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Nebraska coach reaps ideas from Gruden

By HUBERT MIZELL
Published August 17, 2003

This morning, even the silos in Nebraska are slump-shouldered. Proud but embarrassed faces of Cornhuskers fans are now Big Red.

At the stately, heart-of-America university in Lincoln, they had forgotten what it is to feel football poor.

Excellence taken for granted.

Conference championships were the annual expectation. Seasons with 10 or 11 wins were as dependable as harvest sunsets on the state's golden fields of grain.

Huskers glory kept mounting. Forty-one consecutive winning seasons, dating to 1962, when John F. Kennedy faced the Cuban Missile Crisis and the hot, steamy movie was Lolita..

Nebraska had not failed to win at least nine games since 1968. For 348 consecutive weeks, the Huskers ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, a run never approached by a Miami, Florida State or Penn State.

Then, in 2002, mere months after losing a January national championship final to Miami, there came a Big Red calamity, a 7-7 record. Long, heroic streaks melted like Great Plains snows in springtime.

The Huskers had been so good for so long with Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne as coaches, the challenges for Frank Solich were taller than any building in downtown Omaha. This was Ron Zook squared. In 2002, Solich's Big Red crashed.

Generations of Nebraskans had counted on postseason treats, tracking their football darlings to a mighty bowl in Miami or New Orleans or Dallas, but suddenly the Huskers were mediocre and settling for the Louisiana lowlands, losing 27-23 to Ole Miss in the Independence Bowl at Shreveport. It's been an especially long, cold winter in Solich's neighborhood. So lousy was last year's Nebraska defense that the coach ditched three assistants. Frank knows he could be purged with another 7-7 season.

Ravenous for fresh ideas, Nebraska's embattled leader visited the training camp of Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, trying to siphon some of the magic that gushes in the mind of coach Jon Gruden.

"They go into a game with 125 different pass patterns," Solich exclaimed upon his return to Lincoln. You wonder, do the Huskers have 25? "And," he said, "when Gruden is in meetings, or on the practice field, he keeps coming up with more."

These days, it would've been tougher at Nebraska even for Osborne or Devaney, with boyish talent now well spread among the power schools of college football. In the Big 12, the Huskers lag well behind Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State and are scratching to compete with Colorado, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.

Solich told Lincoln Journal Star columnist John Mabry that fresh ideas were gleaned from observing Tampa Bay's goal-line offense. How the world has oscillated, with the old point-scoring kings from Nebraska trying to learn stuff - on offense - from the Buccaneers.

AUGUST STEAMINGS: Loads of Gators followers say, "Ron Zook is no Steve Spurrier," just as a growing multitude of Redskins backers groans, "Spurrier is no Joe Gibbs." ... I'm expecting a telemarketing call that blabs, "Hi, this is Mike Tyson and I'd like to be your financial adviser." ... It's been so quiet, with no loud news lately from Lubbock, Texas, the old hometown of Buddy Holly and new parking place of Bob Knight. ... Anybody know, are the good folks from Ada, Okla., more proud or more infuriated over the doings of local son Jeremy Shockey?

IT HAPPENS: Jan Stephenson receiving an invitation to play in a Champions Tour event is odious evidence of a sponsor using a hot-button political situation just to grab headlines, inviting an aging glamor golfer who is now far, far from competitive in her own LPGA league. ... If you're a NASCAR disciple, tell me how Kyle Petty, who has a really special surname, manages to keep making Winston Cup fields while, my Sunday eyeballs tell me, he never seems to finish better than the bottom five? ... Being in the Lake Placid arena, witnessing the greatest sports upset ever, with evolving "Miracle on Ice" ramifications, which would mean so much to so many, it hits hard 23 years later to hear U.S. coach Herb Brooks died alone on a Minnesota highway.

Whatever happened to Andre Ware?

[Last modified August 17, 2003, 01:32:33]


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