I need to clear something up. There seems to be some confusion over whether it’s all right to criticize the University of Nebraska football coaching staff now that the team is off to its worst start since 1945. While Scott Frost and company are probably doing some good things to lay a foundation for the future anytime a team begins a season 0-3 and plays beneath its potential, criticism is warranted.
This season looks like it could go up in smoke faster than those Nikes you’re burning in the backyard. Nebraska frequently seems disorganized and listless.
But shhhh, best keep that on the down-low. For many fans and media types too, Frost and his staff are above reproach. Even when players seem ill-prepared and the scheme isn’t working, it’s entirely the fault of Frost’s predecessor Mike “I Left The Cupboard Mostly Bare” Riley.
Supporters say the Huskers don’t need to tweak the offensive game plan or defensive scheme or the personnel; instead what’s needed is to “change the culture” code for “it’s all the old guy’s fault.”
During last week’s record setting blowout loss to Michigan, Nebraska displayed some poor blocking and tackling, inept clock management and unimpressive play calling. Special teams reminded me of the “Three Stooges” episode where Larry kept hitting himself in the head with a hammer. Worse, some of the players looked uninspired and the Huskers faced their biggest halftime deficit ever - 39-0. The FS1 guys in the booth uttered some iteration of “It’s going to take a while to change the culture” so many times I had to mute the volume. I never even resorted to muting when Ed Cunningham was calling games.
I usually only mute when a former game show host is describing a 60-foot Dopey made of flowers during the Tournament of Roses Parade telecast.
Even after this abominable game that could be best compared to the Ox-Bow Incident fans and journalists who were critical of Nebraska’s coach on social media were likely to be cyber-shouted down by a mob. On social media today it’s perfectly OK to attack someone’s politics, religion, sexual orientation or cat but Scott Frost is sacrosanct.
Calling out Riley was a statewide pastime. The criticism of Riley began the day he was hired. Actually, it began the minute he was hired. Riley’s predecessor, Bo Pelini, was trashed not just for his play calling and demeanor but for the way he dressed. (Picture an unmade bed with a ballcap.) Former Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst was compared to the captain of the Titanic and to ex-A.D. Steve Pederson, the latter being the bigger insult.
When Riley lost early in his tenure it was his fault, even though he was playing mostly with players he inherited from Pelini. Now, when prodigal son Frost is in a similar situation, the losses aren’t his fault - they’re Riley’s players so it’s still Riley’s fault. There seems to be a disconnect.
Of course there’s a rich tradition of second guessing coaches in sports, especially football. Criticism and football coaching go together like ham and eggs. Like nineties baseball and juicing. They go together like the U.S. Congress and drunken toga parties. Like Urban Meyer and bail bondsmen. Fans being critical of coaches is ingrained into the fabric of sport.
But criticize this Frost guy and you’re likely to elicit cold stares at best and be ostracized at worst. (Actually, at worst you could be tarred and feathered and thrown off a bridge.) That’s just wrong. There’s a little thing called the First Amendment that gives Americans the right to say almost any dumb, stupid, brain dead thing they wish. (That may not be quite the exact wording of the First Amendment.) Freedom of speech is what makes this country great. That, and the fact that we can quit our jobs tomorrow to spend all day playing with fidget spinners and watching Maury Povich announce the results of paternity tests and the government will send us checks to buy food and pay rent.
If you think the salvos directed Frost’s way are bad I’ve got news for you. Nebraska fans are tame compared to fans of almost any other sports team.
Several years ago I attended a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game on what turned out to be Senior Citizens Day. An elderly man who headed the local chapter of Meals on Wheels was introduced and received a smattering of boos. Imagine the mindset. “They deliver food to shut ins? ...I think I’m against that! Booooo!”
At Oakland Raiders home games angry fans have been known to toss their electronic ankle monitoring bracelets onto the field.
In 2013 an Alabama football fan was sentenced to three years in prison for poisoning trees on the Auburn campus before the big game.
At a University of Colorado football game in Boulder I was once hit with a thrown ice ball while the wasted crowd in my section cheered. Later, they cheered again when Ralphie nearly ran over a cop and took a dump on the sidelines.
Then there are University of Wisconsin home football games at night which strongly resemble Turkish prison riots if the inmates paused to do the Wave and “jump around.”
Conversely, some NU fans still cheer when the opponent runs off the field after a game. Where else do you see that? I can’t think of one place.
And yet I no longer feel comfortable using the phrase “greatest fans in college football.” I don't think it’s valid in an age when a few Nebraska Twitter users devote hours to crafting the perfect meme of Jim Harbaugh eating fecal matter.
Husker fans are still better behaved than most sports fan bases, a bar that’s lowered annually.
Frost can certainly handle some blowback. He came to Lincoln acting cocky. It’s his character to be aloof, even arrogant. He was also trying to instill a much needed shot of confidence into the program, and it worked. Too well. It created unrealistically high expectations for the fan base from the get go.
Expectations grew even loftier when offensive lineman Tanner Farmer said he wanted to win a championship - now. Not just a conference championship but a national championship! In hindsight that’s like the guy who writes the fortune cookie messages for P.F. Chang’s saying he’s hoping for a Pulitzer.
Last December when asked how he was going to adjust his system to the Big Ten Frost said instead he was thinking the Big Ten will have to “modify their system to us.” That type of swagger is normally only seen in professional wrestlers and returning “Jeopardy!” champions.
Because of these high expectations, starting the season so badly (the highlight so far has been the lightning canceled Akron game) felt like a slap to the face with a cold fish.
It’s important to know that Frost wasted no time dissing the previous coaching staff before the season began. When you lambaste the guy who had the job before you and then stumble badly out of the gate you can expect to be called out yourself. Frost understands that. Unlike Pelini he’s not coiled in a defensive cocoon ready to strike at every perceived slight. He appreciates that Nebraska coaches are expected to win big. He knows the grace period for football coaches in Lincoln traditionally lasts three and a half minutes.
Someday Frost will likely have the team back up to standards and the Big Red can talk about winning championships. But not yet and this season’s bad play has occurred on his watch. Yeah, these are mostly Riley recruits, and, yes, it does take time, and true, there is a hangover from the past three years. But Riley is not responsible for a 39-0 halftime score.
After last week’s Annihilation At Ann Arbor Frost mostly blamed his players, which is fine. Blame the players, blame yourself, blame your coaches, the refs, gluten, or maybe say the sun was in your eyes. Just don’t blame the culture.
Frost and his team seem ready to own the bad start. Now will the fans and media let them?