This week, one of college football’s blue blood programs was compelled to fire its head coach. This coach was a former alum who, as a senior in the 90’s, was an all-conference starter leading his school to one of its five national championships. After briefly flirting with professional football, he joined the coaching ranks, which included a stop as the offensive coordinator in Oregon. This coach eventually broke into head coaching by taking one of Florida’s state schools to unprecedented heights. Eventually, this coach was offered his dream job to come back home and lead his alma mater back to national relevance.
The coach that was fired on Sunday was Nebraska’s Scott Frost, but every sentence above could one day apply to Mario Cristobal.
Before we get to the lessons to be learned, the comparisons between Miami and Nebraska don’t stop with Frost and Cristobal. In full disclosure, I grew up in Omaha, NE. My parents are Huskers and I grew up a Huskers fan. I came to UM as an undergraduate in 2004, so I’ve been following the two program’s a bit closer than most. Back then, I thought quite reasonably I was set for my college football rooting interests. Who could have guessed that 18 years later neither program would win a conference championship game, yet alone sniff another national championship.
Since Miami played Nebraska in the 2001 Rose Bowl:
- Miami’s record is 161-93 (0.634) and Nebraska’s is 145-110 (.569). But, since 2004 when Miami joined the ACC, Miami’s record is 138-90 (.605) and Nebraska’s is 128-100 (0.561).
- Miami’s conference record is 94-65 (.591) and Nebraska’s is 84-81 (.509). But again, take away the left over Big East years, since 2004 Miami’s ACC conference record is 81-64 (.558) and Nebraska’s Big XII/B1G Ten record is 76-73 (.510).
- Miami was 5-11 in bowl games, and Nebraska was 6-7 in bowl games.
- Nebraska made the Big XII conference championship game four times (2006, 2008-2010) and the B1G Ten conference championship game once (2012). There was no Big East conference championship game in 2002 and 2003, and since joining the ACC Miami has only made the ACC conference championship once (2017) and forfeited another appearance (2012) due to sanctions. Neither team has won a conference championship game.
- Not counting interims, Nebraska has cycled through 5 head coaches (Solich; Callahan; Pelini; Riley; Frost) while Miami has fired 5 and is on its 6th with Cristobal (Coker; Shannon; Golden; Richt; Diaz).
- The first of those head coaches were the previous head coach’s trusted offensive coordinator (Solich and Coker). Both experienced some success in keeping their respective programs moving along, but both eventually were terminated after mediocre seasons that demonstrated the program was backsliding.
- Thereafter, there were some glimmers of success but nothing rising to the schools’ lofty expectations. Pelini was probably the closest for Nebraska. From 2008-2014, every season for the Huskers produced 9 or 10 wins. The pinnacle was 2009 when the Huskers finished 14th in the polls after a 33-0 trouncing of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. By contrast, Mark Richt brought a brief revival from 2016-2018, particularly with the 2017 season that resulted in an Orange Bowl birth and finish at No. 11/13 in the polls.
In short, the Huskers and the Hurricanes have been mired in mediocrity for close to two decades. Nebraska made a few more conference championship games. Miami made a few more bowl games and had an ever-so-slightly better record. But all-in-all, eerily similar stories considering how different these historical programs are in culture.
So now Nebraska hits the reset button...again. Having followed both programs uncharacteristically closely, here’s lessons for Miami to learn from Nebraska’s struggles:
1. Don’t Be Cheap with Coaches
This is more of a lesson for Nebraska than Miami, since it seems Miami is turning the corner here.
For years, both programs felt they could get away with their name and pedigree, opting to hire mid-tier head coaches or upstart coordinators, while never shelling out for the elite, proven commodity. In 2004, Nebraska hired Bill Callahan fresh off getting fired from the Oakland Raiders. He had never been a college head coach. Next was Pelini, who was a career defensive coordinator. Then came Mike Riley, who was a veteran head coach at the perpetually unimpressive Oregon State. Most recently was Frost, who produced an undefeated season at UCF but never led a Big 5 Conference program.
Miami meanwhile turned to its own career defensive coordinators (Randy Shannon, Manny Diaz), an unproven Temple coach (Al Golden), and a sunsetting veteran head coach (Mark Richt). To be fair to Richt, he is the most successful of the lot but he was unknowingly battling early Parkinson's symptoms while coaching Miami.
By contrast, Ohio State hired Urban Meyer, Texas A&M hired Jimbo Fisher, USC hired Lincoln Riley, and LSU hired Brian Kelly - head coaches with conference and national championship pedigrees still coaching in their prime. While those coaches command top-tiered salaries, hiring the promising but cheaper guy is no cost saver if there is coaching turnover every 3-5 years. Nebraska has spent more money in buyouts than any other school since 2005. (and this is from a 2020 article that doesn’t add Frost’s buyout).
Now, it seems Miami caught on that it’s 1980’s strategy of hiring good but cheaper options to keep the ball rolling couldn’t work anymore. The Hurricanes went out and hired a Rose Bowl winning coach who can consistently attract Top 10 recruiting classes, and gave their new coach a budget to hire head-coach caliber assistants. Should Cristobal not work out, at least Miami swung for the fences. You have to these days.
Nebraska should feel no choice but to look to highly paid head coaches with CFP experience, especially if they have proven B1G Ten success. Urban Meyer, Luke Fickell, and Bill O’Brien have to be top of that short list. If they’re not interested, other high performing head coaches like Gary Patterson and Mark Stoops should merit consideration. The Carolina Panthers’ Matt Rhule might be available if Carolina doesn’t improve this year, and he would be interesting given his success at Baylor. I think it would be a mistake going after a hot coordinator like Miami’s Josh Gattis or Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard, or top options from the lower rung of programs like Appalachian State’s Shawn Clark.
2. Be Patient - It’s Not 2001 Anymore
This lesson is for Miami, since Nebraska was more than patient giving Frost a fifth season after his first four failed to produce a single winning season. Nebraska fans desperately wanted their native son to succeed and only finally, after it was abundantly clear beyond all doubt that Frost couldn’t do it, did they let him go.
This “win now” mentality is toxic. Nick Saban was 6-6 his first year at Alabama and lost to Louisiana-Monroe. Bob Stoops was 7-5 his first year at Oklahoma. Both took a huge leap for their programs in their second year, but others took even longer. Dabo Swinney was 6-7 in his second season, and didn’t finish a season in the Top 10 until his fourth year at Clemson.
In each of those examples, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Clemson showed patience despite some early warning signs. None of those schools enjoyed any recent success to build off. Some programs have the luxury of immediate success and they could internally hand off the baton like Ohio State did with Ryan Day or Oklahoma did with Lincoln Riley. That’s not Miami last year, or Nebraska this year. Both programs require a full reset. Cristobal is inheriting a few talented players from the Manny Diaz era, but it’s not the talent level that Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, and Clemson enjoy. This roster is expected to drop a game, maybe two, heck maybe even three to an ACC foe, or even this Texas A&M team that just got humbled by Appalachian State.
What Miami needs from its fans is an ounce of patience. We don’t have a dozen future first round picks on our sideline like we did in 2001. Get pumped for game day, pack the Rock, and grab your pots and pans when we start beating some of college football’s elite. Alabama, Oklahoma, and Clemson didn’t turn on Saban, Stoops, and Swinney when they showed signs of faltering. They needed at least a few years to build their program their way. So will Cristobal.
And by the way, if Cristobal doesn’t work out then the program needs to signal to the next hire that Miami is willing to gift its coaches every resource possible - both time and money - to get the job done. Whoever Nebraska hires will know that the Huskers will extend every opportunity to succeed like they demonstrated with Frost.
3. Once You Have Found Consistency, Don’t Get Greedy
I’ll go on the record and say that Nebraska should have never fired Bo Pelini. Nebraska won at least 9 games every year and was regularly in the Huskers’ conference championship game. Pelini had built a program that was consistently competitive and was very close to winning some serious hardware. Pelini’s downfall wasn’t really what happened on the field - it was his brashness off it. Pelini was recorded cursing at fans in 2013, calling them “fair-weather” and prognosticating in colorful language that they’ll regret the day he leaves. Frankly, even though Mr. Pelini wasn’t Midwestern nice to the Husker faithful, most Nebraska fans do miss his consistently winning program. A small consolation is that his twitter parody account lives on...
at least the Queen didn’t have to see this— Faux Pelini (@FauxPelini) September 11, 2022
If Cristobal produces 8+ wins each of his first few years, with competitive showings (and hopefully a few victories) against the college football elite, that’s OK! That’s building a consistent program. Of course Miami needs to strive for conference and national championships, but you don’t build that overnight. In fact, Cristobal was somewhat infamous at Oregon for always dropping one contest a year the Ducks shouldn’t have. These are young men playing a game. It’ll happen.
What matters is the program’s trajectory. Clemson had a ‘down year’ last year with only 10 wins and a top 15 finish. That should be Miami’s goal - not immediate expectation, but long-term goal. The Hurricanes standard should be that over the course of any given season Miami prevails more often than not and positions itself to play for meaningful titles in December and January. Football can be a funny thing, and individual games can be won or lost when the oddest shaped ball in sports bounces unexpectedly. But, after several seasons, a consistent program will produce sustained competitiveness, even if a championship moment in any individual season may be elusive.
So, if after four seasons, Coach Cristobal has proven capable of building The U back to consistent winning, don’t overreact to any individual loss. There will be losses. Weather the small storms while Cristobal has his chance to build our Hurricanes.