Coach Close-Up: “Fearless Frankie,” the Old Nebraska Ball Coach

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College towns love their football coaches, and Ohio Bobcats fans have grown to love their quiet, humble old ball coach for good reasons. Frank Solich has shown Bobcat Football some of its brightest days during his last eight seasons as the head coach and leader of a program that was once the laughing stock of the Mid-American Conference.

Solich has changed the culture of a town and has transformed a party school into a football school, elevating the ‘Cats to national prominence early in the 2012 season when they came from behind to beat Penn State on the road. Solich has won over the people of Athens. But they aren’t the only ones who adore the man they’ve come to know as “Fearless Frankie”.

Long before ever stepping foot in Athens, Coach Solich was a staple in the minds and hearts of Nebraska Football fans everywhere. Having spent nearly 40 years in or around the University of Nebraska football program as both a player and coach, Solich built a reputation that seems to have stood the test of time and distance.  Nearly 50 years later their admiration for Solich is just as strong as ever.

“I was a Cornhusker and I'm still here but I don't get all wound up in the games like I used to,” said longtime Cornhuskers fan and friend of Coach Solich, Roger Douglas. “But I do get wound up and nervous when Frank coaches Ohio.

“I attend all of the University of Nebraska football games and this year when Frank was at Penn State, when Ohio was at Penn State we (were) sitting in the upper press box area. There’s an indoor area where there's large TV's and there were throngs of people around them. They had Franks game on TV,” said Douglas who attended Nebraska with Solich in the ‘60’s and later went on to coach with him at a Lincoln area high school. 

“The Nebraska game was about to start, people didn't even go out there (to their seats). There were hundreds of people in this indoor area, they were watching the finish of Frank's game to see if he was going to win. (When Ohio won) the place went nuts. And these are people at the University of Nebraska football game! They didn't even go out for the national anthem and for the start of the kickoff. They wanted to see how Frank's team was going to do,” Douglas said in awe.

Why is it that in the fickle world of college football, that Nebraska fans continue to support their former coach even almost a decade after he was fired as head coach of the Cornhuskers in 2003?

It all started almost 50 years ago when as player for the Cornhuskers in the early 1960’s Solich played a key role in the teams that elevated Nebraska from football obscurity into a perennial powerhouse. As a 150-pound fullback, Solich was a surprisingly punishing runner under Hall of Fame head coach Bob Devaney and became the first Cornhusker to ever be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on the Sep. 20, 1965 issue.

Many Cornhuskers fans still reminisce about those days when “little Frankie” Solich, as he was fondly referred to in the Oct. 4, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated, punished opposing defenders with his rough running style.

“Solich had been a tremendous asset to the resurgence of the Nebraska program under Bob Devaney in the ‘60's, and (I) still recall listening to his 200 yard rampage at Air Force in '65,” said longtime Cornhuskers fan and season ticket holder G. R. Florine of Omaha via e-mail.

Rushing for 204 yards and three touchdowns to be exact, Solich propelled the No. 2 ranked Huskers to a 27-17 victory over Air Force.

Solich would help lead the Cornhuskers to a 10-1 record that season, their lone loss coming at the hands of Paul “Bear” Bryant and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl. The Tide went on to win their third AP national title in five seasons and Solich would end his career as a Nebraska Football player and transition into a life of high school teaching and coaching.

In 1966 Solich took his first head-coaching job at Holy Name High School in Omaha. After two successful seasons in Omaha, Solich moved on to Lincoln Southeast High School. There he joined up with his old friend Roger Douglas on the coaching staff. Solich worked with his players, building and developing their skills. Within nine seasons the team was a Class A powerhouse, winning back-to-back state championships in 1976 and ‘77.

Solich’s successes in the Nebraska high school coaching ranks caught the attention of University of Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne; in 1978 he came to Solich with an offer.

“We were impressed by the way (Solich) handled players and his ability to win. So I asked him to join my staff as a Grad Assistant,” Tom Osborne, current Nebraska Athletic Director and former head coach of the Cornhuskers, said.

In 1979, Solich joined Osborne’s staff as the head coach of the freshman team—the freshman team was once a common part of Division-I programs.

Solich’s recruiting and player development skills didn’t go unnoticed in the Nebraska Football machine.

“I made him the backfield coach in ‘83,” Osborne said. “He was a very fine recruiter, very well organized. I remember that we sat down and looked at film one time of Mike Rozier and Irving Fryer. Those (two) were great players out of New Jersey and yet they were relatively unknown.”

Solich devoured the game tape noticing the athletic prowess of the two that other coaches seemed to be overlooking.

“So we took both of them,” Osborne said of Solich’s scouting of Rozier and Fryer.

Rozier, a running back, and Fryer, a wide receiver, each developed into All-Americans at Nebraska and went on to have successful professional careers. In fact, during Solich’s 15 seasons as the running backs coach from 1983 until the end of the 1996-97’ season the Cornhuskers led the nation in rushing nine times. A gifted teacher, who worked with players to develop them into stars, Solich had an all-conference running back in 13 of the 15 seasons as running backs coach, including Rozier’s 1983 Heisman Trophy winning season.

Helping Osborne and the Cornhuskers dominate in the ‘90’s, Solich was a member of a coaching staff that saw Nebraska win three national championships, in 1994, 1995 and 1997. He had proven a valuable asset and even better friend to Coach Osborne.

“We had some very good years there in the ‘90's and I was in a position where I could make a recommendation,” Osborne said. “I felt that he (Solich) was the guy that was deserving of taking over.”

So after his third National Championship in 1997 and 25 seasons as head coach, Osborne stepped down and named Solich as his handpicked successor.

“I thought it was a real advantage to continue the continuity and the tradition, with somebody from inside the program,” said Dave Long, a lifetime Cornhuskers fan who currently lives in Indianapolis.

Solich became just the third head coach of the Cornhuskers since Bob Devaney took over in 1962.

“I think it was an extremely tough act to follow,” Long chuckled. “Which I realized. I don't know if everybody else appreciated that. But I think most people were reasonable and realized that Solich needed to get his feet on the ground as a first time head coach.”

In the 35 years under Devaney and Osborne the Cornhuskers won an astonishing 25 conference championships and five National Championships. During Osborne’s tenure Nebraska was ranked in every week of the AP poll except for one week in 1977 and two in 1981.

But this was “Fearless Frankie” taking over, beloved former player, longtime member of the Nebraska coaching staff, if anyone was poised to carry on the previous 35 years of success it was him.

In his second season as head coach, Solich led the Cornhuskers to a 12-1 record in 1999. They finished ranked third overall in the final AP Poll of the season. They followed that season up with a 10-2 record and another top 10 finish in 2000. Heading into the 2001 season expectations were at an all-time high for the Solich-led Cornhuskers.

With senior quarterback Eric Crouch under center, another guy that Solich played a huge role in recruiting and developing, the Cornhuskers were out for a national title. After winning their first 11 games of the season Nebraska rolled into Boulder, Colorado on Nov. 23, 2001 for the Big 12 title game against the 14th ranked Colorado Buffalos.

“Coach Solich had great success, still the only Husker coach to defeat a Texas U team since the inception of the Big 12 and the only coach to win a Big 12 championship since Osborne, until that fateful day against Colorado in '01,” Said G. R. Floraine via e-mail.

On that night, the 2nd ranked Cornhuskers were shocked by Colorado in a 62-36 loss before the entire nation live on ABC. It was the beginning of the end for Solich. They would go on to lose the BCS Championship game against Miami and finish the season 11-2. Despite Eric Crouch’s Heisman Trophy winning season, there was unrest in Lincoln.

After a 7-7 season the following year, Solich shook up his coaching staff. He brought on current Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini to be his defensive coordinator and stepped down as his own offensive coordinator. With a 9-3 record on the season and heading to the Alamo Bowl to face Michigan State, then Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson sent shockwaves through Lincoln.

“It was amazing that he was let go after the 2003 season. I couldn't believe it and I was in total shock when I heard it,” said Osborne when discussing Solich’s firing before the 2003 Alamo Bowl.

“I really have no idea (why Pederson fired Solich). The only conversation I had with Steve Pederson about that matter was after he had already fired Frank. He left a message on my cellphone. Just said he'd fired Frank, of course I was in total disbelief. If he (Pederson) had contacted me before he tried to do it, I hope I could have interjected. But I never did talk to him about his motives; I have no idea why he would do that.”

Despite racking up more wins in his first six seasons than either Devaney or Osborne and winning 75 percent of his games as the head coach of the Cornhuskers, Solich found himself out of a job, something that still hurts Nebraska fans to this day.

“When Frank was fired, I joined Roger Douglas in buying a 1/4 page ad in the Lincoln Journal Star at a cost of $1,600 in support of Frank and as a vote of no confidence for Athletic Director Steve Pederson.  It is hard to replace a legend like Tom Osborne but at nearly 10 wins a year for the first 6 years, Frankie was doing a heck of a job,” said Gary F. Lothrop, DVM, of Lincoln via email.

Dr. Lothrop’s sentiments were not alone amongst the Nebraska fan community.

“(I) had NU season tickets from '65 until '03 and cancelled them when Solich was fired,” added Florine via email.

“That town expects championships. He still had a great season…I guess that still wasn't good enough for them,” said Ohio backup quarterback Derrius Vick, a Lincoln, Neb. native whose father played basketball for the Cornhuskers.

Many fans thought Solich deserved more time after nearly 40 years of loyal service.

“It's kind of unheard of to fire a coach with that kind of record, but it was done,” added Osborne.

Rather than moping “Fearless Frankie” decided to use the newfound time to his advantage, an eternal student of the game, Solich set out on a yearlong road trip around the country to learn from some of the nation’s top college football coaches.

“He wanted to go out and broaden his horizons…so he went to all the successful programs. He went to see Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Mack Brown at Texas and he went to see Pete Carroll, then at USC,” said Douglas.

After a year off of coaching and a wealth of new knowledge Solich was offered the head coaching job at Ohio University, a program that hadn’t won a bowl game since 1968 and hadn’t had a coach with an above .500 winning percentage since Bill Hess left in 1977.

“When the Ohio thing came in I think that he really looked at that as an opportunity for him to go out and really be a coach (again) and not have to worry about all the publicity and so much press and everything else… he’s able to do a lot more coaching,” said Douglas.

In his first season at Ohio, Coach Solich went 4-7 as he adjusted to life in the MAC and in Athens. Having gone from spending Saturdays in Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, which has sold out an NCAA record 321 consecutive times dating back to 1962, to coaching in Ohio’s Peden Stadium, which was lucky to have 10,000 fans in the stands before the famous mass halftime exodus, was certainly an adjustment. But many Solich fans think it has allowed him to focus once more on what made him so successful at Nebraska—player development.

“I think (Solich) does things the right way. I don't think Frank is bending any rules, making any promises that are outlandish. He's a solid person. He treats people with respect, which is important and he knows the game. You have to understand the game in order to be a good coach,” said Osborne about his old colleague and friend.

In his eight seasons as the head coach, Solich has turned the program around, improving facilities and changing the culture in a town that was more known for its parties than its athletics. Solich has led the Bobcats to a 58-42 record. One of the crowning moments came last December when the ‘Cats came from behind to beat the Utah State Aggies 24-23 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl  for Ohio’s first bowl win since 1968.

Of course that was just the beginning. The real gem brings us back full circle to the Ohio’s 2012 season opener in State College, Pen. In front of 97,000 Penn State fans, in the first game in the post-Joe Paterno era for the Nittany Lions, the Bobcats won 24-14.

“Winning a bowl game is one thing but coming from behind to beat Penn State at Penn State is a feather in Frank's cap that very few get to share. Ohio’s, plain and simple, are not supposed to ever…beat a Penn State,” said Dr. Lothrop via email.

Sitting at 8-1 on the season and looking poised for another historical season, the ‘Cats football program is at an all-time high. Peden is packing full houses, students are staying after halftime and Solich continues to mine the Nebraska community for key talent to help build the Ohio program.

Five of his coaches have ties to the Nebraska program and his star quarterback Tyler Tettleton, is from nearby Oklahoma. Former Ohio linebacker Noah Keller, one of the better defensive players in ‘Cats history, grew up about two hours outside of Lincoln.  There are currently nine players on the roster either from Nebraska or nearby Kansas and Oklahoma.

“Coach Solich was definitely an influence on my decision. He's from Nebraska and he did so good (here),” said 2013 oral commit Casey Sayles from Millard North High School in Omaha Nebraska. “They still talk about him at Nebraska till this day.”

Even nine seasons later, while Solich coaches at another school nearly 1,000 miles away, the admiration that longtime Nebraska fans have for him never fades.

“The state of Nebraska is following him. They still love Frank Solich and they'd love to have him come back. They’d love to have him come back and be honored in (Memorial Stadium) for all the years that he served,” said Douglas.

People sure do love their old ball coach.