SportsMonday Column: The ties that bind Scott Frost and Jim Harbaugh
Scott Frost sat down at the podium, adjusted the microphones in front of him and looked at the reporters waiting for an explanation of how his Nebraska football team had just lost by 46 points at Michigan Stadium.
Frost played with the collar of his red sweatshirt as he listened to the first question. Then he began to speak — bluntly, and truthfully.
“I told them, I honestly believe this is going to be the bottom, right here,” Frost said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been a part of a game like that, but we got beat in every phase.”
He paused for a couple seconds, and then continued.
“We’re really going to find out who loves football and who loves each other and who’s going to band together.”
As sobering of a message as any.
Put yourself in Frost’s shoes for a second. When the 43-year-old coach — widely touted as one of the brightest young minds in all of college football — decided to come home to the school he quarterbacked to a national championship, he surely could not have expected his return to have played out like this.
His athletic director, Bill Moos, couldn’t have either. In April, Moos said better days were ahead for the Cornhuskers. Then he said, “You’ve got Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh thinking, ‘We better put a little more into that Nebraska game coming up.’ And that’s the way we want it. They’re running a little bit scared right now. And they won’t admit it. We’ll leave that at that.”
But if Saturday afternoon’s beatdown was the low point, then Nebraska has been on a collision course with rock bottom for quite some time now.
On Jan. 30, almost two months after his hiring, Frost stood in front of reporters and took responsibility for the hospitalization of two of his new players, who had suffered from rhabdomyolysis.
When the season started, the team’s opener against Akron was cancelled due to a weather-related delay, erasing a seemingly easy opportunity to start a new era on the right foot.
Then the Cornhuskers played Colorado, and lost when freshman phenom Adrian Martinez, the only scholarship quarterback on the roster, left the game with a knee injury. The next week, Nebraska lost to Troy of the Sun Belt conference. That brings us to Saturday, when the Cornhuskers played one of the programs they hope to eventually emulate. Of course, Brady Hoke left Jim Harbaugh a roster littered with highly-rated recruits. Mike Riley left Scott Frost a roster.
Still, Michigan, Ohio State and even Wisconsin, are all farther in the distance than ever. Frost would have to squint to find them on the horizon.
Which brings us to the concept of the hometown hero, and why this is going to be so difficult for Frost going forward.
Everyone loves a hometown hero. They grew up alongside you, part of the history of your village, town or city. The place that you call home — they did, too, and this is where they found their first success, success that you shared, took part in and still remember, even if it was decades ago.
At some point, they might’ve left, to chase a Super Bowl or to win a national championship at Central Florida. You watched them, adoringly, rooting for them to do well, secretly hoping that they still think of home, still want to come home.
And when things do go wrong at home, the residents don’t pine for the Oregon State coach with a west-coast offense, or the West Virginia coach with his fancy spread offense.
Everyone in Lincoln had been waiting for the return of the prodigal son, the quarterback who cut his chops under the greatest coach in school history, just like everyone in Ann Arbor had been waiting for the return of their prodigal son, the quarterback who cut his chops under the greatest coach in school history.
The return seems like the most difficult step — convincing the hometown hero that his old school is worth rescuing, in comparison to some moribund NFL franchise, or some other Power 5 school in need of a boost.
Scott Frost and Jim Harbaugh both did return. And when they did, because of their past, because of what they did when they left home, because of everything they meant to their schools, no one expected failure. No one expected a loss to Troy. No one expected losing to Ohio State, year after year.
This past Tuesday, Harbaugh was asked if coaching at his alma mater was different than his previous jobs.
He thought about it, and then answered the way everyone knew he would.
“Yeah. Yes,” Harbaugh said. “I would say it is. It’s heightened.”
These are the ties that bind Frost and Harbaugh, two men who have unenviable tasks ahead of them. Both coaches are home now. To many, getting here might have seemed like the most difficult step. But as Scott Frost — and maybe Jim Harbaugh — would tell you, the most difficult part is what happens after you come home.