyor of ground beef, onions and cabbage stuffed into a bread pocket. It's fast food that Nebraskans at home and Nebraskans displaced evangelize like it's manna.)

Frost's father is from Malcolm and starred on the high school's eight-man football team; his mother "grew up milking cows, walking to school, pulling rats out of the side barn silo by their tails" in Cedar Rapids. They both wound up as coaches and teachers, substitute-teaching for some of the players, like Ben Stille, who play for Frost now at Nebraska. Osborne coached Larry when he was still an assistant in Lincoln and Larry was a wingback for the Huskers; he knew Scott Frost when he was young, the so-blond-he-was-almost-white-haired kid he'd see running around the athletic complex because Carol coached track at the university for a spell back then. Frost's roots here are deep, and they are sprawling. And he has brought with him coaches and staff whose roots are deep and sprawling too. Barrett Ruud, who can count the number of Huskers home games he missed as a kid on two hands and who went on to rack up more tackles than anyone else in program history. Matt Davison, who grew up in small-town Nebraska and hauled in that Flea Kicker. Ryan Held, who joined Osborne's vaunted walk-on program.

That's why, as the athletic department was cleaning house in 2017, John Cook said landing an athletic director who could in turn land Scott Frost was not just part of the calculus, it was the calculus. Davison, who came on as associate AD in Lincoln when Frost returned, called Frost every day back then, sometimes at 5 in the morning, to persuade his old teammate to leave UCF and come home. And that's why Tom Osborne told anyone who would listen -- Frost's parents and Frost himself -- that he was positive Frost would have a longer runway in Lincoln, afforded more patience and time to see this through. If he went to, say, Florida and lit the college world on fire? Great. If he didn't? "Then he's just another guy."

"If Scott isn't able to get it fixed here, I don't know if we're too far removed from those glory years that it can be of any use." Jason Peter

Here, he's not. Never that. He'll get a longer leash, and what's more, he'll need one (see: this doomed 2019 season). But to harp on the obvious, the state of Nebraska is not the state of Florida. Or California. Or Mississippi. In 2019, Frost's first and only full recruiting cycle in Lincoln to date, the average distance from home for the 25 high school players who committed to Nebraska was 731 miles. Just one player from the ESPN 300 that year was a Nebraska native. There will be no sugar rush via injection of backyard blue-chip recruits. Frost and his coaches know that.

"We're never probably going to be the No. 1 recruiting class in the country," Held says. The 2019 recruiting class was ranked No. 18; the 2020 class currently sits at No. 34.

Out of necessity, true belief or some combination of both, Frost isn't cowed by the reality -- and ceiling -- of recruiting at Nebraska. It's not as if he wants to forsake a national footprint in recruiting, after all. Case in point: In December 2017, he was already named Nebraska's coach but was still coaching UCF for its bowl game. The Knights had a practice in the morning, Frost held a news conference at noon, he got on a plane at 1 in the afternoon, stopped in Lincoln to refuel, continued on to Fresno, California, to sell a four-star quarterback named Adrian Martinez on joining him at Nebraska, secured the commitment, flew back to Lincoln, landing at 2 or 3 in the morning to refuel again, flew to Orlando, went home, showered and changed, threw up from the strain on his body, then went to helm practice at UCF. He just wants that footprint while also reclaiming the Nebraska of lore, with its unique walk-on program and obsessive eye on development.

That kind of approach speaks to the ethos of this place. ("What we don't need is somebody who's going to finesse this thing back to the winning ways," Jason Peter says at one point, spitting out finesse like it's a dirty word.) Does that approach speak to the demands of playing -- and winning -- now, as opposed to in 1997? Frost, his coaches, his players, his neighbors in Nebraska, are all on that runway Osborne promised, waiting to find out. It's a precarious limbo.

Gerrod Lambrecht has been friends with Frost pretty much since the day the Frost family showed up in Wood River. He was Frost's chief of staff at Central Florida and followed him back home to assume the same role at Nebraska, and he's blunt about the reality of Frost's homecoming experiment.

"Think about failing when Nebraska is your home," he says. "Where's home now?"

SCOTT FROST SNEAKS into a mostly full auditorium on a Sunday afternoon in late September. Hundreds of Nebraskans have gathered at Lincoln East High to honor the 2019 inductees for the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, including Frost and his father, but Frost is late for the festivities. He had been in Illinois the night before, overseeing an uncomfortably close win over the Illini. Another day in 2019, another dicey affair.

The Huskers survived that particular scare in Champaign, but perhaps the truth of what this season would be was evident then. They had not yet gotten demolished by Ohio State or Minnesota, had not yet been embarrassed at home by Indiana. The signs were clear for those who wanted to read them. "I know we're bad. But are we Illinois bad?" one fan wailed that night.

But before those downfalls, there's this: Frost on a stage, taking his place among the state's greats. He accepts the honor, then honors his home state. He tells of the double-wide trailer he lived in with his family for a few years when they first moved to Wood River. He talks about watching his mother coach track and field at Nebraska in the 1970s, pushing the bounds of what was deemed socially acceptable then; of his father coming up on tough times as the football coach in McCook, Nebraska.

"I watched him get fired. If you're a coach, it's going to happen sooner or later," Frost says, then pauses. He smiles just a bit. "Hope it doesn't happen to me."