Published Saturday, December 7, 2013 at 9:09 pm / Updated at 8:19 pm
FOOTBALL
In 2003, Nebraska had a December to remember, for all the wrong reasons

LINCOLN — As the secretary for Frank Solich in the old Nebraska football offices, Mary Lyn Wininger was the window to the Husker head coach.

Wininger sat at a reception desk just outside Solich's door on the second floor of the South Stadium complex.

She watched over the comings and goings, as she had done for Tom Osborne before. She handled business and appointments with a smile. In general, Dan McLaughlin remembers, she was “vital to everything we did.”

Through the month of December in 2003 — after Solich was fired and Husker football was shaken to its core — the door just past Wininger was always shut and the lights always off.

It seemed almost surreal to McLaughlin, then an NU graduate assistant. But it summed up what was happening to players and staff members who found themselves in the dark as former Athletic Director Steve Pederson started the long search for Solich's replacement.

“Mary Lyn was always like the gatekeeper,” McLaughlin said the other day. “And now she was like the gatekeeper to an empty office.”

The emotions were raw among those remaining in a program who hadn't endured the firing of a head coach in four decades and had changed them just two other times in that span.

“It seemed like each day was like a month,” said former NU defensive lineman Titus Adams. “It was like slow motion. We didn't know who was going to be the coach, what was happening. … Everything was above us.”

Ten years later, Adams is glad this current Nebraska team is not going through anything similar. NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst came out in support of head coach Bo Pelini last Saturday, resting any anxious minds as the Huskers await their bowl assignment.

Back in 2003, between Nov. 29 and the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, Adams and his teammates would have appreciated that kind of quiet and lack of suspense.

“I think you naturally hear things, and you're not sure what's true and what's not true,” former NU linebacker Barrett Ruud said of that December 10 years ago. “But rumor-wise it started to get pretty crazy. Social media wasn't quite what it is now with Facebook and Twitter, so it'd been nuts if that was the case.”

It was unstable enough for the players. Many learned of the Solich news the same way the general public did after Pederson summoned Solich the night after Nebraska had won 31-22 at Colorado to complete a 9-3 regular season.

Ruud said he was at a wedding and saw it via “breaking news” on a small television. Others got calls from teammates. Some players and staff members didn't know until contacted by reporters seeking comment.

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Solich met with the team the Sunday after the firing. Longtime team psychologist Jack Stark was with him, and Stark quit on the spot and walked out with Solich.

Ruud said it felt bad that weekend — and the feeling lingered for a long time.

“It wasn't a happy team when that happened,” Ruud said.

Said former NU offensive lineman Mike Erickson: “People were like, 'Well, what are we going to do now?' ”

Pelini was part of the storyline 10 years ago, too. He was one of the people holding the team together.

Pelini was the Huskers' first-year defensive coordinator in 2003 and was named interim head coach shortly after the Solich dismissal. Current NU assistant coach Barney Cotton was the offensive coordinator. They directed practices once the team returned to the field.

McLaughlin said Scott Downing kept things running as recruiting coordinator, and the assistants remained on task protecting those who had already committed and staying after those still undecided.

“Frank at that time was a walk-around coach, so he had separated himself from all that other than being head coach,” said McLaughlin, now the ninth-year head coach at Wayne State. “So in terms of practice and meetings and all that, we really didn't miss a beat.

“When Bo was named interim, the thing I remember is he just immediately assumed control without being overbearing or anything. We move on and this is what we do.”

As frustrated as the players were with Solich's firing, Ruud said, they fed off the hope that Pelini might become the permanent replacement and that the staff might at least partly stay intact.

“Without that,” Ruud said, “we'd have had a lot of trouble getting through that month.”

Their focus and determination led to a commanding 17-3 win over Michigan State in San Antonio.

“I had the feeling we'd play well,” McLaughlin said. “I know Bo did. Bo was convinced we'd play well. That absolutely rubbed off on the kids. I think that came back to narrowing it down to one theme: 'We're going to be all right. We're going to be OK.' ”

Erickson said workouts and the Alamo Bowl preparations actually were a good distraction from all that was happening around them.

There were stories of airplanes and interviews and phone calls. Names like Houston Nutt, Al Saunders and Brad Childress surfaced as replacements for Solich and then disappeared. There were rumors of players who might consider transferring if Pederson went outside for somebody other than Pelini or Turner Gill.

It was hard to pick up a newspaper and not see it. Hard to be around a radio or TV and not hear it.

“I think you have to give credit not only to the players, but also to that coaching staff that was there that kept us motivated and excited and hungry about playing Nebraska football,” Adams said. “I feel like everyone held it together pretty good and did their part.”

Erickson said the Huskers could be proud of what they did to get Nebraska back to 10 wins after a year away — a level NU has reached only three times since.

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“It goes back to control the things you can control,” he said. “Control how you practice, control how you finish up school, control how you play. The thing we wanted to do was go out and win.”

The sad part for McLaughlin through it all was that dark office and the practices without the head coach who had been a part of Husker football for 29 years.

Solich had either hired or been co-workers with everybody on that NU staff, including McLaughlin, who had left behind a successful high school career to try college coaching. Solich had overseen the recruitment of all of the players in the system.

“I missed him, personally, terribly,” McLaughlin said. “He was a great confidante. I was just a GA, but I wasn't the typical GA because I was 46 years old and had been through the wars a little bit. So when I had questions about things or got bothered about things, I could walk in and sit down and just talk. He was amazing for that.

“It wasn't like it was a morgue around there, but we all missed Frank and we all missed his guidance.”

The coaches — and non-seniors such as Adams, Ruud and Erickson — wondered what 2004 would bring. The drama continued into January after the players returned to Lincoln.

“I remember talking to the guys who I lived with and we're saying, 'It's getting kind of late. When they going to pull the trigger on this?' ” Erickson said. “It just seems like the process went as non-smoothly as it could.”

Eventually Pederson hired Bill Callahan, and Callahan retained only Downing and Gill as full-time assistants.

Solich almost took another job immediately following Pederson's decision, interviewing at Army in the first week of December — and reportedly being the pick for the position — before withdrawing his name. He generally remained out of sight as the NU process bounced along.

Solich, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, eventually took the next year off, using the time to travel around and study both college and NFL programs.

Hired by Ohio University after the 2004 season, Solich, now 69, since has gone 66-49 over nine years, taking the Bobcats to five bowl games and winning three division titles in the Mid-American Conference.

Pelini is pointed toward his seventh year at Nebraska in 2014. What if Solich had been given a seventh in 2004?

“Man, that's a good question,” said Adams, who lived through the 5-6 season in 2004 that snapped the Huskers' 35-year bowl streak. “It would have been interesting to see, I guess you can say that.

“We had brought in some young assistants, had a lot of energy and we played hard. It seemed like it started to come along, but it never really got to mesh all the way.”

Contact the writer: Rich Kaipust

rich.kaipust@owh.com    |   402-444-1042    |  

Rich Kaipust is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and some general assignment tasks, including the College World Series and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

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