For one, the greatest grunge acts are dead – literally, in the case of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains are still hanging around, but that way that old bands do where they don’t make interesting new music and coast off their old hits.
For another thing, Nebraska football isn’t a powerhouse. After three national championships and seven conference titles, (including a truly unstoppable team in 1994), they have become like those bands that coast.
Nebraska fired Bo Pelini this week, a coach who won more than two-thirds of his games every year for seven seasons. That kind of success is such that many schools strive for, but it also came with zero conference titles and zero wins of a notable nature. Seven straight 9/10-win seasons is the putting out the late-career album – your fans hold on for more, but can’t ignore the fact you’re coasting. Meanwhile, everyone else kind of shrugs and moves on.
Many have said that Nebraska fans are asking too much, and they might be right. Pelini might be there still if that second comes off the clock against Texas in the Big 12 championship game, or if they even adequately prepare for Wisconsin both this year and in 2012. But the second stayed, and the Badgers run them off the field.
The 90s are gone forever, and so too, most likely, are the years of powerhouse Nebraska. There’s no shame in that. There’s also no shame in expecting more than they got. Wisconsin is playing for its fourth Big Ten title in five years this weekend, and neighbor Missouri is in their fourth conference championship game in eight years. That kind of success is attainable – but only if Nebraska is ready to reinvent themselves.
Fortunately, there’s a grunge legend out there proving that while the 90s are dead, it’s possible for their spirit to live on. That is, of course, Dave Grohl, the greatest rock musician of our generation.
A quick recap of Grohl’s story – he was the drummer for Nirvana. When Cobain died, Grohl took a bunch of music he wrote – music Cobain wasn’t interested in – and mixed an album where he played every instrument. He called his one-man act Foo Fighters. After he got an album deal with that self-titled album, he put a band together and, nearly two decades later, they remain one of the most popular rock bands out there. They’re still headlining arenas and they’re still putting out chart-topping new hits. Dave Grohl remains culturally relevant (HBO special!), even as the 90s, the hayday of grunge, has long gone.
So the question is:
WHAT CAN NEBRASKA LEARN FROM DAVE GROHL?
1) Keep expectations high
The Foo Fighters aren’t a band that coasts. Many bands with the success of the Foo Fighters would rest on their laurels, record easy music, and soak up royalites. While recording their 7th album, Wasting Light, Grohl would have none of that. They recorded their eight studio album in his garage and mixed the album only by hand. Grohl keeps his expectations high, and they were rewarded with two #1 singles on an album for the first time (“Rope” and “Walk”).
Nebraska has proven to have high expectations. You don’t make the move to fire Pelini after his consistent success unless you think you can do better. He was only a couple breaks away from conference titles; who knows if the the pendulum was about to swing his way. Having expectations, however, is half the battle. Actions go further than words, and Nebraska’s actions back up the fact they they want to be a serious contender. Without those actions, you end up like Iowa.
2) Reinvent yourself in a familiar way
Grohl knew it would be stupid to carry on the full grunge sound of Nirvana, but he wasn’t going to make ska or light rock music. He carried the post-grunge sound to the modern world, lifting alternate music out of the 90s. He also wasn’t afraid to show the heavy influence Nirvana had on his music early on.
Nebraska’s identity in the 90s was based on the triple-option and the blackshirts. Those triple-option days are gone, but there’s no reason the option should be forgotten. With the right connections, Nebraska would be a fine place to run a spread option of sorts. You can either run it with smaller, fast linemen, similar to Oregon, or more of a burly, brutal spread, similar to Auburn and Kansas State. The next hire needs to be one with a creative offensive mind that makes Nebraska football fun. As for the defense, it needs a full makeover. The Big Ten doesn’t lack for defensive talent though, so there’s no reason to think that’s not fixable. The right coordinator will do wonders.
3) Manage your brand
Dave Grohl would have been considered a great musician if he just did the work he did with Nirvana and Foo Fighters. He’s much bigger than that though – he’s worked with Puff Daddy, Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails, Zac Brown Band, and Ghost. He’s his own brand outside of Foo Fighters and Nirvana. Foo Fighters also promote their brand through unique tours – their latest album, Sonic Highways, was put together as they traveled across the country. They played surprise concerts, worked with local music legends, and recorded a different song on their new album in each city they visited.
For Nebraska to truly reach its peak, it needs to reestablish itself as the football team of the Plains. The new coach and administration must barge into neighboring states and establish yourself as the team to care about. Make little kids want to care about you. Buy time on TV and radio stations in Kansas City, Denver, Des Moines, Springfield, Sioux Falls, Wichita, and even as far as the Quincy, IL market. You don’t buy the ads to sell tickets – you just buy the ads to promote the idea of Nebraska football. The program goes on a huge marketing kick. It must be about more than the 1.8 million inside of Nebraska. It has to have a good hunk of people in neighboring states caring about it as well. Put the coaching staff on a bus and have travel the plains, promoting the program, Sonic Highways-style. Winning helps, obviously, but you can give it a kick in the pants by making your name known. That cache from the 90s has been lost; time to reestablish it.
I’ll end with what my idea of Nebraska’s dream staff would be. Note: This isn’t likely to happen, I get that, but it’s at least a somewhat realistic dream opportunity.
Head Coach: Scott Frost (currently Oregon OC) – Frost, of course, QB’d the Huskers during the ’97 national championship season. He grew up in Nebraska, was a grad assistant there, and spent three seasons in the Heartland at Kansas State and Northern Iowa before heading out to Oregon. He has six years experience coaching one of the best offenses in the nation, and he does it on a team that gets much better results than their recruiting levels indicate. Frost has been recruiting California well now for several years, and it’s not inconceivable that he can convince a couple skill kids to come to Lincoln a year and fill the rest of the roster with undervalued hogs from around the Plains. Oregon has had two top 10 recruiting classes in the past six years, but also multiple classes in the 20-30 range. It hasn’t slowed them down.
In any case, I’d argue Oregon right now is the best comparison to Nebraska in the 90s. A recognizable, stellar offense that overachieves in comparison to talent level due to the discipline that’s been instilled. Meanwhile, the defense is full of monsters and has actually been the more efficient unit in producing pro players. As Oregon’s defense goes, their season tends to go. So if Frost is an offensive coach with no previous head coaching background, who can Nebraska bring in for the defense who can support Frost through the challenges Nebraska’s fan base will provide?
Defensive Coordinator: Will Muschamp – This is tricky, of course, as we know Auburn will likely pursue Muschamp. If that’s the case, Auburn might be willing to pay Muschamp more than Nebraska would hypothetically pay Frost. It’s worth pursuing though. Muschamp’s defenses have always ranged from very good-to-insanely good, even as his offenses at Florida resembled a sloth swimming in mud. He could provide a support system for Frost. He’d also open back up the Texas pipeline for Nebraska – an area he was very successful at recruiting when he was defensive coordinator for Texas.
It’s a pipe dream, of course, but it’d be fun to see. I don’t know how far Nebraska can make it back. It’s not worth throwing in the towel though. They should aspire to beat Wisconsin and constantly play for at least Big Ten titles. They aren’t wrong to aspire for more.
(thanks for reading this totally dumb analogy guys)