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A lot to live up to

Frank Solich knows he may need a national title to come out of the shadow of Nebraska legends.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 30, 2001

LOS ANGELES -- On a crisp, cold winter day in the nation's heartland, the shadows can loom large.

It's a situation Nebraska coach Frank Solich knows well.

A week before the biggest game of his coaching career, a national championship game meeting with undefeated Miami in the Rose Bowl, Solich is living with a shadow of legendary proportions looming in the distance.

A 1966 Nebraska graduate, Solich became head coach in 1998 after 19 seasons as an assistant when Tom Osborne retired after guiding the Cornhuskers to three national championships in his last four seasons. Osborne was so beloved in Nebraska, the voters have sent him to Congress.

All that success, those years of bowl appearances, 10-win seasons and national title contention, left his successor in an unenviable situation. Win, and you are doing exactly what you are expected to. Lose, and those red shirts that fill Memorial Stadium on fall Saturdays in Lincoln will be out for blood.

Then again, winning alone isn't enough for many Nebraska faithful either.

"No question that is the case," Solich said. "A winning season doesn't satisfy a lot of people ... and championships are what football is all about, they're what all the fans and all the coaches want. But our fans have certainly been given the opportunity to be a part of it so many times that they want more."

That's why in many small towns on the plains, the jury remains out as to whether Solich is a worthy replacement for the revered Osborne.

That's why beating the Hurricanes may mean even more to Solich than his players, especially with the Cornhuskers backing into the title game after getting run over by Colorado 62-36 to cap the regular season.

"Everybody has so much confidence in Coach Solich and how far he's come, and the way we're playing right now," Nebraska tight end Tracey Wistrom said. "But sometimes you do have to win a game like a national championship to get out of the shadows of (someone like) Coach Osborne. Hopefully we can do that for him with this game."

It's not as if Solich hasn't been successful. He's 42-8 since taking the helm, and his .840 winning percentage would rank first in the nation among active coaches (he hasn't coached the requisite five years).

As for Solich's critics, a 9-4 first season didn't quell the Osborne faithful. The injuries that plagued his first team didn't appear to matter, nor the fact that many of the Huskers' best players had moved on. It certainly was a rocky start.

As Wistrom put it, "You play in Lincoln, people don't tolerate 9-4 seasons."

Solich's second team went 12-1, won the Big 12 championship and finished No. 3 nationally. With 31 wins his first three seasons, Solich bettered the marks set by Osborne and fellow Hall of Fame coach Bob Devaney, who had 28.

"What he (Osborne) accomplished in his years here was remarkable," Solich said. "He basically has put the expectations to a point where virtually every year people feel we should step on the field and win a national championship."

The only thing missing is that elusive ring, which conference rival Oklahoma walked away with a year ago.

"Somebody told me people don't realize what a hard job you had to do here," said Miami coach Larry Coker, who has had a honeymoon with his fans by going unbeaten in his first season. "Sometimes it's harder to maintain than to get there. That's what Frank has done. I think what he's done to keep their program at a high level is outstanding."

It's not as if Osborne (or Devaney, for that matter) had immediate success. For a time, Osborne was known as a great coach who could win everything but a national title.

"When Coach Osborne first took over for Devaney, he had that same shadow to deal with," Nebraska tackle Dave Volk said. "It took him a long time to get to a national championship, 10 or 11 years to get to one and how many more to win one. And everyone was looking for his head."

That breakthrough came, solidifying Osborne's reputation.

Solich knew what he was walking into, what was lurking in the shadows, and he has no regrets. As a matter of fact, he's quite comfortable where he is. He's certainly not afraid of shadows, even inviting Osborne out for the week's festivities and the game. (Osborne can't attend because of commitments.)

"I guess I would feel the pressure if I took the program over and the program faltered and was slipping. But I don't see signs of that," Solich said. "We're in the national championship game ... we've been able to maintain a great program.

"I don't see my name being beside Tom or Bob's name at this point in time. ... What I hope to do is just keep the great tradition alive that they have built."

Maybe if he does, someday another coach will be talking about Solich's shadow in Lincoln.

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