What went wrong at Nebraska? How Scott Frost went from slam dunk to failure with Cornhuskers

Editor's note: Parker Gabriel covered Scott Frost at Nebraska when Frost was hired in December 2017 through the spring of 2022.

Storm clouds gathered around Memorial Stadium, but the casual college football fan wouldn’t have known it early in the evening of Sept. 1, 2018.

The Alan Parsons Project’s "Sirius" blasted and the stadium pulsed as Scott Frost led the Nebraska football team through the famed Tunnel Walk, out of the home locker room, down the north end zone concourse and out the northwest tunnel onto the field for his first game as his alma mater’s head coach.

As Fox moved from its studio show to the game broadcast, play-by-play announcer Tim Brando essentially opened the Frost era by saying, “A generational coach, a perfect time, a perfect moment. The 33rd head coach in the illustrious history of this fine institution.”

The perfect moment lasted only a moment.

All the buzz, all the hype, all the anticipation in the leadup to the return of a native son to the place he won a national title as a quarterback 21 years previous ended in a zap after the opening kickoff, when a ferocious lightning storm moved into the area, continued through the entire night and led to a postponement rather than a celebration.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost leads the team onto the field for his team's game against Akron at Memorial Stadium. The first game of his tenure would be called in the first quarter due to weather.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost leads the team onto the field for his team's game against Akron at Memorial Stadium. The first game of his tenure would be called in the first quarter due to weather.

If ever there was foreshadowing of what lay ahead.

Entering a make-or-break fifth season, it was expected this Saturday's visit from Oklahoma would be the perfect opportunity to turn the tide on a tenure that started with such promise. Instead, Frost never made it to the game. His firing Sunday after a 45-42 home loss to Georgia Southern is a failure that almost nobody saw coming in the autumn of 2018.

Nebraska hometown legend

Frost’s parents were both high school coaches and the family moved several times when he and his brother, Steve, were young. Eventually Scott Frost played his high school ball at Wood River High, 90 miles west of Lincoln, with both his father, Larry, and mother, Carol, serving as coaches.

Long before recruiting became an intensely covered part of college athletics, Frost drew attention. ESPN even went to Wood River in 1992 for a feature on him and his family.

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Frost, though, spurned Nebraska and legendary head coach Tom Osborne and committed to Stanford University, where he spent two seasons before ultimately returning to Lincoln, taking a redshirt season and starting two years for the Huskers in 1996 and 1997. After an 11-2 mark in his first season, Frost and Nebraska reeled off a 13-0 campaign in 1997, blew out Peyton Manning-led Tennessee, 42-17, in the Orange Bowl and earned a share of the national title.

Frost, always a more dynamic runner than passer in Osborne’s option offense, was drafted in the third round of the 1998 draft by the Green Bay Packers as a safety and spent his NFL career as a defensive back and special teams player.

Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost carries the ball past Tenessee defender Al Wilson (27) during second quarter action of the 1998 Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium.
Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost carries the ball past Tenessee defender Al Wilson (27) during second quarter action of the 1998 Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium.

'The pick of the litter'

Frost began his coaching career on the defensive side of the ball at Northern Iowa and even served the 2008 season as co-defensive coordinator before landing the big break that would shape the rest of his coaching career when he was hired as Oregon’s wide receivers coach in 2009. There, he spent four seasons learning Chip Kelly’s offensive system and two more as the offensive coordinator after Kelly left for the NFL and Mark Helfrich took the top job.

Frost then landed the Central Florida head coaching job in 2016 and, after a 6-7 debut season, led the Knights to a 13-0 2017 season that culminated with a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn and the Nebraska job after the school fired Mike Riley, who compiled an 18-18 mark in three seasons.

Frost's hire was widely considered a slam dunk. An offensive innovator returning home to a former power and one of the most iconic brands in college football. Florida made a run at him before hiring Dan Mullen, and Tennessee was among the others to show interest in a wild coaching cycle.

Introducing Frost, then-Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said, "He is not only, in my opinion, the premier young coach in America, but I believe he was everybody's first choice. And I got the pick of the litter."

A rough beginning

Rather than just a blip on the radar, the lightning cancellation against Akron was only the first installment of four years where virtually nothing went the way Frost and his staff hoped or planned it would.

During his introductory news conference, Frost was asked if he needed to adjust his system for the Big Ten and he responded, now famously, “I’m hoping the Big Ten has to modify its system for us.”

Frost made something of a rare move when he got the Nebraska job, bringing his entire full-time coaching staff from UCF along with his chief of staff, the Knights’ strength staff and most of the recruiting department. A full Orlando-to-Lincoln transplant. Many of the coaches and staffers had ties to Nebraska, which Frost believed would help expedite a return to the way things had been done in the Husker heyday.

“I played here, I understand it. I saw the best of this place. I also saw some hard times that maybe other people haven’t,” Frost said in 2017.

The group collectively had a steep learning curve regarding life in the Big Ten. By the end of November 2018, Frost was lamenting that his team didn’t stack up physically in the conference and promising that would change.

In between, the Huskers started Frost’s debut campaign 0-6, including a home loss to Troy and a 99-yard drive by Northwestern in the last of those losses that helped the Wildcats erase a 10-point deficit in the final 2 minutes, 27 seconds of regulation and win in overtime.

So many close losses

In 2018, “almost” didn’t raise alarm bells. But over the course of Frost’s four-plus seasons it became a feature rather than a bug associated with a developing program.

Under Frost, Nebraska played 26 games decided by one possession and lost a whopping 21 of them. A couple of the most notable:

* The Huskers entered Week 2 of the 2019 season ranked No. 25 and then led Colorado, 17-0. But the Cornhuskers allowed 256 fourth-quarter yards in Boulder and lost in overtime.

* Late in 2020, Nebraska lost 24-17 at home to Minnesota despite the Gophers making the trip to Lincoln without 33 players due to COVID-19 protocols.

* Take your pick in 2021, beginning with a lifeless, 30-22 loss at Illinois after which Frost said his side had to throw out half its game plan when the Illini used an even front rather than an odd front. Then, the Huskers blew a touchdown lead against Michigan State despite allowing 15 yards and zero first downs in the second half. NU lost its final six games of the 2021 season, all but one by one possession. Among the most amazing stats: The Huskers scored exactly as many points as their Big Ten opponents (238) and finished 1-8 against them.

* Nebraska dropped this year's season opener against Northwestern in Ireland after twice leading by two scores and drew national attention when Frost decided to try a surprise onside kick midway through the third quarter immediately after taking an 11-point lead.

The end approaching

Not long before the 2021 season started, Nebraska administrators and the Board of Regents essentially fired athletic director Moos – it was called a retirement but came with a more than $3 million payment and Moos telling local newspapers that “apparently” it was the right time for him to leave.

In stepped Trev Alberts, himself a former Nebraska All-America linebacker and top NFL draft pick. He said he wanted to see accountability, discipline and physicality, then watched the Frost-led Huskers go 3-9 and draw modest penalties from the NCAA for improper analyst use during the 2020 season.

Even still, instead of firing Frost he got the coach to agree to restructure his contract, dropping his salary from $5 million to $4 million for the 2022 season and roughly halving the amount owed to Frost in the event he was fired after Oct. 1. Not only that, but Frost fired nearly his entire offensive coaching staff in November.

In the week leading up to that negotiation, his job in the balance and a dynamic Ohio State team coming to Lincoln, Frost told Fox broadcasters in a production meeting that QB Adrian Martinez had been playing through a broken jaw, a revelation Gus Johnson made on national TV after weeks of Martinez and Frost agreeing to not acknowledge the injury at all. Martinez went to extensive lengths — removing stabilizing rubber bands from his mouth before talking to reporters and not even telling his grandparents — to keep the severity concealed.

Martinez, who transferred to Kansas State this offseason, said on a podcast that he “didn’t think it was appropriate” for the injury to be discussed openly and added, “I wasn’t looking for excuses. That’s why it wasn’t put out there, or part of the reason."

Final chapter

When the restructure was agreed to, Alberts acknowledged, “there’s not a lot of empirical data out there to suggest that this will automatically be successful. Let’s be honest.”

Indeed, it was not.

After the Northwestern loss, the Huskers took until the midpoint of the fourth quarter to put away FCS North Dakota before giving up a Memorial Stadium opponent-record 642 yards of offense to Georgia Southern in a 45-42 loss on Sept. 11.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost crouches on the sideline following a touchdown by Georgia Southern during the first half Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost crouches on the sideline following a touchdown by Georgia Southern during the first half Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb.

Frost was fired the next morning, six days before old rival Oklahoma was coming to town and 19 days before his buyout would have dropped by $7.5 million. Alberts decided he couldn’t wait even that long after hoping the entire offseason that NU’s course would change under Frost.

It never did, and now NU will need a major turnaround to avoid a sixth straight losing season or end a bowl drought that extends to a Music City Bowl loss under Riley on Dec. 30, 2016.

That outcome would have been nearly unthinkable when Frost and his team ran onto the field in September 2018, but the storm never let up in Lincoln.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Scott Frost's Nebraska run started as sure thing and ended in firing