The Associated Press
The Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The vibe around Nebraska football is eerily similar to what it was like the last time the Cornhuskers' 1997 national championship team gathered in Lincoln for a reunion.
That was in 2007. On a gloomy afternoon, and with the men who were part of Tom Osborne's mid-1990s dominance in attendance, Bill Callahan's Huskers lost 45-14 to Oklahoma State in what then was the most lopsided home loss since 1958. The athletic director who hired Callahan, Steve Pederson, was fired the following Monday. Osborne was named interim AD the next day, and Callahan was fired at the end of a 5-7 season.
This weekend, players, coaches and staff members from the '97 team are expected to be on hand for their 20-year reunion, and they'll attend Saturday night's game against ninth-ranked Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten). Athletic director Shawn Eichorst, who hired third-year coach Mike Riley, was fired two weeks ago. Former Husker great Dave Rimington has taken over as interim AD, and Riley's status is very much in question as the Huskers (3-2, 2-2) enter a crucial stretch of games.
In interviews with The Associated Press, players from the '97 team that won the coaches' national championship (Michigan was No. 1 in the AP poll) expressed a mix of frustration and sadness that the program has been unable to find traction for most of the last two decades. Nebraska's most recent conference title came in 1999. It took the backdoor into the 2001 national championship game after getting blown out at Colorado and lost 37-14 to Miami.
Frank Solich was fired in 2003 by Pederson with the approval of now-retired chancellor Harvey Perlman after he went 58-19 in six years. Since then, the Huskers have lost no fewer than four games in a season under three different coaches and three athletic directors.
"Nebraska started to lose its way when Frank Solich was let go," said Matt Davison, whose "Miracle at Missouri" catch helped keep the '97 Huskers unbeaten during a 13-0 campaign. "Nebraska football has always been trying to find itself since then — redefining itself, trying to fix something that wasn't completely broken. Here we are, all these years later, and we've cycled through coaches and tried different things and it's frustrating for all of us that were part of something great.
"We felt a responsibility to keep it going for the guys before us, and then to watch it all come to an end because of decisions made by people who didn't know what they were doing — selfish decisions — still (upsets) me today."
Osborne, who retired from coaching after the 1997 season, is serving in an advisory role in the search for Eichorst's successor and declined to comment for this story.
His former players lamented the loss of the tried-and-true system that produced three national championships in four years in the '90s and a minimum of nine wins and a bowl game in each of Osborne's 25 seasons as coach. In those days, walk-ons were highly valued and built up the roster to the size that made it possible to have physical practices. Toughness was a big part of the team's identity.
Solich, Osborne's right-hand man for two decades, maintained that culture. Though the Huskers slipped to 7-7 in 2002 after losing key players such as Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, they bounced back to go 9-3 in 2003 after Solich brought in young assistants like defensive coordinator and future head coach Bo Pelini. That wasn't enough to save Solich, who now is head coach at Ohio University.
Jay Foreman, a linebacker in '97, said the more he and his teammates won, the more they wanted to keep winning.
"Every single player on those '90s teams who are going to show up this weekend — and I can speak for a high percentage of them — want these guys to win and want these coaches to win as much and sometimes more than they do. You know why? Because there's not another feeling you can duplicate that's going to do more for you all through your life than winning a championship and being on a winning team and being part of a winning program," Foreman said.
"We want them to get the feeling. Here's why: once they get that feeling and understand what it takes, they'll never want to let it go. Their expectations for themselves and anything they do will go through the roof."
Grant Wistrom, a two-time first-team All-American and the 1997 Lombardi Award winner, said it's regrettable that the Huskers haven't been able to maintain coaching staff stability since he left Nebraska for a nine-year NFL career. Wistrom said he's met Riley and likes him personally and how he has recruited.
"He seems like the type of guy I would want to play for," Wistrom said. "He's similar to Coach Osborne. We went out there and wanted to run through a wall for Coach Osborne because he had been there for 20 years and had a lot of wins behind him and had a status. I don't know that about Coach Riley. For some reason, the guys aren't taking the field with the same passion that we as Nebraska fans are accustomed to seeing."