||Wednesday, January 2
Solich successful, not soundbite savvy
By Wayne Drehs
PASADENA, Calif. -- He doesn't get points for style. For excitement. For his ability to leave a group hanging on his last and begging for his next word.
But at Nebraska, he's what they expect. What they've grown used to. Tom Osborne was this way. To a lesser degree, so was Bob Devaney. So what if your personality is as exciting as watching corn grow, the Heartlanders say. Win a few national titles, and we'll consider you a genius. Case closed.
Too bad coach Frank Solich, who replaced Osborne four years ago, doesn't get it. He says that national championships are not his ultimate goal. Getting to the Rose Bowl presented by AT&T, having a shot to become a national champion quicker than any coach in Husker history? Nice, Solich says, but it doesn't get him the least bit giddy.
"It's not so special that without being here, you're not successful. I could not have gotten here and been able to live with myself without a problem. Just as long as my players and coaches gave it everything they had."
The words represent Solich in a nutshell. Much like his predecessors, he's a selfless, straight-laced, hard-working loyal man. It isn't much for soundbites, but it is what makes Nebraska work.
Just look at the roster. Aside from Heisman winner Eric Crouch, the Huskers aren't loaded with nationally-recognized talent. And yet here they are, with just as much of a chance to be win the championship as talent-stocked Miami.
And guess who they want to win it for?
"Winning a national championship would mark the perfect end to my career," Crouch said. "But more than anything, I want to win it for Coach Solich. He deserves it. We can prove all his critics wrong."
Ahh, the critics. In his first four seasons as head coach, Solich won 42 games. In college football history, only two other coaches -- Walter Camp of Yale and George Woodruff of Penn -- won more games in their first four seasons. And both of those happened back in the 19th century.
But not everyone is satisfied. The shoes Solich had to fill were immense. Osborne won three national titles in his last four seasons and is the school's all-time winningest coach. Only one of his teams, in 1990, finished the season ranked below No. 15.
Solich's first team lost four games, more than the five previous Nebraska teams lost combined. It finish the season ranked 19th.
The critics said that Solich, an assistant under Osborne since 1983, was in way over his head. The team wasn't winning Big 12 Championships, never mind national ones. And something had to be done.
"It was a difficult time," said senior free safety Dion Booker. "People were questioning everything. But he stood by his players. He supported us. And I think that earned everyone's respect."
Some thought Osborne was partly to blame. It was Osborne who hand-picked Solich to be his successor. Before anyone else knew, Osborne told Solich of his plans a year before he announced his retirement.
"I was sitting in my office, the door was open, he kind of knocked," Solich recalled. "Walked in. Asked me if I had a minute. I said I certainly did. Then he proceeded to tell me he was planning on retiring.
"He asked me to keep it to myself, which I did. It was a little bit of a surprise to me, he did it very nonchalant. I started looking at things differently, I started looking at myself as the head coach at Nebraska. When I did take over, I felt very comfortable about it."
And he realized how much Osborne was sticking his neck out for an individual with no head coaching experience.
"Did I have the most recognizable name across the country? No. Did Coach Osborne go out on a limb, did the AD go out on a limb in hiring me? Absolutely," Solich said. "If this would have failed, it would have been on me as well as reflected on them."
But commitment, loyalty and executing a seamless transition to a new coach were critical. So Solich was the man. The Cleveland native knew Nebraska as well as anyone, having played fullback there from 1962-1965 and then serving as an assistant at NU since 1983.
Going in, he knew the tradition. Knew the pressure. And knew the standards with which he would be judged. After all, Devaney won 101 games and a pair of national titles when he turned the program over to Osborne, his top assistant, in 1973. Osborne won 255 games, including including back-to-back titles in 1994 and '95 and a shared championship with Michigan in 1997, before turning the reigns over to Solich.
"People don't realize what a hard job he came into," said Miami coach Larry Coker, who was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach this year. "Sometimes it's harder to maintain a program than it is to get there and that's what Frank has done. He kept their staff together and what he's done to keep that program at a high level is outstanding."
Even this season, arguably Solich's best at Nebraska, he's been blasted, having been forced to defend his team's appearance in the national championship game despite a 62-36 season-ending loss to Colorado. That game has been the main topic of conversation leading in to Thursday's game.
Regardless, Solich is here with a chance to win a national championship. It took Devaney nine seasons to win his first title. It took Osborne 22. With a Husker win on Thursday, the humble Solich would do it in four.
So he may be boring 364 days of the year, but don't doubt his fire, his passion. Bag on him all you want, he doesn't care. But say something about his team and suddenly there's excitement, entertainment and people hanging on his every word.
"I was misquoted the other day when somebody wrote that we had played 11 games as well as anyone in the country," Solich told reporters Wednesday. "That's not what I said. I said we had played 11 games better than anyone in the country."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Is this Crouch's last game as a QB?