Depending on which side of the pillow I wake up, I wonder whether Nebraska can ever be Nebraska again.
On optimistic days, I almost scoff at the question. “C’mon, why can’t they?”
On pessimistic days, I watch the evidence stack up in my head like Tetris pieces. I see the talent at Ohio State and Alabama and my jaw drops. I notice how Husker fans get so excited about a kid like Lamar Jackson, ignoring the fact that Oklahoma reels in five Lamar Jacksons every year. I imagine myself as a 17-year-old in Texas or California or New Jersey and wonder why the heck I’d want to go to Nebraska.
Truth is, most of the advantages Big Red had 20-40 years ago no longer exist — and they haven’t been replaced by anything.
Winning? Nope. The last time NU won a conference title, these recruits were in diapers.
Exposure? Nope. Everybody’s on TV now.
Facilities? Nope. Everybody has an indoor practice facility now.
Schedule? Nope. The Big Ten West doesn’t impress anybody.
Weather? OK, that was never an advantage, but it certainly hasn’t gotten easier.
Strength and conditioning? Nope. Everybody’s serious about it now.
Coaching continuity? Nope. It’s a new staff.
Scheme? Nope. It’s basically just like everybody else’s. The I-back and O-line aren’t showcase positions anymore.
Brand? Nope. The “N” has lost its allure.
So why? How the heck is this ever gonna work again?
In 2005, Bill Callahan compiled a top-5 class because he sold early playing time (going 5-6 isn’t always a bad thing), his NFL experience (two words, kids: Jerry Rice) and the fanatical football culture in Lincoln.
Mike Riley can still sell the latter. But what else?
The Huskers, Riley says, hang their hat on life skills and academic support, two factors that frankly are hard to measure. I take him at his word when he says nobody does it like Nebraska. But life skills and academic support aren’t as sexy as the ESPN cameras in Alabama’s lobby or OU’s athletic dorm or Oregon’s black granite fortress or Texas A&M’s stadium expansion. They’re not as sexy as anything Jim Harbaugh is doing these days.
For months, Nebraska led the race for arguably the best player in Kansas City, Isaiah Simmons. Then Clemson, a school from a little town in South Carolina, dropped in at the 11th hour and seized him away. Why? Because Clemson played in the national championship game, that’s why.
Great players produce championships. That’s a fact. But when you’ve been off the grid so long, you need championships to attract great players, right? Success breeds success. So how do you get the cycle started again?
Some days I don’t know. Some days winning at Nebraska feels like a daunting task, especially during recruiting season.
I have to remind myself of all the other places that faced tougher roads and pulled it off, even for just a short while. Baylor. Kansas State. Utah. Iowa. Wisconsin. Michigan State.
I have to remind myself that the No. 1 factor in recruiting is the relationship between coach and player. For a lot of kids — even a few blue-chip studs — it’s not about trophy cases and granite walls, it’s about a connection. The Bachelor doesn’t always pick the prettiest girl on TV*, just as the five-star prospect doesn’t always pick the prettiest school.
*It’s my wife who watches, I swear. I just pick up bits and pieces.
I have to remind myself that a four-star kid at 17 years old isn’t necessarily a four-star kid at 21. Same goes for a two-star. Give me a coach who can evaluate and project talent — with a knack for teaching fundamentals and a healthy walk-on program — and he can quickly close a recruiting deficit.
I have to remind myself that football isn’t science. Kirk Ferentz presided over a dumpster fire 12 months ago in Iowa City. Had you inserted him into the Iowa Caucuses, he would’ve finished south of Ben Carson. Now he’s the reigning national coach of the year.
So Nebraska marches on, led by a 62-year-old coach who shows no sign of fatigue and no interest in shortcuts. Mike Riley is the kind of man who wakes up on the right side of the pillow every day. Wednesday afternoon he was describing his quarterback of the future, Patrick O’Brien. Why does Riley like him? Because O’Brien has proven it.
“The best predictor of production is past production,” Riley said.
NU fans can only hope that goes for the whole operation.
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