BOYS TOWN — Frank Solich prefers to maintain a low profile. He's been that way since I can remember — dating to his days as Nebraska's running backs coach during the 1980s and ’90s.
Sorry, Frank, the limelight will be relatively bright this week.
He handled it with his usual class Tuesday.
Solich, who just completed his 14th season as Ohio University's head coach, arrived here late Tuesday afternoon for a news conference at Boys Town. He was alongside Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, who on Wednesday night will receive the Outland Trophy at the annual Outland Dinner at the Double Tree Hotel in downtown Omaha.
A highlight of the dinner will be Solich receiving the Tom Osborne Award for his contributions to college football. Many folks close to the Nebraska football program regard Solich's return as a step toward healing for not only Solich, who was fired as the Huskers' head coach in 2003, but also for the program and even the state in general. Most NU fans never really got a chance to tell Solich goodbye, and he hasn't stepped foot on NU's campus in Lincoln since his dismissal.
Solich, as expected, generally sidestepped that discussion Tuesday. Asked whether he regarded his presence this week as being important to the Nebraska program in a big-picture sense, he said, "I've never looked at it like that. … Things have worked out really well for me. I love what I'm doing. I couldn't be any happier being around the coaches and players that I am around. I think I've been fortunate in this business."
After all, he said, he's made only two stops as a college coach — Nebraska and Ohio.
An All-Big Eight fullback and co-captain of Nebraska's 10-1 team in 1965, he was the first Husker to rush for 200 yards in a game. His career as a Husker assistant coach began in 1979. He took over as the program's head coach in 1998 as Osborne's hand-picked successor and ended his tenure with a 58-19 record (.753) — with a Big 12 championship and 12-1 record in 1999 and a national runner-up finish in 2001.
When Solich was fired, it divided the state. The topic to this day elicits heated conversation. But let's be clear on this: The 74-year-old Solich, a native of Pennsylvania who grew up in Cleveland, doesn't want to dwell on the past. He feels great about what he's accomplished at Ohio. He's led a program that never won a bowl game before his arrival in 2005 to four bowl triumphs. The Bobcats have been bowl-eligible each of the past 10 years and four times have captured the East Division of the Mid-American Conference.
That said, his days as Nebraska's head coach were bound to come up this week. Asked how long it took him to get over the shock of being fired at the end of the 2003 regular season — the Huskers were 9-3 at the time after going 7-7 in 2002 — Solich said, "I don't know that I was ever in shock. Coaching, especially in the sport of football, is a tough business. I understood that going into it."
It was especially challenging for Solich because he followed Osborne, a bona fide coaching legend who guided Nebraska to national championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Solich retained Osborne's staff of assistants, but some of those coaches were in the late stages of their careers. Meanwhile, Husker fans expected the level of success in the program achieved by Osborne to continue.
In short, the situation was in many ways untenable, although Solich never made excuses and never lashed out at media or fans.
"You don't have it happen the way it happened for Coach Osborne all the time," Solich said Tuesday. "There are a lot of people, that no matter what you get done, want it to be a little better, and I understand that. That's the nature of the business. So, I don't think I was ever truly shocked. I was able to move on very quickly and continue to do what I love."
He's always done it with class. And you can bet Frank will handle Wednesday night's dinner with class. He expressed gratitude for being named recipient of the Osborne Award.
"Anything with his name attached to it is special in my mind," Solich said. "He's been such a huge part of what I've been all about in the coaching business, so it'll be a special evening."