State Goes on a Big Red Alert

Times Staff Writer

The marquee at the movie theater under renovation on O Street almost seems to plead, in big red letters: PATIENCE.

They're looking for a little a few blocks away at Memorial Stadium, home of Cornhusker football, the only show in the state.

Nebraska is 5-3, which in most outposts of the game is considered fair-to-middling. Here, it feels like the death knell of a dynasty.

Already, the streak of 348 consecutive weeks in the top 25 is over.

Other streaks seem poised to fall, with Nebraska an underdog this week at Texas A&M; and No. 7 Texas, No. 20 Kansas State and No. 21 Colorado still ahead. Only Kansas seems like a sure victory.

At stake, the streak of 33 consecutive nine-win seasons, all but dried up now like a corn field in drought. The 33 consecutive bowl bids, also at risk. The astounding 40 consecutive winning seasons too.

"This isn't how Nebraska football is," said Scott Shanle, a senior linebacker from St. Edward, Neb.

In hard times, there are no distractions.

"There's not a whole lot here," Shanle said. "People wait from January through August for Nebraska football. There are no pro teams here, no other Division I [football] schools."

To understand the grip Nebraska football has on the populace, consider that you can eat your meals at the Cornhusker All-American Buffet, grab a Husker Cab on your way to the Cornhusker Bank, then get your back adjusted at Cornhusker Chiropractic on the way to get a tooth pulled at Cornhusker Dental.

All told, some 60 businesses are named after the Huskers.

Even the rare caller to a radio sports-talk show who isn't a Nebraska fan admits she's glad when they win.

"The state's in a better mood."

Other powerhouses have stumbled in college football's new era -- USC, Penn State, Notre Dame.

Still, one of the most stunning aspects of this spiraling season is how quickly the Cornhuskers have fallen.

In January, they played Miami in the Rose Bowl game for the national championship.

They lost, 37-14. They had lost their previous game to Colorado, 62-36.

Before that, they had won 11 in a row.

Some would say people should have seen this coming, with six starters from that team gone on offense, another five on defense.

The scrutiny, as always, falls quickly on the coach.

After Saturday's loss to Oklahoma State, the first since 1961, the Associated Press reported the cost to buy out Frank Solich's contract at more than $1.1 million.

Yet Solich -- the longtime assistant who was Tom Osborne's hand-picked successor when he retired after winning his third national championship in 1997 -- won more games in his first four seasons (42) than either Osborne or Bob Devaney.

"It's idiotic to consider replacing Coach Solich," said secondary coach George Darlington, in his 30th season as a Cornhusker assistant. (Another assistant, offensive line coach Milt Tenopir, has been at Nebraska 29 years.)

"When Coach Osborne took over in 1973, we were [9-2-1] but lost in a shutout to Oklahoma down there and didn't cross the 50," Darlington said.

"There was a lot of rumbling then because Bob Devaney had led them to two national championships."

Osborne -- who would become such an icon he parlayed his popularity into a seat in Congress -- stopped by the football offices this week.

He didn't offer advice on Xs and O's, just on hanging in there.

"To get a pat on the back from someone who understands was great for us as a staff," Solich said.

Elsewhere, a pragmatic Osborne told supporters at a stop in Grand Island, Neb., that Nebraska football has been "defying gravity for 40 years."

"Nothing is forever. Nothing is permanent," he said.

The rest of college football already learned that.

But how could Nebraska plunge so rapidly?

Tom Lemming, a highly regarded Chicago-based recruiting expert, doesn't detect a huge drop-off in talent. After all, Nebraska is known for feeding and nurturing its own talent, not storing up harvest after harvest of top-10 recruiting classes.

"I don't think it's a big difference," Lemming said. "The difference is, Nebraska always had a great quarterback or running back -- or both."

This year, neither.

Quarterback Eric Crouch won the Heisman Trophy last year. His replacement, Jammal Lord, is another option quarterback who leads a 68th-ranked offense and has completed more than eight passes in a game only once. (In the pipeline: freshman Curt Dukes, a skilled option quarterback from North Carolina.)

The running game -- best in the nation the last two seasons -- has slipped to sixth, though freshman David Horne, once slated to redshirt, is averaging 98 yards and is sharing time with Dahrran Diedrick.

Then there's the offensive line, that cornerstone of so many Nebraska teams. The line is having a sub-par year too -- possibly an indication the rest of the country has caught up to Nebraska.

For all the hankering among some fans to modernize the offense, plenty of the focus is on the defense -- the once-famous Blackshirts -- now ranked 50th in the nation against the run.

"Our No. 1 thing we need to do is stop the run," said defensive coordinator Craig Bohl, himself the focus of much criticism. "In years past, we've had a great rushing defense."

Granted, the defense has been playing without its best player, end Chris Kelsay, sidelined by a hamstring injury.

But last week, little-known Tatum Bell of Oklahoma State ran for 182 yards against the Cornhuskers.

If there is a silent consensus among influential boosters, it is that Bohl's job is more at stake than Solich's -- and many would like to see Solich take off the headset and name an offensive coordinator to call the plays as well.

"If there's one thing I've learned in sports, it's patience," said Dale Jensen, a Nebraskan who made his fortune in software development and now lives in Phoenix, where he is part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"[But] I think Frank certainly needs to get some additional help and new assistants.... The proof in the pudding will be what changes he makes after the season."

Athletic Director Bill Byrne, the focus of some alumni ire for emphasizing other sports in addition to football, is considered a hands-off administrator who has said only that he is "disappointed" in the football team's record.

Most key alumni tend to think Solich is safe, but some are inclined to wait to see if the unthinkable happens and Nebraska ends up 6-7 to say he'll be back.

"I wouldn't want to say that yet," said Lee Sapp, an Omaha businessman and prominent booster. "It depends on how the season goes."

Talk of shaking up the staff doesn't sit well with Darlington, like Solich a coach who is testimony to the loyalty and continuity that are a hallmark of the Nebraska program. (Four members of the staff have been there more than 20 years.)

"Any assistant knows that you work at the bidding of the head coach," Darlington said. "Hopefully, [Solich] will not get into that situation. It's up to him if he feels changes need to be made, then he needs to make them. But normally what happens is that head coaches that fire assistants, it's in very short order that they get fired too."

On the radio airwaves this week, one of the more common topics was whether the players care as much as the fans do.

Anyone who has ever seen the crowd at Memorial Stadium applaud the visiting players as they leave the field after every game, win or lose, knows they are a little different breed.

So are the players. So many of them are from Nebraska, like Shanle, Kelsay and Troy Hassebroek, a hometown walk-on who starts at wingback.

"From my house, you could see the balloons when they scored a touchdown. You could hear the crowd," Hassebroek said. "We think about what the players of the past think, how they'd react."

Even offensive tackle Dan Vili-Waldrop, from Wilmington Banning High, understands.

"I don't want to be that team that breaks the streaks. We've already broken one," he said. "To lose three games here, it's a crisis. To me, it feels like the world's ended."

The season, however, has not.

"This is a tough state," receiver coach Ron Brown said. "There's been a drought the last couple of years that knocked people to their knees. This is not an easy way to live. Some of the poorest counties in America are here. These are people who battle through harsh weather, of both extremes. This is a state of great determination, great work ethic, great resiliency. People understand that hard times come.

"I asked my players yesterday, 'Do you love comebacks? Ever see the way people love a comeback?' If we win every game, we can go 11-3. What a story that would be."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

End of an Era?

Nebraska, currently at 5-3, has some streaks in jeopardy: (* -NCAA record)

* 33 consecutive bowl games*

* 33 consecutive years with at least nine wins*

* 40 consecutive seasons with a winning record

*

WHAT'S LEFT

A look at Nebraska's remaining schedule:

Sat. at Texas A&M; (5-2)

Nov. 2 Texas (6-1)

Nov. 9 Kansas (2-6)

Nov. 16 at Kansas St. (5-2

Nov. 29 Colorado (5-2)

*

BY TENS

Nebraska's record each decade since 1960:

1960-69 75-30-1, .712

1970-79 98-20-4, .820

1980-89 103-20, .837

1990-99 108-16-1, .864

2000-02 26-7, .788

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