Nebraska struggling with its storied past and uncertain future

LINCOLN, Neb. -- It is a proud Big Ten West program that used to win consecutive national championships, that used to contend every season, that used to fill Memorial Stadium. Its best player just might win the Heisman Trophy. It is a program that can see that level of success only in the rear-view mirror, the distance measured in decades, a team that occupies that unsatisfying niche between mediocrity and relevance.

That would be Minnesota. But for a Nebraska fan, the description hits a little too close to home, which explains the angst and tension that is gripping Husker Nation these days.

Instead, let's talk about that proud Big Ten West program that plays in the grand, old stadium not far from the state capitol. Its players, outfitted in basic red and white, line up and run the ball. You know what they will do, and they know you know, and they do it anyway, which is why they keep winning year after year.

That's Wisconsin. But for a Nebraska fan, that description stirs nostalgia, and envy, and, yes, exasperation.

For the last 30 years of the 20th century, Nebraska football demanded respect. First under Bob Devaney, and then under his top assistant, Tom Osborne, the Huskers won five national championships and 16 conference titles. Osborne retired after the 1997 season, when Nebraska shared No. 1 with Michigan. That's 20 years according to the calendar, and, if you're a Husker fan, several eons ago.

In the two decades since Osborne retired, Nebraska has won one conference championship, in 1999, and no national titles. They pulled out of the Big 12 and moved into the Big Ten, uprooting a century's worth of rivalries. The bottom hasn't fallen out -- in those 20 years there have been only three losing seasons, and the Huskers won at least five games in each of them -- but the top has remained beyond reach.

The question that hovers, from the airwaves of ESPN 590 in Omaha, to the bars in the Haymarket, to the tailgates that stretch nearly a mile from Memorial Stadium, is whether Nebraska will ever climb to the top again. Ever is a long time, and most programs with the tradition and history of the Huskers return to the sport's elite. But when you don't have much homegrown talent, and you're trying to establish yourself in a new conference, nothing is a sure thing.

"I'm concerned," said former Husker All-American Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman winner, "that we might fall so deep into the hole they have to pipe air in to keep us alive."

On the past two Saturday nights, Nebraska lost at home to No. 7 Wisconsin, 38-17, and to No. 9 Ohio State, 56-14. The Huskers are 3-4 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten, and certainly no closer to the top than they have been since head coach Mike Riley arrived in December 2014.

You can pardon a Nebraska fan if he or she feels untethered. The Huskers don't win like they used to, they're not playing the teams that anyone old enough to drink grew up watching them play, and now they have hired a new athletic director, Bill Moos from Washington State. University chancellor Ronnie Green last month fired Shawn Eichorst, a guy who communicated as if he had to pay by the word.

Eichorst spent a lot of money on bureaucracy, and the football program won no more because of it. Green didn't come after Riley, but the sacrifice of Eichorst upon the altar of victory made the message clear enough.

"Oh boy, I think that's been the question for a little while, for sure. It's valid," Riley said.

Riley, 64, has become an inkblot test among Nebraska fans. They all like him and respect him -- not only is Riley considered the nicest coach in college football, but those attributes seemed especially important here, embodied by the recent tourism slogan, "Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice." Riley's predecessor, Bo Pelini, won nine games a year, but his brusque personality whittled away his support over seven seasons.

That's a critical part of this story. Nebraska is not LSU, where fans waited less than half a season to scream for the head of Ed Orgeron. It is not Tennessee, where the Volunteer fans responded to the 41-0 home loss to Georgia by emptying Neyland Stadium long before the game ended.

At one end of the spectrum are the realists, the fans who believe the worst thing the Huskers could do is start over again. Riley, they say, needs time to implement his pro-style system.

"If they fire Mike Riley, we will not be relevant again in my lifetime," said Larry Wheeler, Nebraska '73, from Prescott, Arizona. "We're going to throw away 10 more years, and we've just thrown away almost 20."

The nostalgists want to go back to the road-grading style demonstrated by Osborne's teams.

"I think this is a critical juncture," said Mike Overfelt of Omaha, tailgating on the west side of Memorial Stadium before the Wisconsin game. "They need to do it right this time because time's pretty much run out. The last hire was the wrong hire. ... I'm tired of the experiment. I'm tired of these fancy offenses. I'm done with it."

When Nebraska played Wisconsin, nostalgia wafted through Lincoln like the smell of runzas, those beef-and-cabbage pocket sandwiches for which the state is known. Nebraska picked that weekend to honor the 1997 national champions. The contrast of the appearance of those former players with the performance of the current Huskers served as a none-too-subtle reminder that Nebraska football is not what it used to be.

"That was as good an environment as you're ever going to find," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "I mean, that's a difficult place to play. They were into it. They're trying to help. But if the team you're playing doesn't flinch, that doesn't carry over to wins. ... All that flash and hoopla doesn't do much. You got to go out and do it."

Alvarez is also a former Husker, a linebacker in the late '60s who arrived at Wisconsin as head coach in 1990 and built the Badgers into Huskers North. That may have been the most galling part of Wisconsin's victory.

Nebraska played hard to climb back from a 10-point deficit and tie Wisconsin, 17-17, midway through the third quarter. At that juncture Wisconsin did to Nebraska what Nebraska used to do to any team that showed up at Memorial Stadium. Wisconsin reeled off three consecutive 10-play touchdown drives. The Badgers ran the ball on every snap but two.

"I took a lot of [Osborne's blueprint] up there ... Tom was one of the greatest coaches to ever coach the game," Alvarez said. "And [Osborne's successor] Frank Solich took it and did the same thing. Had them in the national championship, and won nine games the next year when they let him go. But no one since then has used Tom's blueprint."

Riley runs a pro-style offense. Eichorst hired Riley because at Oregon State he had a knack for developing unheralded recruits into All-Americans and NFL-ready skill players, and because he wasn't Pelini (Osborne isn't completely blameless in the fall of Nebraska. He is the athletic director who brought Pelini to Lincoln). Riley is so nice he makes Nebraskans seem churlish.

Riley, who coached most of his career on the West Coast, spent two recruiting cycles figuring out where to deploy his staff. He likes the freshmen on campus, and he is excited about the class he will sign after his season. That is the kind of thinking that depends on a coach getting five years, which may show Riley's age as much as anything.

"I know we're on the right track," Riley said. "I also know it takes time. I learned a lot last year about where we are when we played Ohio State. I know exactly where we are athletically to compete. It gives me a real good vision of where we have to go. It's going to take time, and it's going to take continued effort and growth both in the football and the recruiting. They have to grow together."

The former players feted at the Wisconsin game know what they did to win a national championship. Some of them, like tight end Vershan Jackson and offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, won three.

"I hope he can get it done," Jackson said of Riley. "I can't say that he will or not. ... We been down a long time around here."

Taylor made All-American at center as a junior and at guard as a senior.

"You keep waiting and you keep waiting and you keep waiting," Taylor said. "You don't want to keep churning coaches and styles. But you've got to figure out a formula that works. This is difficult. It just is."

He is asked if he has confidence that Riley can get it done. Taylor sighed.

"Riley's a great guy, a great coach," Taylor said. "That's what you heard coming in. You hear that nationally. You like his philosophy. You like some of that. The difficulty is you had a winning formula and all programs do that are winners. And when you start to stray away from that -- and it's not that you don't want to grow -- but when you don't see [success], and you don't see the development, that's when you start to worry. We all want him to win, because we like him."

It took Osborne 22 seasons to win a national championship, so the Husker fans old enough to remember the 1990s ought to have a memory of how difficult it is to finish No. 1. But he won 10 games a year while Nebraska waited.

Adam McQuillan, a lifelong Nebraskan and Husker fan, counts himself among the realists.

"The majority of the fans here love Mike Riley and want him to succeed," McQuillan said. "The problem is there a lot of other fans that are caught up in the '90s, and they're stuck with Bo Pelini winning nine games. What the hell does winning nine games matter, if those four games you lose are the only four games that mattered, and you lost by 40? I mean, who cares?"

Riley went 93-80 in 14 seasons at Oregon State. The winning percentage of .537 was explained away because of Riley's attributes, particularly the one where he wasn't Pelini. Explain away at will. The bottom line says that after the loss to the Buckeyes, Riley's record at Nebraska is 18-15, a winning percentage of .545.

It is impossible to know what the future holds. One way to identify the nostalgists is that they display an unusual amount of knowledge about No. 22 UCF, coached by Scott Frost, a Nebraska native and the quarterback of the 1997 national champion. If they understand that Frost's offensive style is more Chip Kelly than Osborne, more uptempo spread than option, they haven't let on.

Nebraska now has its new athletic director. Riley and the Huskers have five more games this season, one more in the lengthening streak without championships. Nebraska isn't Minnesota. But it's not Wisconsin, either. These days, Nebraska is just another team in the Big Ten West.