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Wednesday, October 25
Solich has Huskers in national title hunt

By Todd Cooper
Special to

Fists clenched and veins popping in his neck, Nebraska coach Frank Solich talks about steps to a national championship and asks his players if they have the mettle to meet those challenges.

His coach's shirt draping his thick shoulders, Solich implores his players to meet the task through whatever means necessary. His voice rises until his players begin clapping in unison, a slow beat that builds into a rhythmic frenzy.

He's so charged up that, for a moment, a few players wonder if he'll put on a helmet and shoulder pads and take the field with them. Instead, he builds them into a crescendo until they spill out of the locker room and to the tunnel leading to their next opponent. It's an opponent, Solich barks, that's as big as all the others.

The Baylor Bears.

Meet Frank Solich, psychologist. Meet Frank Solich, coach of the No. 1 team in America.

Like his players roaring out of Nebraska's south stadium locker room, the diminutive Solich might be on the verge of stepping out of the long shadows of his mentors -- Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney.

With five games remaining in his third season, Solich already has as many victories -- 28 -- as Devaney and Osborne did in their first three seasons.

And as Solich heads to Norman on Saturday for a showdown with No. 3 Oklahoma, he has the Huskers competing for a national championship -- something neither Osborne nor Devaney could attain in their early years.

Yet, he chuckles at the comparisons, saying he has a long way to go before he lives up to the two Huskers legends.

What's clear, however, is that Solich has gleaned something from both his mentors. On the emotional spectrum, the 5-foot-6, 165-pound spark plug falls somewhere between the stoic Osborne and the fiery Devaney.

In effect, he's a dour Devaney. Or, he's an overcharged Osborne.

"I tell you what, I hope I've taken something from both of them," he said. "They both were a little different as far as their personalities. But one thing they did -- they coached within their personality. They didn't try to be somebody else. I'm doing the same. I'm not trying to be Bob or Tom."

Instead, he's succeeding in his own way.

In his third season, Solich is employing the same sort of blue-collar grit that he brought to Nebraska from Cleveland in 1962 -- as a member of Devaney's first recruiting class. An undersized fullback at about 160 pounds, he packed a punch, quickly gaining acclaim for his tenacity and toughness.

Both his physique and his temperament have changed little in the 35 years since.

Quarterback Eric Crouch said outsiders shouldn't be fooled by Solich's diminutive stature and the smile that is sometimes as wide as his waistband.

While Florida coach Steve Spurrier is known for his visor and FSU's Bobby Bowden is known for his down-home humor, Crouch said Nebraska players know Solich for the two veins that occasionally jut across the side of his neck like a river on a map.

"You know you've got his full attention when those two veins are sticking out," Crouch said. "He's one of those guys who's a motivator. He'll speak out and get fiery at practice and yell at you and keep you in line.

"But he'll also pat you on the back. He treats his players with respect."

I-back Dan Alexander, who was directly under Solich when he coached running backs before taking over the head coaching duties, said Solich always has been full of fire but is beginning to mellow.

"When he gets mad, when he starts yelling, veins come out of everywhere on his neck," Alexander said. "Then you know you've done something. But he's just as willing to joke around with the players. He knows how to bring out the best in his team."

Solich vs. The Legends
How Frank Solich compares to Nebraska coaching legends Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney through their first three years coaching the Huskers.
Category Solich Osborne Devaney
Record 28-5* 28-7-1 28-5
Rush ypg 306.5** 244.3 244.8
Pass ypg 125.6 160.4 100.0
PPG 37.4 30.3 25.5
Total def. 285.2 244.4 199.4
Opp. ppg 14.2 12.1 11.9
* - Four games left in third season.
** - Averaging 400.0 ypg in 2000.

That hasn't always been abundantly apparent.

In 1998 -- his first year after taking over for Osborne -- Solich struggled through a string of wounds, some of them self-inflicted.

After a stretch of three national titles in Osborne's last four years, the Huskers at times were in disarray en route to a 9-4 record -- the most losses by a Huskers team in 30 years. Nine Nebraska starters missed a total of 45 games because of injury. And Solich was indecisive in his play calling, wasting several time outs and getting flagged for four delay-of-game penalties.

Then came the beginning of last year, when Solich had to deal with a rash of defections and distractions. After Bobby Newcombe was named the starter at quarterback, Eric Crouch left town. Solich chased him down in Omaha and convinced him to return to Lincoln. Then, Solich saw one I-back (Correll Buckhalter) leave the team briefly before the coach booted another (DeAngelo Evans) permanently.

Crouch said Solich single-handedly righted the ship with a mixture of discipline off the field and focus on it.

"I felt like we had fallen apart in 1998," Crouch said. "Then, we had a lot of off the field problems before the (1999) season even started. The first three or four weeks, it was hectic around here. It took a lot for him to get the program back together. But he took control."

Solich is still fielding questions about his command on the field, even after a Big 12 championship last year and a No. 1 ranking this year. In particular, fans have criticized his conservative play calling when the Huskers have a lead. And fans are reserving judgment on his ability as a recruiter, at least until Osborne's last class completes its eligibility next year.

The 56-year-old smiles at the expectations. Two years ago, he said, he put too much pressure on himself to try to meet fans' demands. Now, he's getting more and more comfortable on the sideline and in the limelight of Nebraska football.

More than anything, Solich said, he knows the true measure of Nebraska's success is the test of time. Devaney and Osborne sustained it.

Will Solich?

"You can always tell more about a person or a coach when things are tough than when they're going really well," Osborne said. "Lots of people, when things are falling down around their ears, begin to do things that are not necessarily rational. Frank hasn't had terrible adversity but the bit that he's had he has handled really well.

"He'll continue to do well. Frank's got staying power. He's got stability. He's made of the right stuff."

Todd Cooper is a staff writer at the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald.

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