LINCOLN — Who cares if Matt Davison is in Philadelphia?
Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos asked that question rhetorically to a small group of reporters at Memorial Stadium on Sunday afternoon. It carried a bit of humor, not in a demeaning way toward Davison, the owner of a new title — associate athletic director for football — and a rising figure in the Husker athletic department, but rather because the premise does seem kind of bizarre.
Really, who would care if Davison were in Philadelphia?
On Nov. 17, though, the former NU receiver found himself in the City of Brotherly Love with his best friend, three others and the future of their alma mater’s storied football program hanging in the balance.
Ninety minutes around a table in a hotel suite — athletic director Bill Moos didn’t remember which hotel, maybe the Embassy Suites, they all look the same to him — proved to be the linchpin in the months-long sequence of events that delivered Scott Frost to Lincoln as the 30th head football coach in Husker history.
If you understand how that meeting came to be, then you can understand how Frost wound up sitting, clean-shaven, in a gray suit and red tie, on the third floor of Memorial Stadium in front of hundreds of people Sunday, sleepless and hungry but also intent on turning around a program gone awry since he quarterbacked a national championship team here 20 years ago.
Let’s start before Moos ever set foot in Lincoln.
When he signed a contract to run NU’s athletic department on Oct. 13 while in a hotel room in Oakland, California, Frost’s Central Florida team was already 5-0 and one day from hanging 63 points on East Carolina. The 42-year-old’s star was rising fast and he was having regular talks with UCF athletic director Danny White about potential interest.
“It’s unbelievable, the timing of having to make these decisions,” Frost lamented Sunday.
Moos officially started at NU on Oct. 23 and quickly set about learning the lay of the land. At the end of his first week — within a day or so of Florida firing coach Jim McElwain and not-so-subtly making its affection for Frost known — Moos sat in his office with Tom Osborne for more than an hour.
“To get a feel for the job and Nebraska and the culture and the people,” Moos recalled. “But then it slid to the coaching situation and Scott, and (Osborne) said, ‘If you really want to know the real Scott Frost, I can tell you, but so can Matt Davison.’”
Not 15 minutes after Osborne left Moos’ office that day, Davison walked in, summoned by a skilled behind-the-scenes operator who had found his path to the prize.
“I had a series of conversations with Matt so he could get a feel for me and then he relayed what he felt about me and what I’m about to Scott, because Scott has trust in Matt,” Moos said. “Scott’s a little bit guarded and that’s understandable, but I know Matt went to Scott and said, ‘This is a guy you can trust and he’ll have your back and support you and Nebraska’s going to go places.’ That was a big, big help.”
As the familiarity between Moos and Frost grew, the Huskers’ season crumbled.
They lost in overtime to Northwestern on Nov. 4, then suffered an embarrassing, 33-point blowout at Minnesota the next weekend.
"From afar, it didn’t look like the Nebraska that I knew," Frost said Sunday.
Moos had resolutely maintained that he did not believe in firing coaches midseason. Still, the morning after losing to the Gophers, Moos, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU President Hank Bounds held a conference call to discuss the possibility of firing Mike Riley that day, a source said.
Ultimately, they decided to stay the course.
“A lot of this is about integrity and how you approach your business,” Moos said Sunday, adding that there’s also a practical element. “Because the two of note that did (fire coaches early) — Florida and Tennessee — what did they gain on me? I’m far enough along in my career that there still is something to say about those who played the game and went through the ranks of the business. There’s a lot of very talented Power Five athletic directors who don’t understand the importance of relationships with players and the investment into the team and all that.”
Still, the time had come for action. Moos knew he wanted Frost for the job and Frost sensed something special brewing in his home state.
Moos considered flying to Orlando, Florida, on a Thursday for a face-to-face meeting, but instead turned to Davison again.
All parties were scheduled to be on the East Coast late in the week — Davison doing color commentary for the Husker men’s basketball game at St. John’s in Manhattan on Thursday, and Moos at Penn State for NU’s football game and Frost in Philadelphia for UCF’s game at Temple on Saturday.
Remember, Moos has done this before. In 2011, he flew to Key West, Florida, to meet Mike Leach after weeks of courting through intermediaries. This time around, the destination was a bit less tropical.
“I never talked to Mike Leach until I went to Key West, and I never talked to Scott until Philadelphia,” Moos said. “I had guys nagging Leach, but he didn’t have a game to coach. I thought, ‘The No. 1 thing that I can impress genuinely on Scott is to let him have his space.’ … I think some of these other places — this is just speculation — were nagging and hounding. I could sense and knew through Matt that that did not resonate with him (Frost).”
But Frost was serious enough about the Nebraska job that he needed to put a face to the name.
“We made sure we got our work done that week and I knew a decision was coming soon, so I needed to sit down with somebody,” Frost said. “Bill was nice enough to come up there after we got everything done on Friday night and we spent a little bit of time together. I didn’t need to know a lot about this program. I’m from here, I did it, I know what it’s all about, what it could be, what the potential is. So it just took me being comfortable with the leadership here, and the timing.”
The summit was set.
Moos and his wife Kendra chartered a flight from Lincoln to Philadelphia. Davison took the train from New York. Frost and UCF director of football operations Gerrod Lambrecht made their way across town.
Kendra made sure there was food at the table, but also made sure she got some answers of her own.
“She gives a tough interview,” Bill said with a laugh. “She had her finger out at him and everything. ‘You make sure first and foremost you’re a good daddy to that new baby.’ I’m glad she was in there.”
Davison made all the arrangements. After all, you can’t have a guy with his own Power Five athletic department and a $1 million salary reserving a hotel suite just miles from where one of the hottest coaching candidates in the country is about to have his team play.
“I know enough of how to dodge that stuff, just so you guys know,” Moos said. “Who cares if Matt Davison is in Philadelphia?”
They talked for an hour and a half.
The athletic director knew what he wanted and, mostly, so did the coach. The Mooses and Davison took a jet to State College, Pennsylvania, where NU gave up 56 more points and moved closer to the end. Frost’s Knights beat Temple by three scores, extending their perfect run to 10 games.
“I really disregarded anybody else I had on the list,” Moos said. “I just felt that we had already established a comfortable relationship and an element of trust each way and that it was going to get there. It was just a matter of making sure that the details were carried through.”
It took a few days. Frost wanted a sizable pool of money for his assistants. He had a showdown with South Florida to prepare for. NU played Iowa after a short week. Moos and Bounds went through the finer points of a contract offer several times.
Riley was fired Nov. 25 and within 48 hours, Frost had signed a memorandum of understanding. He struggled with the idea of leaving his UCF players and said an emotional farewell after the Knights beat Memphis 62-55 in double-overtime Saturday.
He got on a jet, landed in Lincoln about midnight and got very little sleep before beginning his first full day on the job at his alma mater.
“I want to run out of this tunnel again in front of a bunch of fans that are cheering for us and applaud the other team and all the things I love about Nebraska,” Frost said. “I am looking forward to that. But first, I am going to get a good night of sleep.”
Moos will sleep well, too, knowing he's joined forces with a man he called the premier young coach in the country.
That coach also happens to have a lifelong connection to the school. Moos may not have been the only person out there who could have convinced Frost to come back, but he proved his mettle in his first six weeks in the state.
He managed to get Davison to Philadelphia, and it paid off big.