When you consider Nebraska's all-time toughest offensive linemen, Dominic Raiola quickly springs to mind.
I hadn't heard from Raiola in years. But Sunday, he sent me an email expressing concern about the state of the Husker football program. "Hope change is on the way," he wrote.
We caught up via phone Monday. Retired from a 14-year NFL playing career with the Detroit Lions and living in suburban Detroit, Raiola supports Scott Frost as Mike Riley's successor as Nebraska head coach. Seems all signs point to the scenario becoming reality. And if it does, let's hope the Huskers somehow regain the hard-edged competitiveness with which young men like Raiola played the game as an All-American at NU in 2000 and later in the NFL, where he started for 13 seasons.
You don't become a 13-year starter in the NFL if you're not a tough hombre.
A native of Honolulu, Raiola loves his alma mater. But he could hardly watch the Huskers late in the season, they often were so noncompetitive. The program became something he hardly recognized.
"I don't understand how they ran that place like that," he said. "It was almost like a (Bill) Callahan, but worse."
Raiola isn't a choirboy. He had several safety-related violations in the NFL. But he's not running for U.S. Senate, he's talking about toughness on a football field, a subject on which I trust his judgment implicitly.
By the way, Frost obviously was a tough-minded and rugged college quarterback, leading Nebraska to the national championship in 1997, when Raiola was a true freshman.
"I just remember his diligence — stacking good days on good days and leaning hard on his running ability and being a very, very high-football-IQ guy," Raiola said.
They had an advantage back then that current Huskers lack — that is, the "good pressure" of striving to live up to the incredibly high standards of teams that immediately preceded them. In that regard, Raiola recalls the awful feeling in his stomach in 1998 when Nebraska finished 9-4.
"I swear to God, I thought the world was coming to an end," he said. "We were embarrassed to walk around campus."
Teammate Tracey Wistrom was his off-campus neighbor. When Grant Wistrom, a Nebraska All-America rush end in 1997, visited Lincoln, Raiola had trouble facing him.
"There was an accountability that came with the culture," Raiola said. "That's what came with the territory of playing at Nebraska."
If Nebraska finishes 9-4 in 2018, it will be hailed as a remarkable turnaround in the context of this season's alarming late-season collapses that led to a 4-8 finish.
Raiola thinks back to his occasional visits to Lincoln — his daughter is a standout high school volleyball player who has attended John Cook's camp. Raiola watched a couple of summer football workouts last year and stopped by the weight room. That's where improvement has to start, he said. That's where an aggressive tone and mentality can be established.
"Let's not go all high-fives and be all happy — that's what I saw (from the strength staff)," Raiola said. "There's a time when you have to be stuck in a cave and dig yourself out of it."
"It just never felt like Nebraska, man," he added. "Those guys (Riley's staff) didn't know Nebraska. They were so out of touch. …
"I'm in Michigan. I played with (Jim) Harbaugh. I know Jimmy. I know he doesn't turn away from Lloyd Carr and the way Bo Schembechler did things there. You can't make it 1985 again, and you can't make it 1997 again. But you can appreciate what's happened before and get those (ex-players and coaches) in your ear. Now, if they're overstepping, that's different, but I know Coach (Tom) Osborne would never do stuff like that. He'd want success for the guy in charge.
"But there's a certain way to do it at Nebraska. There's a certain way to get to the kids. There's a certain culture that needs to be cultivated there that was already cultivated."
Raiola was in Lincoln for the Oct. 7 Wisconsin game, when the 1997 team was honored. The Husker program may never get back to that level, he said. In the next breath, though, he'll tell you that you can't rule it out. He suggests selling to recruits the chance to reignite the program. Get ex-Husker standouts heavily involved. Emphasize to prospects the level of success the program used to achieve, and convince them it can happen again.
"It can be done, you know what I mean?" said Raiola, his voice rising. "They have the resources. And people love that place. The same thing they're doing at Alabama, Nebraska can do."
He spoke with equal parts passion and frustration. He has voiced his concerns to NU system President Hank Bounds.
"He wants to get it right," Raiola said.
I like that Bounds takes time to listen to Raiola and other ex-Huskers who are heavily invested. Raiola is optimistic about the future, particularly if that future involves Frost, for Frost blazed his own trail in his profession and became one of the nation's most sought-after coaches.
"He took what Coach Osborne and other great coaches taught him and made it happen," Raiola said. "I think he can change that place, man, I really do."