LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — It took a long time for Frank Solich to put aside the bitterness he felt toward Nebraska following his controversial firing.
Twenty years and some prodding by athletic director Trev Alberts later, Solich was back at Memorial Stadium on Friday to begin a weekend of events honoring him for his contributions as a player, assistant and head coach.
After he left Nebraska, Solich became the Mid-American Conference’s all-time wins leader at Ohio. And he remained mostly estranged with the Lincoln school since some of the decision-makers responsible for his firing were still around — despite his strong ties to the state and friendship with his predecessor, Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.
“At first, I felt it was best for me just to stay completely away,” Solich said at a news conference, “and then it got to the point I felt like, hey, maybe it’s time to look at this through a different lens and look at all the great people that are here, people I know and worked with, the fans. I was in some ways only hurting myself in continuing to stay away, so I’m glad to be back.”
Solich went 58-19 over six seasons at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers 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 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 assistants and gave up offensive play-calling duties, and the Huskers won nine games the following regular season.
But a 16-12 record over his last 28 games prompted then-athletic director Steve Pederson, with ex-chancellor Harvey Perlman’s blessing, to fire him. In explaining his decision, Pederson famously said, “I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity.”
Some fans agreed the program was showing signs of slippage, others argued Solich deserved more time with his restructured staff. Solich was gutted.
“Coaching is very hard on families, and it was very difficult on our family in a lot of different ways,” he said.
The 78-year-old native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, went to high school in Cleveland and came to Nebraska to play fullback for Bob Devaney from 1963-65. Solich coached high school football in the state for a decade before returning to the Huskers as an assistant for 19 years under Osborne.
Nebraska was coming off national championships three of the previous four years when he became head coach in 1998.
Solich’s daughter, Cindy, still lives in Lincoln, so he has been back in town many times. But he hasn’t been to a Nebraska game since 2003, and coaching at Ohio didn’t allow him many opportunities to watch the Huskers on television, though he has made it a point to do that since he retired in 2021 and moved to Boise, Idaho.
“Obviously, deep down inside I was actually pulling for Nebraska,” he said, “so it was tough to see what had really transpired in terms of wins and losses as things unfolded over the years.”
New coach Matt Rhule is the fifth to follow Solich at Nebraska. There has been no conference championship since the 1999 title, no bowl since 2016 under Mike Riley and six straight losing seasons.
Solich and his family will be introduced Saturday at halftime of the annual Red-White spring game, which Solich says will mark the restart of his association with the program.
“It makes a lot of sense to be back,” he said. “I spent a lot of time on that field out there. Family spent a lot of time here. We consider it our home, so it’s great to be back.”