Nebraska coach goes for first title in his fourth season

Monday, December 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) _ Frank Solich doesn't put himself in the same coaching company as Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne. One victory can change that.

Solich has a chance to lead Nebraska to a national title quicker than his Hall of Fame predecessors.

All Solich's Cornhuskers have to do is beat No. 1 Miami in the Rose Bowl on Thursday night to claim at least a share of the national championship.

``I don't see my name being beside Tom's or Bob's name at this point,'' Solich said. ``And I don't foresee it ever happening. What I hope to do is just keep the great tradition alive that they built.''

Devaney won two titles, in 1970 and 1971, and Osborne won in 1994 and 1995, with a co-championship in 1997. Michigan was the AP national champion in '97.

Devaney needed nine seasons to win his first title, Osborne waited 22 years. Solich can do it in four.

``There's a fine line between being in the national championship game and having a great football team and not being in a national championship game,'' Solich said. ``I don't get too caught up in it.''

If Nebraska wins, it's likely the Huskers will split the title with the Fiesta Bowl winner, No. 2 Oregon or No. 3 Colorado. It also would elevate Solich to the same level as Devaney and Osborne.

Solich says Nebraska's tradition, an experienced staff and dedicated players are the foundation for the Huskers' success. His players, including Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, give Solich more credit than he'll take.

``We know how hard it is to try to fill coach Osborne's shoes, how hard it is to take over this program,'' Crouch said. ``I don't think anyone could have done a better job than coach Solich. We want to win a championship for him, for the program.''

Solich is humble, especially when speaking of Devaney and Osborne. Solich was a fullback in the 1960s under Devaney and an assistant under Osborne for 19 years.

Devaney took over a losing program in 1962, turned it around in his first season and won the first of back-to-back national titles in 1970. Osborne took over when Devaney retired after the 1972 season and after a few close calls (31-30 to Miami in the '84 Orange Bowl), finally won a title in 1994 when Nebraska beat Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl.

Solich took over a well-stocked program and kept it among college football's elite. Only nine players in the starting lineup signed under Osborne.

``The thing that's helped us here is we've got great tradition, our staff has stayed together and our players believe in our system,'' said Solich, who has 42-8 record.

``You get talented guys and they operate together like this group has, you have a chance to maybe get to a game like this. It means an awful lot to me.''

Considering the way his coaching career began, a national title under Solich didn't seem likely.

Nebraska went 8-4 in Solich's first season, one filled with key injuries. Injuries or not, the Huskers' worst finish in 30 years didn't sit well with fans.

Solich silenced some critics in 1999 when Nebraska went 12-1 and won the Big 12 title, but didn't get a chance at the national crown because Florida State and Virginia Tech were undefeated.

Last year, Nebraska went 10-2, and the fans were getting restless again.

But after Nebraska won its first 11 games and advanced into the Rose Bowl despite a 62-36 loss to Colorado, even Solich's harshest critics don't have much to complain about.

``He's relaxed quite a bit,'' Crouch said, ``and obviously after four years of experience he's able to feel more comfortable with the head set on on the sideline being the head coach.''

Solich prefers to avoid talk about the future.

``I will not zero in on anything said about me _ negative or positive _ because there's always the next game and there's always the next year,'' he said.

``You just keep working at things so that, hopefully, that you give yourself and your team the best chance to win in the future. You don't do that by beating yourself up because of negative press or negative comments.

``And you don't give yourself much of a chance if you're patting yourself on the back too much.''

Part of Solich's thick skin is inherent as the son of a former coal miner and autoworker, but he also learned a lot under the stoic Osborne.

``Tom has always been a guy that's never been influenced by what's coming at him from the outside, and I hope that that has rubbed off on me,'' Solich said. ``You'd better believe in what you're doing and not let other people convince you that they know what you should be doing.''

This season has been a trying one.

Solich's father, Frank Sr., died in August, the night before Nebraska played Troy State in Lincoln. The coach was on the sideline the next day as the Huskers won 42-14. Memorial services weren't held until after Nebraska's win over Notre Dame the following weekend.

``It would have been hard to play a game if he wasn't there. I think it really says a lot about his commitment to this program and his commitment to his football team and his players,'' Crouch said. ``That rubs off. The players see that and they want to put this team No. 1. That shows. It showed this year.''