Blair Kerkhoff

No quick fix for Nebraska, nor was it once for mighty Nick Saban in a debut season

Guess the coach who in his first year in the program said this after his team suffered a blowout loss.

“I don’t know who we’re going to play or what we’re going to play with, but I’m not going to play with people that won’t try as hard as they can, won’t play with toughness and won’t play responsible football.”

It sounded little like Nebraska’s Scott Frost after Saturday’s 56-10 loss at Michigan. The outcome wasn’t a stunner — the Wolverines were heavily favored — but the ease of the triumph was shocking. Michigan led 46-0 before the Cornhuskers scratched out a field goal.

The mystery man is Nick Saban, who expressed his frustration after his debut as head coach at Michigan State ended in a 50-10 home loss to Nebraska in 1995. Frost was in the Cornhuskers program that year, sitting out as a transfer and watching the team roll to a national title.

Here’s part of Frost’s postgame comments from Saturday:

“I told them I honestly believe this is going to be the bottom right here. I don’t know how many times I’ve been a part of a game like that. But we got beat in every phase. We’re really going to find out who loves football and who loves each other, and who’s going to band together.”

Every season, a handful or programs deliver hope to a fan base with a coaching change, and few in recent years brought more excitement than Frost returning to his alma mater. But the team’s 0-3 start is a painful reminder of why change was required and an indication of a sagging talent base.

Nebraska doesn’t stand alone in disappointing starts with coaches in their first year in the program. Chip Kelly and UCLA also stand winless. Willie Taggart and Florida State have dropped their first two ACC games.

Chad Morris’ 1-3 start at Arkansas includes a lopsided loss to North Texas, and Tennessee under Jeremy Pruitt has been outscored by a combined 52 points against the best two teams it has played.

More than two decades ago, it was Saban, who spent one season at Toledo and a few in the NFL before returning to college.

I asked Saban about his Spartans debut the morning after his Alabama Crimson Tide had routed Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. The title was Alabama’s third in four years, matching the Cornhuskers’ stretch from 1994-97.

The memory seemed to send a shiver through Saban.

“What I remember about it, I was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick, and the first game we have with me at Michigan State was against Nebraska, and they beat us 55-14 (actually 50-10),” Saban said. “And the score didn’t indicate how bad they beat us.

“And I’m thinking that I hadn’t been a college coach in four or five years because I was in the NFL, and we’re never going to win a game. We’ll never win a game at Michigan State. I must have taken a bad job, wrong job, no players.”

The first seasons of Saban and Frost have already unfolded differently. Michigan State won the next week and went on to a bowl game. Those Spartans were led by future NFL quarterback Tony Banks and All-Pro wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.

And, although unknown at the time, Michigan State was being coached by one who would become one of the, if not the greatest in the game’s history with six national championships.

Stocking Nebraska’s roster and depth chart will take time. The hope heading into this season was for Frost to work some the magic that elevated Central Florida to an undefeated season in 2017 and get the program into the postseason.

That prospect appears increasingly unlikely, and victory opportunities appear few outside of the recently added Bethune-Cookman to replace the washed out Akron opener.

No quick fix for the Huskers, and in college football that’s more the rule than the exception.

Blair Kerkhoff

Blair Kerkhoff covers the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals and college sports for The Star.

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