Frank Solich

There’s some symmetry in Frank Solich getting the Osborne Award, partially at Tom Osborne’s request. The timing is right. The good vibes are going with Scott Frost, and there’s been a return to how Nebraska used to do things.

History has been good to Frank Solich. Now it’s Nebraska’s turn to show the love.

That will happen Wednesday night, when Solich is honored at the Outland Trophy Award Dinner in Omaha. Solich, the forever Husker, will be saluted by Tom Osborne, Scott Frost and a huge crowd at the Doubletree Hotel. Group hug.

This will be the first time Solich has attended a public gathering in Nebraska since he was fired as coach 15 years ago.

The evening will be one of goodwill, perspective and perhaps forgiveness on Solich’s part.

It will bring back some memories, including one I wish I could forget.

The night of the Flip-Flop.

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It was a night like no other in Nebraska, a night when you remember where you were when you heard the news.

This was Saturday, Nov. 29, 2003. I had just had dinner in the Old Market and was heading home. I turned on the radio. And there it was.

“There are reports out of Lincoln that Nebraska football coach Frank Solich has been fired ...”

This was really happening.

There had been rumors for a month. There was a published report that said it would happen. And after Solich won his final game 31-22 at Colorado, Athletic Director Steve Pederson was nowhere to be found. That’s a sign.

And yet, the way Nebraska rallied amid all the speculation and played well to give Solich a ninth win, you wondered if that might be enough to save Solich. There had been three bad games that year, but maybe Solich’s revamped staff deserved that chance.

After an emotional win, that’s exactly what I wrote in the Folsom Field press box.

By the next afternoon, there was no news. Perhaps Solich was safe.

Then it happened. What a surreal night. By midnight, Nebraska assistant coaches were still giving live interviews on local radio, emotional and confused.

I could show them confused.

On the same trusty laptop I had used in Boulder, I wrote that this was probably the best outcome for Nebraska football.

For years, I couldn’t explain it. I got too caught up in the emotions at Colorado, I said. I took more than my share of guff for being the “flip-flop guy.” I earned it. I owned it. I wore it.

But now, 15 years later, things make a lot more sense to me.

Those back-to-back columns represented the Solich decision. It was extremely tough. And complicated.

Maybe you disagree. Maybe you were a Solich supporter who said back then that this would haunt Nebraska, that 58-19 with a Big 12 championship and an annual bowl game was up to par and that his new staff needed time.

Maybe you were in the camp that said six years were enough, that there was another level to attain, that recruiting needed a boost and that it was time for a new approach.

The truth is, both camps existed. But the only opinion that mattered belonged to Pederson, who was going to follow his flawed vision.

There was no way to know that this would lead to a bumbling search, reportedly starting with former NFL assistant Al Saunders and ending with former NFL head coach Bill Callahan. No way to guess the years of upside-down history that lay ahead.

Wouldn’t the national titles keep running off the assembly line? Wouldn’t assistant coaches go forever? Wouldn’t every great coach in the country want this job?

I was certainly as naive as anyone. And maybe you had it all figured out. But there was no way to really know any of that until you went through it. Nebraska was a version of Camelot, where coaches came in succession and great players and winning came with a sense of entitlement.

Solich knew how all this worked. What he didn’t know was how to be a head coach, organize his staff and take a big-picture look at the program.

He did the job the way he had played and served as an assistant coach in Lincoln, with toughness and a set jaw. But he had a staff that was getting long in the tooth, the Big 12 North was getting better and balanced, and the league had changed the way you could recruit and, more importantly, how Nebraska could recruit.

All this was going on while Solich was following a legend. And here’s what time has taught us: Osborne couldn’t be replaced because he was that good. This is something Kansas State must wrestle with now and Alabama must face when Nick Saban eventually walks away.

Osborne said he never insisted that Solich keep the staff together, but all that winning implied that it wasn’t a bad idea. Solich could have hired younger recruiters earlier, brought in a Bo Pelini for the defense sooner.

But the man still won 58 games and a Big 12 title in six years and played for a national championship. I’ll always wonder if that BCS computer did Solich wrong, that if he had gone to play Illinois in the Sugar Bowl or Washington in the Holiday Bowl, the image of the program would have been different than suffering back-to-back blowouts to Colorado and Miami.

Or, if he had just gotten one more year with that staff.

We’ll never know. What’s important to know is that Solich took a job that in many ways was thankless. And now it’s time to thank him for it.

He handled everything with so much class, which was typical of him. Not once did he lash out or express bitterness. Solich could always take a hit and keep running. That’s just what he did.

What a wonderful career he’s had at Ohio University: 106 wins and 10 bowl games in 14 seasons. He did more than bounce back. Solich became a legend in Athens, Ohio, and did it with grace and determination.

His place in Nebraska football history is secure, too. Not just as Bob Devaney’s fullback or Osborne’s right-hand man, but as his own man. Solich led a smooth transition after Osborne. It wasn’t great, but it was good. Really good.

Certainly, a lot of Husker fans would have taken some of those records over the last 15 years.

There’s some symmetry in Solich getting the Osborne Award, partially at Osborne’s request. The timing is right. The good vibes are going with Frost, and there’s been a return to how Nebraska used to do things.

You know, back when Solich was in charge.

History reminded us that there is a Nebraska Way, and it does work. Recruiting matters, but so do development, walk-ons and recruiting to fit. Physical play. All that.

These are things that you don’t appreciate until they’re gone. And that goes for the coach, too. There’s a sad irony there.

Not this week. It’s a celebration. Welcome home, Frank. It’s time to honor and recognize what he meant. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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