McKewon: Scott Frost’s call for old-school unity, hard work enthralls Husker gathering

Folks laughed at Scott Frost’s jokes, cheered at his confidence and nodded approval as the 42-year-old explained his vision for the Nebraska football program.

LINCOLN — On his first day as Nebraska’s football coach, Scott Frost made a direct, repeated call for unity, to stitch together the torn threads of a once-elite program that used to win conference and national titles.

A rapt audience of current Huskers, ex-teammates, boosters, NU administrators, regents and Husker legend Tom Osborne — whose fourth-quarter phone conversation assisted the return of his national-title winning quarterback — was receptive to that message.

So many wanted to attend that some had to move to a balcony overlooking the Memorial Stadium press conference held by Frost and Athletic Director Bill Moos. Folks laughed at Frost’s jokes, cheered at his confidence and nodded approval as the 42-year-old explained his vision for the program.

Nebraska’s future will draw on the roots of its past.

“This state is ready to see this place return to what it was,” Frost said.

That doesn’t mean Nebraska will win every game, he added.

“But I want this program to be something that the people of this state can get behind and be proud of, that these former players can be a part of and be proud of,” Frost said. “And we all know what goes into that — the guys that played here. It’s toughness, it’s pursuit of excellence, it’s unity.

“Those are the type of things that Nebraska stood for when we all played here and that’s going to happen again.”

NU players, coming off a 4-8 season, heard a similar message in a Sunday morning meeting. Frost, whose plane arrived just after midnight from Florida, assembled the group and told them that they would practice harder and go faster than ever but that they’d also have the most fun of their lives. Frost said he saw “fire” in the eyes of the players; in turn, they saw determination in Frost’s demeanor. Many players visited Frost’s new office after the meeting and later attended his press conference.

“It feels like we’re moving forward,” captain and offensive lineman Jerald Foster said. “We haven’t really done anything yet, but it does feel like at least everyone is on board with Frost and what he’s going to bring to Nebraska.”

“This is exactly what we needed,” running back Devine Ozigbo said.

Frost is a coach other “prestigious” schools wanted, Moos said. Frost, who just completed a perfect 12-0 season at the University of Central Florida, was a hot commodity.

“He was everybody’s first choice, and I got the pick of the litter,” Moos said. “We got the pick of the litter.”

Moos had Frost in mind for more than a month, and first met with him Nov. 17 at a hotel in Philadelphia, where Frost’s team was playing Temple the next day. Frost’s close friend and current Husker Sports Radio broadcaster Matt Davison arranged the meeting. Moos and Frost had a relaxed conversation and, from there, Moos personally backed off as Frost finished his season at UCF. Davison, who will move to a role in the athletic department, was a conduit between the parties.

On Nov. 27, two days after Riley was fired, Frost signed a memorandum of agreement with NU, although he was not hired officially until Saturday.

“I know he’s a special guy,” said Davison, who caught passes from Frost as a Husker. “He has an ability to relate to players and get the most out of them, and he’s brilliant on the X’s and O’s. It’s a really good combination.”

In the background, always available as a resource, was Osborne, who was personally thanked by Frost and Moos. Osborne and Frost talked three times during the process, one conversation coming Friday night, less than 24 hours before Frost was announced as NU’s coach. Even though he’d signed the memorandum of agreement, Frost was torn between UCF and Nebraska. Osborne listened.

“At the end of the conversation, I felt like he was going to do it,” Osborne said.

He did, and he will bring most of his UCF assistants with him. They may constitute almost all of NU’s coaching staff, in fact, and several — including running backs coach Ryan Held and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco — were already busy recruiting Sunday. The salary pool for assistants and a strength coach, Moos said, will be $5 million, which puts NU among the top schools in the Big Ten and all of college football.

“The guys that helped us win there can help us win here and I expect the majority of them to come,” said Frost, who’d like to coach UCF in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Moos is fine with it; NU officials see the game as an extended commercial for Husker football, since UCF’s success is directly tied to Frost’s arrival.

Can he do the same at Nebraska? A seven-year contract — Frost will make $5 million per year — seems to indicate that success doesn’t need to come overnight.

“We will build this football program with solid footings, and if we do stub our toes it is not going to be a house of cards,” said Moos, referring to the avalanche of blowout losses suffered by the Huskers this season.

Frost said he appreciated the “long runway” NU was providing with the length of the contract but said it wasn’t why he made the decision to come to Nebraska.

Ultimately, he picked the Huskers because they were “home.” As Frost walked into North Stadium Sunday morning, he looked up toward the sign that announces Nebraska’s five national titles. Frost had a big hand in the last of those, in 1997, when he quarterbacked the team to a 13-0 record and delivered a fiery post-game speech about Nebraska deserving to get a share of the national title.

Lots of those 1997 teammates — including former Outland Trophy winner Aaron Taylor — were among the ex-Huskers showing up for the big day, surprising Frost in the weight room in a show of support. Moos set up the event.

“My first thought when I walked in was this is unbelievable, and my second thought was most of these guys have been eating too much,” Frost joked.

But that mass gathering, among the other touches of the day — two NU helmets, No. 18 for next season and No. 7 for Frost’s college jersey number served as bookends at Frost’s table — sent the message: The timing was right for Frost’s return. In 2014, when Frost was passed over for the job for Mike Riley, the man Frost just replaced, perhaps it wasn’t. Frost didn’t get a phone call back then and said he was glad he didn’t.

He wouldn’t have had the chance to coach at UCF and build his resume. The Knights have the nation’s highest-scoring offense, and its dizzying array of formations and plays in Saturday’s 62-55 win over Memphis had Moos saying “my heavens” on Sunday. It’s the no-huddle, fast-paced offense Frost learned from his mentor Chip Kelly at Oregon and he gave no sense he’d change one bit of it at Nebraska.

“I’m hoping the Big Ten has to modify their system to us,” Frost said.

The crowd observing the press conference clapped hard at that line. Several in the audience yelped with excitement. Frost’s confidence and directness hadn’t changed, even if Nebraska’s football program, over the years, had.

Frost was busy coaching — at UCF the last two seasons, as an assistant at Oregon for seven years before that — but he noticed, he said. He saw the conflicting passions and finger pointing inside the state and the program. He sensed the apathy of fans. He noticed in-state players going to other schools instead of bleeding for Big Red.

And he intends to alter Nebraska’s downward trajectory with a formula he knows well. He saw it work under Osborne. He said Sunday it will work again.

Nebraska’s past will be its present.

“We’re going to work harder than everybody else — that’s what Nebraska’s about,” Frost said. “We’re going to be a more united team than anybody else — that’s what Nebraska’s about. We’re going to work our tails off in the weight room and be stronger and more physical, and tougher, than other teams, because that’s what Nebraska’s about.

“A lot of these guys will jump on board and do those things. Maybe some won’t, but the ones that will are going to enjoy the ride. We’re going to have a lot of fun and get this place back to where it needs to be.”

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