LINCOLN — The invitation went out at 4:39 p.m. Saturday, just 18 hours before the surprise party.
The sender was Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos. The recipients: hundreds of former Husker football players. The subject: “Welcome Home Coach Frost.”
Cliff Dale, 85 years old, got the message and went searching for his 1951 letter jacket. His young friend, 79-year-old Lee Zentic, grabbed his red sweater.
DeMoine Adams, a freshman on the last Nebraska team to win a conference championship, saw the email during the Big Ten championship game. Looks like we’re not going to church, he told his wife.
Rob Zatechka was working out at the gym. Jamel Williams was at his son’s basketball game. Mark Moravec was in a goose blind near Grand Island. Separately, they dropped everything and took off for Memorial Stadium, where together they might feel something new again.
At 11:40 a.m. Sunday, almost 200 men — spread across seven decades of Husker football — gathered in the Osborne Complex lobby and tried to huddle in a corner to avoid ruining the surprise. The crowd was too big, so they filtered into the weight room and waited for the new era.
Scott Frost had no idea they were coming. He turned a corner, stepped into the weight room and walked toward a gentle ovation. Then came the first roars. Frost, dressed like 5 million bucks, threw his fists up and smiled.
“Thanks for coming, boys!” Frost said to cheers. “Let’s get this thing right, huh?”
“I don’t know what to say to you guys other than, ‘Come help me do this.’ We’ve all been watching this for a long time. I want to make it what it was, so I need all your help. All your ideas except when they’re bad.
(The audience roared again.)
“You guys made this place special. I want to get it there again. Let’s get it done. Thanks for coming, man.”
It was the highlight of a monumental day at the old palace, a moment when beating Wisconsin and Ohio State and Alabama didn’t seem so impossible. Behind Frost stood NU administrators, including Moos, who was choking up. Tom Osborne was emotional, too.
Frost’s mentor, more than anyone, recognizes how far the old players had come to be here. Osborne has endured the slow, steady erosion of a powerhouse and its principles.
“This isn’t like 1997 all over again,” Osborne said later. “But some of the chemistry and some of the basics, I think, will be restored. That’s why all those guys were here. They had lived through it at one time and they had experienced it. It’s really hard to explain to somebody. I mean, we can talk to the coaches that have been here recently, but they never did really understand.”
In some ways, Frost is an unlikely vessel for the hopes of old heroes. Remember, some of these same former players scorned him when he left for Stanford in 1993 — and heckled him he returned two years later. He wasn’t Tommie Frazier. He didn’t make winning look easy.
But maybe that’s why they love him, too. Frost earned their affection during the ’97 national championship run — and he’s worked even harder since.
“He’s paid his dues,” Adams said. “To get a group of men to act like cheerleaders, it was just amazing.”
In Frost, they see the wisdom, toughness and “supreme confidence,” as Harry Grimminger described it, they once represented. They see the best of both worlds. The past and the future.
When Nebraska flipped coaches in 2004, ’08 and ‘15, ex-players were excited mostly for the change of scenery, Zatechka said. Like getting a new pair of shoes at Christmas.
“This was the complete opposite," said the former offensive tackle. "All these guys showed up going back literally 60, 70 years of Nebraska history because they’re excited about who was coming. That was the difference.”
Standing in the back of the weight room Sunday morning, soaking up the scene, was a classmate of Zatechka's. A 45-year-old reserve offensive lineman who lives in Chatham, Illinois.
Bryan Pruitt came home Saturday afternoon from his daughter’s basketball game and caught the highlights of Central Florida’s double-overtime win over Memphis. The Illinois state policeman saw Frost celebrating with his players — what a cool guy, he thought. Soon Pruitt saw the news reports and the email from Moos.
“Hey, check this out,” Pruitt told his wife.
“You should go,” she said.
Drive six hours to Lincoln? Pruitt shook it off, but he couldn’t quite let it go. In 1990, he came to Nebraska as a Prop 48 walk-on. He bought in to Osborne’s system. Worked his way up to playing time.
When Pruitt thought of Nebraska, he thought of a walk-on from Stanton named Brady Caskey. Before their senior seasons, Osborne awarded them scholarships for their hard work. A couple days later, he returned and apologized. Something came up; Osborne only had one to give.
That’s when Caskey stepped up: Bryan, he said, I want you to have it. You need it more than I do.
“I’ll never, ever forget that,” Pruitt said. “Who does that? It’s this kid’s lifelong dream to earn a scholarship and he gave it to me. That’s the way Nebraska people are.”
Saturday night at 9:30, Pruitt decided to go for it. He threw a couple shirts in his truck and took off for Lincoln. “I’m either stupid or crazy, I’m not sure.”
At 4:30 a.m., he got a room at Embassy Suites. Seven hours later, he walked up to a man he’d never met, the former quarterback who arrived at Nebraska just days after Pruitt’s last college game, and extended his hand.
Congratulations, he told Scott Frost. Good luck.
Pruitt took an elevator to the press conference and listened to Frost preach about hard work, integrity and a "unity of purpose."
Then Pruitt went downstairs and took a photo of 85-year-old Cliff Dale in front of the letterman’s wall. He looked inside the stadium that will be full again on Sept. 1, 2018. He hit the road for Illinois -- with one small detour.
A Husker can’t go all the way to Lincoln and come home empty-handed, right? So Pruitt walked into Scheel’s in South Lincoln and opened his wallet.
He picked out a miniature helmet for his son. Sweatpants for his daughter. A sweatshirt for his wife. And two T-shirts for himself.
Christmas is coming and red is back in style.
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Chris Kelsay, DE, 1999-02
"He knows how special this place is. Previous coaches were not aware of how special and important Nebraska football is to the state. Having grown up here and played here and seeing what he's done down in Florida in just a couple years, it's pretty exciting the opportunity that awaits him here. Anybody that grew up in Nebraska and played in Nebraska, it means a little bit more to those guys."
Dan Alexander, IB, 1997-2000
"I think it's awesome. He's probably the smartest quarterback I've ever worked with. He definitely knows how to run a team. From a leadership standpoint, from somebody who got in a huddle and made a team around him better, I think he's the best quarterback I worked with. I just know what kind of guy he is, what he can do with a team, what he could bring in as a coach."
Danny Noonan, MG, 1984-86
"I don't see how you couldn't hire Scott to come back. After all the things that have happened the last 20 years ... I don't see how you can't hire Scott. And Nebraska is going to give Scott more rope than anybody else, OK? Obviously we're going to pay him, what he wants for however long he wants. He's a hot commodity now, a huge commodity now, and I think he'll be an outstanding hire."
"Hiring Scott Frost is actually what this program needs. We have lost our identity, toughness, and more importantly our culture. Scott will understand what this place is all about and how hard you have to work to be successful on Saturdays. We were all so fortunate to play for Coach Osborne and his staff. Scott will be a reflection of that and bring his leadership and direction to the program. This is much-needed. Good luck Scott Frost and welcome home!!"
Erik Wiegert, OT, 1989-91
"Scott is six years younger than me so I don't know him personally, but he obviously has a great understanding of the Cornhusker traditions and culture that were so successful for so many years. He seems to have a rare natural ability to motivate and teach young men. I think he'll be very successful. The ex-players I know were all thrilled that he might be coming to Nebraska."
"If he can approach his mentor's level of performance, we'll be great (laughs). It's hard for me to speak for the guys in the '90s who knew him, but I hope they're real excited. I was pretty much a Riley guy until probably the Minnesota game, and then I gave up, but I don't think they realize how bad of shape Bo left us in, both psychologically and otherwise. I'm also of the opinion it will take five, six, seven years if you really want to turn it around. But I'm like everyone else, I hope he's the right guy."
"Obviously it's important to get a former player in here that understands the program, understands what the culture needs to be and understands how special a place Lincoln is and Nebraska is. It's huge. I'm excited again about this football program with him coming in here. I think the energy and the boost of swagger or confidence that he brings is what this program needs. The program is kind of dry right now, not a lot of enthusiasm. It's dead right now and it needs a boost of energy, and I think that's what Scott will bring."
Mickey Joseph, QB, 1988-91
"I think that you're getting somebody who understands the culture, and you got to understand the culture there because it's different than around the nation. It's a great fan base that's really going to support you. The football hasn't been what it's needed to be the last few years, but the fans are still there, and Scott's gonna understand that culture. I can't speak for him, but I'm sure he's got a plan to get it done up there."
"I love seeing Scott Frost be our next head coach for the University of Nebraska. We can get back to our winning ways and tradition. It will be a great opportunity for him and his family."
"If Scott understands that Nebraska is arguably the toughest recruiting sell in college football, if he understands that he's not going to get many four- to five-star athletes — it gets cold here and those fancy-schmancy warm-weather kids struggle when they have to play in temperatures below 40 degrees — and if he understands that he needs to develop two- and three-star athletes into four- and five-star players, things will go well for him."
"Scott Frost represents the University of Nebraska's best hope toward returning its football program to its former greatness. For 40 years, Nebraska was the most consistently successful college football program in the country, and it didn't attain that status by accident. It did several things distinctively: It cultivated a deep walk-on program, it embraced a physical style of play, it maintained high ethical standards and it prized a culture of hard work ... everyday. While there may be others who qualify as top-notch college coaches, Scott Frost has shown that he not only qualifies as a coach, he has shown that he actually embodies the unique qualities that are requisite to success at Nebraska."
Willie Harper, DE, 1970-72
"From coaches that I know who have coached with him, they — and I myself — have nothing but great things to say about him. He's one of the smartest coaches that they've been around. I spoke with him some years ago and I was totally sold and confident with him. He knows both sides of the ball inside and out. He relates to the players, and they all love him as a person. He is a great teacher in the classroom and can demonstrate what he is coaching on the field. This is time for Nebraska to start raising up its own, who know, understand and can breathe Husker culture."
"Scott coming home is awesome. Finally someone that has Nebraska DNA, that obviously knows what we as alumni and Nebraskans need to succeed — work ethic and the right mix of young men. We have to have patience, though, because he has to change the culture back to what we all know and love."
Jerry Murtaugh, LB, 1968-70
"What I think it might mean, not that he can do it, but he's proven himself, he has the record, he knows Nebraska, he's been through all this. So when he does come back, you surround him with great people — meaning a coaching staff — you pay him, you give him a minimum of five years without firing him, and let him do his job. And then we'll go from there."
Jamel Williams, LB, 1994-96
"It's going to help bring back the roots of Nebraska. Even though you can be a great coach, people come in here and don't know the magnitude of how different it is — the hype, what it's all about, how crazy it is — until they leave. When you come in you just think you can handle it or think you may know, but you don't until you're out the door and on the outside looking in. I think somebody coming in here, who knows what's going on, is huge for the program and the state."
"Welcome home, Scott. Congratulations on a great season. All us ex-Huskers are extremely excited. Husker tradition needs a Husker to lead us back to the glory days. Walk-ons, Blackshirts and the greatest fan base in America will help you and your staff get us back to national prominence once again."
"Scott's an ex-ballplayer so people know who he is and maybe he can do something recent coaches haven't been able to do. We're Nebraska, we're used to winning, and right now we're not winning."
Adam Carriker, DE, 2003-06
"Husker Nation, we got our guy. He’s a successful coach, who is also a Nebraska guy that understands what Nebraska is all about. He has what it takes to get the Huskers back on top. It will take time to build this back up the right way and we need to support Scott and his staff along the way. We all have the same goal: To win football games, championships and represent Nebraska as not only a great football program, but as the the great state that it truly is."
Dave Rimington, C, 1979-82
“Very happy about Scott coming home. The future is bright and I’m confident that given time he can take us to places our program hasn’t seen in a long time.”