Nebraska's prodigal son returned to rescue the program and return it to its former glory, but for Scott Frost, unlike Jim Harbaugh, it didn't go exactly as planned. Julianne Yoon/Daily. Buy this photo.

Allow me to paint a picture.

You are a fan of a once proud midwestern college football program. Your team had runs of dominance throughout the latter half of the 20th century and won a few national championships in the process. But in the 2000s, you’ve seen your team slowly decline into irrelevancy, watching programs you once dominated pass you by.

Your team fruitlessly hires coach after coach, but each one is unable to re-establish the glory and national attention you so desperately think your program deserves.

But there is one man who you believe can save the team. A former quarterback enshrined in your team’s history who is now working their way up the coaching ranks.

And there’s more good news: the stars have aligned. You’ve fired your mediocre coach at the perfect moment that your former golden boy is looking to make a jump to their dream destination — coaching at their alma mater.

Does that ring a bell?

No, it’s not Michigan. It’s Nebraska.

For all the success the Wolverines have enjoyed under Jim Harbaugh, the Cornhuskers — and the Scott Frost era — epitomize the downside of tabbing the prodigal son as program savior.

Nebraska and Michigan mirror each other in a lot of ways. Both won their last national championship in 1997 when they split the title, the Cornhuskers doing so with Frost under center. But both have slowly lost their standing as pillars of the sport. And the issue both programs have suffered from in their quest to return to relevance is an inability to let go of past standards.

When Frost was hired, he spoke with unbridled optimism about restoring those standards.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work, it’s going to take a lot of dedication from a lot of people,” Frost said on Dec. 3, 2017, at his introductory press conference. “But there is a formula that worked here for a long time, and times have changed a little but some of those things, the same things are going to make this work again.”

But layered within this positive mindset is the issue. Nebraska holds itself to a level that doesn’t reflect where the program is actually at. That’s why, prior to Frost, it fired Mike Riley in 2017 after three years, where he went 6-7, 9-4 and then 4-8. Not great, but it did make two bowl games as consolation. Before that, the Cornhuskers were led by Bo Pelini, who took them to at least nine wins and a bowl game every single year of his steady tenure.

But Nebraska demands excellence. It wants to consistently win the Big Ten West and be at the forefront of college football. 

Did Frost prove to be the coach who could finally accomplish that? Resoundingly no.

The Cornhuskers never mustered a winning record under Frost. He went 16–31 overall with a 10–26 record in Big Ten play, including an 0-14 mark against ranked opponents. The numbers were pitiful, and it was even more surprising because Frost was hired on the heels of an undefeated season at UCF. The reality is, Frost came in with high expectations, but his performance couldn’t meet them.

Sound familiar?

Harbaugh came to Michigan at a time when the program was in the midst of a dark age and faced scrutiny in his attempt to take the Wolverines back to the promised land.

In Harbaugh’s defense, he’s had more success than Frost can claim. Michigan has won double digit games four times in his eight-year tenure, and the Wolverines are well on their way to a fifth — after achieving that mark just once between 2008-2014. Except for the abysmal COVID-19 season where Michigan went 2-4, it has made a bowl every single year including three New Year’s Six bowls.

But like Nebraska, the standard is high and consistently being the second or third best team in the conference — and going winless against Ohio State — just doesn’t cut it.

After failing to meet those expectations year after year and bottoming out in the 2020 season, Harbaugh had one more shot to right the ship. He knew that his brash coaching style and stature as a Michigan Man was no longer enough. He had to adapt.

He cleaned house on his staff and brought in several younger coaches with fresh coaching philosophies. He also shifted the Wolverines’ approach to their rivalry games, choosing to put those matchups on a higher pedestal than the others.

“Well, I’m here before you, enthusiastic and excited as I ever am … to win the championship, to beat Ohio and our rival Michigan State,” Harbaugh said on July 22, 2021. “That’s what we want to do, and we’re going to do it or die trying.”

Harbaugh realized he had to change and ignite a cultural shift that bled through to his entire program. And since that 2020 season, the Wolverines are 21-2.

Harbaugh finally got over the hump of beating the Buckeyes and that win has galvanized the team to new heights. It took longer than expected, but Harbaugh has the Michigan program at the place he and the Wolverine faithful envisioned when he took the job in 2015.

Frost also had an inflection point this offseason. Nebraska went 3-9 in 2021, but astonishingly lost eight of those games by only one possession. So, there was still a belief that the Cornhuskers were close and could finally turn the corner this year in an unsettled Big Ten West.

“We were competitive in every game last year,” Frost said at 2022 Big Ten Media Day. “We had our chances to win. We made a ton of progress as a program from a talent perspective and from a culture perspective. We haven’t gotten where we want it yet.”

Instead, they started 1-2 and Frost was unceremoniously fired after an embarrassing 38-35 loss at home to Georgia Southern — a school they paid $1.4 million to come play them. Nebraska is somehow even more downtrodden than before they hired Frost, an outcome that was nearly impossible to foresee five years ago.

Therein lies the duality, the impossible expectations a program must grapple with when hiring its golden boy. 

Harbaugh’s recent success has put his job security at an all time high. But every season he wasn’t able to perform at that caliber made his seat burn a little hotter. 

On Saturday, Michigan will most likely trounce Nebraska, marching to 10-0 and heading toward an undefeated bout with Ohio State, with the Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff within sight. It’s a game with high stakes, exactly what the Wolverines envisioned when Harbaugh was brought on.

The Cornhuskers will fall to 3-7. They are two rudderless weeks away from engaging in yet another coaching search and a month or so from introducing another coach who will sit at a podium, brimming with optimism about their plan to restore glory to Nebraska.

Maybe they’ll finally hit on a hire. Maybe they’ll realize a coach from outside the family offers a fresh perspective that can revitalize the Cornhuskers. Maybe the expectations will change, from trying to make Nebraska like it was in the ‘90s to just being better than they were under Scott Frost.

Maybe, when Nebraska and Michigan face off again next October, the Cornhuskers will feel a lot differently about their football program.

After all, things can turn around in a hurry. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.