Matt Rhule And The Big Boots To Fill In Nebraska

By Peter Mann

Somehow it all went horribly wrong for Nebraska native Scott Frost, the former player turned Head Coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Now it’s time for New Yorker Matt Rhule to step into the breach and take the reins; and with it, fill the big boots of, primarily, Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne.

Frost’s Cornhuskers, whom he led as coach between 2018 and 2022, saw no honours head to the Memorial Stadium, amassing what would be a losing record of 16-31 (his predecessor, Mike Riley, finished his tenure with a 19-19 split).

Prior to that, the five HCs at the Cornhuskers between 1962 and 2008 all racked up winning records. For Frost, the fact that he played for Big Red himself, as quarterback to Osborne’s all-conquering side, should have put him in good stead. But instead his tenure ended up a painful experience.

A Frosty Departure

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Frost knew the program, the stadium, the Huskers faithful. His playing career in Lincoln will be remembered fondly (1995-97, 18TDs, 2,677 yards, 24-2 record). But playing success doesn’t always equate to coaching success, and even more when you’re in the hot-seat in your hometown.

Frost’s departure would arrive just three games into what was his fifth season at the Cornhuskers’ helm; athletics director Trev Alberts announcing he was making “changes of the leadership of our football program, effectively immediately,” in September 2022.

Despite an impeccable 13-0 record with the UCF Knights the season prior to his unveiling at the Memorial Stadium, Frost’s spell in charge of the Cornhuskers would see them fail to win more than five games in each campaign.

His last outing on the touchline was a narrow 45-42 loss at home to Georgia Southern. It was a reverse which would snap an impressive winning streak of 214 straight victories when registering 35+ points at the Memorial.

It would prove a costly dismissal, financially, to the Cornhuskers program. But ultimately that defeat, and the continual, losing record, would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A Splash Hire

Mickey Joseph, a former quarterback with the Cornhuskers in the late 80s and early 90s – who had enjoyed a lengthy coaching career from 1995 until the present day – stepped into the breach to see out the 2022 campaign as interim head, posting an eventual, 3-6 record. But Nebraska were preparing to make a big splash with their next permanent appointment…

Following a spell in the NFL as head coach of the Carolina Panthers (11-27 record), Matt Rhule was announced as the new leader of the Cornhuskers, the next man in line to return Big Red to their glorious days of old.

Having first acknowledged his predecessor Frost in his announcement speech, Rhule would go on to say that: “Being away from it (coaching), the more you miss the players, the more you miss the locker room and coaching.”

“And then this is Nebraska. This is a team that I grew up not just watching, this is a team that I grew up revering.”

Rhule’s college career saw him turn out for Penn State in the mid-90s as a linebacker. At that time the Huskers were coming to the end of Tom Osborne’s legendary spell at the helm. Osborne and Bob Devaney before him combined for more than 35 years at the Memorial Stadium as they established the epitome of Huskers football. Frank Solich and to some extent Bo Pelini maintained those standards – and with it, the dizzying heights to which the Big Red faithful expected of Frost, and now expects of Rhule.

Winning Tradition

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Frank Solich he was the last to lead the Huskers to any kind of success, winning the 1999 Big 12 Championship, defeating the Texas Longhorns 22-6. He also delivered the Fiesta Bowl  a year later, following a 31-21 victory over Tennessee Volunteers.

It’s now been more than two decades since those heady days ended, but those which came beforehand, they would be a sight to behold for all in Big Red.

Early success in Nebraska came in the 1920s and 1930s, but, following a two decade barren spell between the 1940s and 1950s, the arrival of Bob Devaney – a Michigan native – changed everything, and reversed the direction in which the University of Nebraska’s college football program was headed.

Devaney first tasted success in the Skyline Conference with the Wyoming Cowboys (1957-61), but his tenure in Nebraska (1962-72), would be one that would never witness a losing season in the Big Eight Conference. Between 1963 and 1966, and 1969 and 1972 there would be either a Conference or National Championships attained, with consecutive championships lifted.

Home-Grown Talent

In 1970, Devaney’s side, led by quarterbacks Van Brownson and Jerry Tagge (on rotation throughout the season), posted an 11-0-1 record – also winning the Orange Bowl with a narrow, 17-12 success over the LSU Tigers. Tagge, alongside his defensive end Willie Harper, was named MVP.

Back-to-back successes were especially sweet for Tagge, he being a hometown favourite from Omaha. Playing college football between 1969-72,  Tagge would become a first round draft pick (11th overall) in the 1972 NFL Draft, heading to Dan Devine’s Green Bay Packers.

Tagge, was also be named as a 191 All-American, inducted into the University of Nebraska Hall of Fame, and registered 32 TDs, 5,071 yards. But the team that Devaney built was more than just a quarterback; running back Jeff Kinney and defensive tackle Larry Jacobson were also drafted in ’72, to the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants respectively.

At the Orange Bowl, the Cornhuskers three-peated their Championship success when demolishing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 40-6, on New Years’ Day 1973. Heisman Trophy recipient (and another home-grown favourite) Johnny Rodgers claimed the MVP award – the talent that Devaney amassed during his tenure had no limits.

Tom Osborne - The Greatest To Ever Do It?

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Meanwhile, in Hastings, Nebraska, Devaney’s successor was emerging, in the shape of former San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins quarterback, Tom Osborne.

Osborne would join Devaney’s backroom team in 1964, initially as assistant coach (1964-68), then offensive coordinator (1969-72). Upon Devaney’s resignation and full-time move to athletic director, Osborne took the final step in 1973, going on to hold the position of HC for nearly 25 years – and continuing, even elevating, the success, of his esteemed predecessor.

In total, Osborne’s spell at the University of Nebraska ran for close to fifty years (1964-2013, the early noughties seeing Osborne embarking on a political career). In that span he delivered three National Championships (1994, 1995, and 1997), as well as a dozen Big Eight Championships – including 1981-84, and 1991-95.

Adding to those championship successes was a litany of bowl wins; the Sun Bowl (31-17 over Mississippi State Bulldogs, 1980), Orange Bowl (21-20 against LSU Tigers, 1982), and the Sugar Bowl (28-10 versus LSU Tigers, 1984). There was also one very memorable Orange  Bowl loss, the agonising dance the Cornhuskers had in the 31-30 defeat to the Miami Hurricanes, in what was the fiftieth edition of the Miami showpiece game.

Osborne’s record at the helm in Nebraska has simply never been emulated, in or outside of the Cornhusker State. During his quarter century there his side never posted a losing record, and enjoyed unblemished seasons in 1994 (13-0), 1995 (12-0), and 1997 (13-0). Nebraska racked up a stunning overall record of 255-49-3 during Osborne’s tenure, including an incredible 60-3 record in his final five seasons with the program.

The Standard Is Set

In honour of what Osborne achieved with the Cornhuskers, the field at the Memorial Stadium was named ‘Tom Osborne Field’ in 1998. Osborne was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999, received the Jim Thorpe Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, and was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 2018.

Nebraska’s recent history does not diminish the tradition of winning that was established first by Bob Devaney, taken to unprecedented levels by Tom Osborne, and maintained to some degree by both Frank Solich and Bo Pelini. It is this history that makes Matt Rhule’s job at the Memorial Stadium one of huge undertaking.

It all begins for Rhule and the Cornhuskers on 31 August, Big Red rolling into Minnesota to oppose the Golden Gophers at the Huntington Bank Stadium. This is followed by another road trip just over a week later (August 9) to face Coach Prime at Colorado, before three consecutive home games against Northern Illinois, Louisiana Tech, and Michigan. Nebraska has a legitimate shot to be 3-1 or maybe even 4-0 before Big Red welcomes Big Blue – a real litmus test to where this program is at.

The Cornhuskers close the season with another two rivalries, heading to Madison to face Wisconsin before welcoming Iowa on November 24, in what should be a barn-storming finale. Nebraska has one of the best fanbases in all of college football, but they also have high expectations of their new head coach.

Feature Image Credit: Steven Branscombe/Getty Images