From 1973 until 1997, the Nebraska job was filled by Tom Osborne, a brilliant strategist who built the Cornhuskers into 13 conference championships and three 1990s national titles. He followed Bob Devaney, who'd won four Orange Bowls in his 11 years.
After Osborne moved on, the job hasn't seen anyone with anything close to that longevity. Nebraska moved into the Big 12 and in 1998 entrusted the job of dominating the league to new head coach Frank Solich, an Osborne disciple. Solich went 58-19 with two BCS appearances, including a national title appearance in 2001.
The slight decline from the Osborne era and a 17-10 record in Solich's final two seasons spelled the end for Osborne-style Husker football. Since he was fired, Nebraska has gone 93-49 with no conference championships or BCS appearances. Bo Pelini was responsible for 67 wins and four division title shares, and now he's gone.
The brilliant Faux Pelini of the Twitter-verse noted that the way to keep your job at Nebraska was to "make the fans feel like it can one day be the 1990s again." Not to necessarily deliver the Osborne standard, but to maintain a charade that the glory days were coming back.
How did Nebraska ever have such a run of dominance, and could it happen again? Can the next hire even match Pelini's standard?
How Osborne built champions
Those Huskers had four keys that allowed them to field teams that dominated the Big 8.
1. A powerful walk-on program
With a population of only about two million, the state of Nebraska has never produced a lot of football talent. However, whatever talent it did produce would walk on and get educations paid for through non-football scholarships. The coaches put real time into developing the walk-ons and essentially got a few extra scholarship-quality roster spots. They used the scholarships to target national recruits. What's more, local high schools ran Osborne's system, ensuring the walk-ons were maxed-out for Husker-ball.
Kansas State under Bill Snyder has a similar emphasis and likewise gets extra contributors every season. In the 1990s, schools like Wisconsin began openly modeling walk-on programs after Nebraska's.
2. Partial qualifiers
Much like Doc Holliday's Marshall program, Osborne's Nebraska was able to enroll a few very talented partial-qualifiers every year. He had the academic support system to get them eligible. If you are recruiting nationally and trying to swoop into places like Florida or California to steal from local programs, it helps to be able to take players other programs can't.
The Big 12 voted to stop allowing these players to be admitted, taking a chunk out of Nebraska's annual haul in the late '90s and onward. The Big Ten won't ever smile on such a tactic.
3. Strength and conditioning
4. The Osborne offense
While others were adopting the I-formation and ditching the option to feature running backs like Earl Campbell or Marcus Dupree, Osborne melded the two.
Osborne made use of power run concepts like counter trey, but also used option quarterbacks like Tommie Frazier to create a concoction of runs that made his attack exceptionally hard to manage.
The Cornhuskers were able to recruit the 6'1 OL who could get low and drive DL off the ball but would have been a liability in pass protection, the skill player who could run but not catch, and the QB who lacked an NFL arm or the ability to make pro-style reads, but could run the option.
The post-Osborne strategy
The Cornhuskers have followed two different paths since Solich. The first was to hire pro-style offensive guru Bill Callahan, who found that recruiting nationally for a complicated system in Nebraska was not the easiest path.
Then came Pelini, who brought back the tradition of defense with his NFL-savvy pass schemes that were a scourge to the spread-happy Big 12. After continued use of the West Coast offense failed to provide an offense to match, the Cornhuskers adopted a modern equivalent of Osborne's attack, the spread option.
In the late 2000s, Nebraska found that playing in the Big 12 provided a pipeline to Texas talent. Between 2007 and 2011, Nebraska's last season in the Big 12, the Huskers took six or seven players from Texas per year. Amid the move to the Big Ten, that pipeline's slowed to a two-to-three-player trickle.
In the Big Ten, Nebraska had a HC who's great at stuffing spread passing games and recruiting Texas, but in a conference with no Texas teams and where spread passing offenses are considered gimmicks.
Nearby Big Ten states don't offer a ton of talent, which has meant Pelini had to grab JUCOs and lots of three-star kids from states like California, Florida, or Louisiana, with some four-stars. A lot of programs have that same vision, making competition for those players fierce.
Pelini's recruiting classes ranked in the 20s or 30s, good enough to compete for division titles, but not national titles. And other powers caught up their own S&C or walk-on programs. Without a unique scheme to bring out hidden value in overlooked players, Nebraska couldn't build champions.
The way forward
Because the school happened to have a coaching legend for multiple decades who innovated every possible Nebraska advantage, the common understanding of what is possible for the Huskers is still off.
Unlike a state that produces a lot of speed, like Florida, or quarterbacks, like Texas, the state of Nebraska doesn't offer an obvious guideline for how to build a championship program. Instead, the team will be shaped by whatever strategic advantage is brought by its head coach.
So when you read about the potential coaching hires at Nebraska, keep in mind that any coach has to be responsible for bringing virtually everything to the table, as Osborne did. Anything less than a rare talent isn't going to bring the '90s back.
For that reason, a coach like Wyoming's Craig Bohl, who knows how to find kids from remote grounds who fit his system, is more likely to succeed than a coach who would focus on recruiting blue-chip Southerners to Lincoln. Bohl was also a Nebraska defensive back under Osborne and a longtime Huskers assistant before getting fired in 2002, then becoming a three-time FCS national champion at North Dakota State.
Another route that just might work would be to find a modern approximate of Osborne, like Chip Kelly, who tinkered with classic option football, spread formations, tempo, and modern thinking about practices and S&C to build a powerhouse run team in Oregon. Perhaps Nike University isn't as unlikely a location for a powerhouse as Lincoln, but it's not terribly high on the list either.
Nebraska has a zero percent chance of luring Kelly or Mark Helfrich to Lincoln, but it so happens that one of Kelly's former assistants and Oregon's offensive coordinator is a former QB also coached by ol' Tom himself, Scott Frost, the betting favorite.
Someone like Frost would still have to overcome the fact that the next Nebraska coach isn't inheriting a recruiting turf but instead a brand and a commission to scour the earth for Cornhuskers. He'd have to do it without flashy uniforms or with annual games in a talent-loaded state like California.
Nebraska might be able to bring its son back home to take over, but don't be shocked if the 37-year stretch of Devaney and Osborne is the exception to the rule.