Twenty years have passed since Frank Solich's controversial firing from Nebraska, and he hasn't publicly appeared at Memorial Stadium since. That's about to change.
The 78-year-old remains a beloved figure among much of the fan base, having been an all-conference fullback for the Cornhuskers in the 1960s, an assistant to Tom Osborne for two decades and the head coach who won 75% of his games over six seasons before his unceremonious dismissal.
With the prodding of athletic director Trev Alberts, the urging of Osborne and the invitation of first-year coach Matt Rhule, Solich figured now is the time to return to Lincoln. He and his family will be honored during the Huskers' spring game April 22 in what he hopes will be the start of a renewed relationship with the program.
“I've always appreciated the fans of Nebraska and always felt good about them, and the same way about basically most of the coaches I worked with there," Solich said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. "With the people of Nebraska and the real friends I have there, it just made sense now to come back.”
Alberts, an All-America linebacker at Nebraska in the early 1990s when Solich was an assistant, said he has been trying to get Solich to return since he became athletic director two years ago.
“I’m really looking forward to Husker Nation honoring Frank and thanking him for everything he’s done as a player, as a coach and also honor him for what he did after he left here," Alberts said.
Solich was 58-19 in six seasons as the successor to Osborne, the College Football Hall of Fame coach who won national championships in three of his last four years and retired with the program at its pinnacle.
Under Solich, the Huskers won the Big 12 championship and finished No. 2 in the polls in 1999, and they played in the 2001 Bowl Championship Series title game against Miami despite a jarring 62-36 loss to Colorado in the regular-season finale.
The Huskers lost three straight to end 2002 and finished 7-7, the first time since 1968 they hadn’t won at least nine games. Solich fired three assistant coaches and gave up offensive play-calling duties, and the Huskers won nine games the following regular season.
But bad losses to Missouri, Texas and Kansas State and a 16-12 record over his last 28 games prompted first-year athletic director Steve Pederson to fire him. In explaining his decision, Pederson famously said, “I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity.”
The decision was divisive. Some fans agreed the program was showing signs of slippage; some argued Solich deserved more time with his restructured staff.
Solich took the high road through the years when asked about how things ended.
“It's not my style to publicly come out and talk about or complain about things,” he said. “I know I'm a good coach. I knew that through my time at Nebraska, through my time at the high schools I was at and through my time at Ohio. I can put together a good staff, I know I can relate to players, I know I can win football games.
“I didn't try to look back and beat myself up or beat anybody else about it,” he added “There were things that happened that were tough to take, but that happens in life and I moved on.”
Solich was out of coaching for one year before he was hired at Ohio. He spent 16 seasons with the Bobcats and became the Mid-American Conference’s all-time wins leader. He retired in the summer of 2021 to focus on a heart issue, and he now lives in Idaho.
Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini, Mike Riley, Scott Frost and Rhule have followed Solich at Nebraska. There has been no conference championship since the ’99 title under Solich, no bowl since 2016 under Riley and six straight losing seasons.
Solich supporters have long contended that his firing 20 years ago put a curse on the football program and that it only can be broken by Nebraska making things right with him.
Solich acknowledged he's heard about the “Solich Curse.”
“I will say this: if I had the ability to put on curses, there would be a few more people in trouble," he said.
Asked if Pederson was one of those people, Solich laughed.
“No,” he said, “I'm not going there.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25 Sign up for the AP Top 25 newsletter here: https://link.apnews.com/join/6nr/morning-wire-newsletter-footer-internal-ads