By Alex Kirshner
Steven Branscombe / Getty Images
On Sunday, Nebraska made Scott Frost a cautionary tale in college football coaching — the best proof yet that, no matter how spotless a hire might look, it can still flame out in spectacular fashion. That morning, athletic director Trev Alberts fired Frost at a cost of $15 million, viewing Frost’s exit as so urgent that it was not worth it to wait until Oct. 1 and save about $7 million. The night before, Frost’s Cornhuskers had lost to Georgia Southern, a Sun Belt opponent coming off a 3-9 year. That dropped the Huskers to 1-2 on the year and 16-31 in Frost’s four seasons and change. Less than a month ago, Frost looked poised to save his job by merely making a bowl in 2022, something he had not done in his first four years. With that possibility fading, the school did not waste time.
Frost’s ouster began to look likely after a season-opening loss to Northwestern in Ireland on Aug. 27. So in the short term, Sunday’s news was not surprising. But in the long sweep, it is shocking that Frost has so little (aside from buyout money) to show for his Nebraska tenure. On paper, Frost was the perfect coaching hire when the Huskers signed him away from Central Florida after the 2017 season. He had just completed a rapid turnaround of the Knights, who went from 0-12 the year before his arrival to 13-0 in his second year. Frost would be 43 in his first season in Lincoln, smack in the prime of his career. As a Nebraska native and a star quarterback for the Huskers in the mid-1990s under Tom Osborne, he knew the lay of the land. He could not have been a more desirable candidate.
Then it just did not work, at all, even for a short time.
Frost’s undoing was a parade of unforced errors. As The Athletic’s Mitch Sherman detailed well, Frost was frequently tactless in dealing with his own players, his coaching staff, his bosses and the media that covered the team. (Examples in just the last month included bragging about players vomiting at practice before walking it back, and raising reasonable questions about whether he trusted an offensive coordinator he had just hired.) Frost also had bad luck, which he compounded with strategic blunders in both game management and organizational structure. In the end, his time as the Huskers’ head man became a comprehensive study in the many different ways a coach can break bad.
Paradoxically, the closest Frost came to sustained success at Nebraska was in a season he finished with a 3-9 record. The reason for the disconnect lies in tight margins. In 2021, the Huskers had a pretty good team; the SP+ projection system ranked them 37th, and the Football Power Index had them 29th. But their games were almost always close, and when they were, Nebraska lost them — every single time. The Huskers went 0-8 in games decided by one possession. They lost another by just 9 points to Ohio State, one of the best teams in the country. Nebraska was, in theory, 65 points away from an unbeaten season.
But if some bounces didn’t go Frost’s way, he created plenty of misfortune of his own. After a season-opening 30-22 loss to Illinois in 2021, he said the Illini had come out in a defensive front that Nebraska “just hadn’t had many reps with” on tape or in practice, and so the Huskers simply threw out “half of our game plan.” In a harrowingly similar season-opening loss to the Big Ten’s other Illinoisian team this year, Frost took an unneeded risk and paid for it. The Huskers led Northwestern by 11 in the third quarter when Nebraska failed on a kill-shot onside kick attempt, setting up a short field that paved the way for Northwestern to start a comeback and win the game, 31-28.
The onside kick only scratched the surface of one of Nebraska’s defining problems during Frost’s run: special teams. The Huskers were reliably horrendous in this phase of the game, in ways that suggested shortcomings of preparation. In the 2021 Illinois loss, Husker punt returner Cam Taylor-Britt caught a punt at his own 1-yard line rather than letting it fall for a likely touchback, then slipped on the goal line and threw the ball out of his own end zone for a safety. Later that season, Nebraska led No. 20 Michigan State by a touchdown with four minutes to play. The Huskers punted, and more or less their entire downfield coverage unit fell for a dupe and ran to cover a returner who was nowhere near the ball. The man who was near the ball strolled 62 yards for the easiest touchdown of his life. Nebraska lost in overtime.
All told, Nebraska was 129th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in expected points added on special teams during Frost’s tenure. And yet, Frost did not hire a dedicated special teams coordinator until this past offseason. By contrast, rival Iowa led the nation in special teams EPA during this period behind highly regarded coordinator LeVar Woods.
The Husker defense posed its own issues. Nebraska made halting progress on that side of the ball over Frost’s first four years, moving up and down but climbing from 95th in defensive EPA per game in 2018 to 39th in 2021. But they are 114th so far in 2022, and the main problem has been Georgia Southern. The Eagles, in their first month of games amid a generational offensive scheme change under new coach Clay Helton, teed off on the Nebraska defense. The Eagles didn’t just score 45 points; they carved up the Huskers with astonishing ease. They averaged 61.1 yards per drive, the most of any FBS team last week, including those playing against Football Championship Subdivision opponents. Nebraska’s offense was almost as dominant in averaging 50.5 yards per drive, but 42 points weren’t enough to win.
The offense had its share of problems during Frost’s time in charge, too. The quarterback for most of the Frost era was Adrian Martinez, who got to Lincoln when Frost did and started four consecutive years before transferring before this season to Kansas State. Martinez was 85th in FBS in ESPN’s Total QBR during those years (among QBs who threw at least 20 passes per team game). He could not — or Nebraska would not let him — make downfield passes, as his 8-yard average target depth ranked 156th. Frost never developed a QB who could elevate the offense on his own. In 2018, Frost casually asked a reporter if he thought Joe Burrow, then transferring from Ohio State, was “better than what we got.” Nebraska did not offer the eager Burrow a scholarship, and he went on to lead LSU to a national championship with one of the greatest passing seasons in college history. The Huskers had a few excellent offensive skill players under Frost. But arguably the best two, receivers JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson, transferred out — Spielman to TCU in 2020, Robinson to Kentucky in 2021.
Frost coached in the shadow of history. His former coach, Osborne, and Osborne’s predecessor Bob Devaney spent the back half of the 20th century building Nebraska into a war machine, cultivating advantages in its facilities, strength training, offensive scheme (a devastating option attack) and walk-on program. From 1969 to 2001, Nebraska’s 339-62-5 record was miles clear of anyone else in the sport. The program won five national titles, and Frost was a part of the last one in 1997. Myriad changes to the sport have since knocked Nebraska far out of the game’s top echelon, and factions of Nebraska fans have been left to debate whether the program should strive for its old highs or merely hope to be respectable.
Whatever conclusion Nebraska might reach about its goals, though, Frost fell way short. No team that played his Huskers more than once had a losing record against them. Every team in the Big Ten West was at least .500 against Frost, and only Illinois (at 2-2) did not have a winning record against the Frost Huskers. In the end, the school did not fire Frost because he could not match the Nebraska of 1970 or 1995. It fired him because, despite his alumni pedigree and previous success, he could not match the Purdue, Minnesota, or Northwestern of 2022.
Alex Kirshner is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Slate, The Ringer, VICE and SB Nation, and he co-hosts the podcast Split Zone Duo. @alex_kirshner
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