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What if: Nebraska hired the right Alumnus in 1997?


Welcome to “What If” week at SBNation and Off Tackle Empire.

This will probably be used as an opportunity to relive horrific tragedies for all of our teams and wonder what might have been. As a Gopher fan, I’m probably more well-versed at this than anyone else.

But this isn’t just about me. During THESE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES, I’ve been thinking about how things could have changed across the B1G in the past and how they could have had a big impact on multiple teams and programs. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to mix work and kids and HOLY HELL STOP FIGHTING YOU TWO! and so this project has been delayed.

Until now…

Everyone probably thought it was your run-of-the-mill Wednesday in Nebraska. I’m not sure Dr. Tom allowed them to have other types when he was running the state. But on December 10, 1997, Osborne told his players he was retiring after the Orange Bowl against Tennessee. 354 wins, 13 conference championships, and 2 National Titles (with one in hand) was quite the haul, and he decided to walk away at age 60 with his health.

Probably the best offensive mind of his era was stepping down, and his hand-picked successor was RB coach Frank Solich, who had been a fullback under Devaney and with the program since 1979. All that was needed is for the Nebraska Regents to approve the transition, and everything would clearly continue to run smoothly.

But what if they didn’t? What if, for whatever reason, the Nebraska Cornhuskers decided to look outside the house for a replacement? What if common sense kicked in and they decided they needed someone with experience wearing the big headset? Who would be the best choice? Following the 1997 season, there were only 13 coaching changes in D1 football. Of these, only 3 were at major programs: Nebraska (duh), Arkansas (who replaced Danny Ford with Houston Nutt to get them some heppin’), and Texas (who hired Mack Brown from North Carolina, a place he would never ever ever return to).

Because Nebraska would never stoop so low as to hire a mediocre coach from out West whose reputation was better than their resume, that absolutely rules out Nutt and his 4-7 record the preceding season. And there’s no way they’d want something that Texas wants, so Mack is definitely out too. What that leaves us with is looking at current head coaches that didn’t move. Someone who had already performed a miracle. Someone with ties to the program who understood what it meant to be a Cornhusker.

Nebraska needed Barry Alvarez.

“You’re kidding, right? He’s only 48-42-4 in 9 seasons in madison at this point in time,” I can hear you say, and that is quite true.

But to understand how spectacular of a job he’d done to get to that point, you’d need to recognize that the badger football program prior to his arrival was a mirror reflection the inner beauty of wisconsin fans: the most horrific, wretched, pathetic thing in the Big Ten.

Don Morton, Barry’s predecessor, never even had another sniff of a coaching job after he was fired in 1989 and has been working on the Great Plains accounting software ever since. In 1993, the only thing that saved humanity from wisconsin having a claim at a national title was a 28-21 loss to the most benevolent Minnesota Golden Gophers. A stadium that was once renowned for having more tumbleweeds than fans wearing red was regularly packed, and it was all because of the work of Barry Alvarez.

So when he had the opportunity to hear mama calling like Bear Bryant once did, it was a no-brainer. Did it matter that he was leaving a program that would start 1998 ranked #20 and go 21-3 over the next two years and steal a Heisman Trophy for a guy who just compiled a bunch of yards over 4 seasons? Not at all. The allure of Nebraska and it’s resources and downright cosmopolitan life would be impossible to resist. Nebraska in 1997 is 1990s Nebraska, and that was a machine that was built to last under Barry Alvarez.

So what happens when Alvarez goes to Nebraska?

Well, things certainly get interesting in the old Big XII. Alvarez is a far better coach than Solich ever was in pretty much every way, right down to getting away with undergrad-related shenanigans. The difference between a good coach and an outstanding coach usually appears in big games with close to equal talent (looking at you, Larry Coker!).

You plop him in the job, and we start having some interesting situations nearly right away. In 1998 the Huskers went 9-3 in the regular season, including a pair of single-score losses at Texas A&M and at home to Texas. With better coaching, it wouldn’t be stunning at all for those results to get flipped, and possibly the Holiday Bowl 23-20 loss to #5 Arizona. Tennessee’s close win over Florida State has a few people asking questions as to if there should be a split national championship, newfangled BCS be damned.

Coming off a 1-loss campaign going into 1999, the Huskers are somehow ranked even higher than the #4 preseason spot they had in this universe, and Big Red flips the loss, 24-20 at Texas.

Chaos ensues in the 2nd year of the BCS when you have 3 undefeated teams in Nebraska, Florida State, and Virginia Tech, and the Hokies gobble holy hell when they get left out of the title game. Nebraska has enough depth to beat the one-dimensional Noles and prehistoric QB Chris Weinke, while Eric Crouch does just good enough of a Mike Vick impression to lead the Huskers to their 4th National Title in the 1990s. Mark Richt stays at FSU and doesn’t get the Georgia job, while Mack Brown shakes things up at Texas and jettisons Tim Brewster much earlier. The Longhorns never get Vince Young, and Brown is just the southern version of Glen Mason in that he had 1 great season at a football backwater (Lawrence, KS; Chapel Hill, NC) and fails to ever do much afterwards.

(Vince Young ends up at Arkansas, and the Razorbacks win back-to-back National Titles in 2005 and 2006 with Young, Darren McFadden, and Felix Jones running wild throughout everyone in the country, but that’s not important for an article about Nebraska.)

In 2000 the Huskers once again start the season ranked #1, and they’ll once again lose to Oklahoma in an absolutely spectacular game in Norman, but Alvarez rallies the troops to get revenge in Manhattan for the loss there in 1998 and then throttles the Sooners in the rematch in the Big XII Title Game. Weinke, still having PTSD from the previous season’s title game, does an impression of Ronaldo at the 1998 World Cup Final in France and shows up as a mere shadow of himself. Nebraska wins yet again, and Barry Alvarez had the machine absolutely rolling.

I’m not sure how the next season goes because we’re getting pretty far out and recruiting probably would have gone on a different trajectory, but I think it’s safe to say that the Huskers have a better showing against Miami and never stumble down the horrific path that was Bill Callahan. A powerful Husker program is able to maintain enough power in the Big XII to counterbalance Texas, and the Longhorn Network never comes into existence.

Without that marketing imbalance, Nebraska never feels the need to leave for the B1G, and we’re all worse for it.

The Situation in madison

But what about our friends in wisconsin? What happens to them if Barry Alvarez leaves right before he gets the badgers attention on a national level?

Well, if we know anything about how they do things there, they like to reward loyalty and stability. And there wasn’t a better candidate in-house than their own offensive coordinator, Brad Childress.

The stuff of nightmares.

Childress, being one of the worst head coaches to ever grace a sideline at any level of the sport (You know what I’m talking about if you watched the Vikings during his reign of terror), is an complete and utter failure and the brief resurgence under Alvarez is just a fever dream for the rest of the B1G. After winning 16 games the previous two seasons, they fail to reach that total over the next 5 years combined and Childress is bounced.

Ron Dayne still gets drafted in the 1st round, but that’s just because the Giants are dumb.

With Donna Shalala long-since gone, Pat Richter just hires what he think is a good coach from Lou Holtz’s staff again. Unfortunately for badger fans, he passes on Charlie Strong for REASONS and takes Skip Holtz instead. It’s the last semi-inspired coaching hire they make between then and now and the program returns to its home in the depths of the B1G cellar.

Not that it takes much to be better than this universe in 2020, but this what-if seems like a far better place to be.