A smile beaming on his face, his eyes misty, his feet firmly planted on the specially painted 45-yard line.
The 66,045 in attendance at Memorial Stadium stood in applause as he waited to speak, standing on Tom Osborne Field for the first time in decades.
After a moment, Solich lifted the microphone. Nope. Not yet. The crowd still roared.
Through the cacophony, a solo voice rang out: “We love you, Frank.”
In true Solich fashion, his remarks were brief — thanking his family, Tom Osborne and Nebraska fans. But his ending contained words he hadn’t said publicly for decades: “What do you say, let’s go big red, huh?”
In a spring game that could have been the Matt Rhule Show for his first rodeo as NU’s skipper, the day instead focused on Solich as the Huskers’ guest of honor.
On Thursday, Rhule said, “The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is seeing coach Solich honored. I’m really excited about that because to think that I’m the head coach at the same place as Tom Osborne and Frank Solich and Bob Devaney and all the people that have come since, that’s a real honor to be a part of that.”
As Nebraska embarks on its next chapter, there’s a bookmark wedged in the pages of years past — easily accessible for this staff to draw upon for the future.
Though, for the first time in decades, the metaphorical dust lining the pages of Solich’s chapter has been wiped away.
Twenty years is a long time.
Not long enough to heal all wounds, but long enough to offer perspective.
Twenty years ago, Solich was fired.
On Saturday, Nebraska announced it was naming its new locker room after him — “honoring a Husker Legend for his dedication and service as a player, assistant coach, and head coach” as his commemorative horseshoe plaque reads.
“It’s a little emotional for everybody, including us and him,” athletic director Trev Alberts said Friday. “We had one chance to do this. We wanted it to be perfect.”
For Solich, his return had nothing to do with the length of time since he’d been unceremoniously ousted. Instead, it was due to Rhule opening up the lines of communication from the coaching side.
“I just felt comfortable with it right now,” Solich said Friday. “Coach Rhule, when he got to town, he got a hold of coach Osborne. We texted back and forth. We talked on the phone. And that wasn’t happening before.
“I just felt welcomed in that manner and knew that it would be good to get back and be a part of what Nebraska is all about again.”
With Solich on the sidelines, Nebraska came full circle Saturday.
Rhule called timeout.
In a normal game, under normal circumstances, you’d be perplexed as to why Nebraska needed a timeout after the game’s first play.
But this wasn’t a normal game. This is spring ball. Things are allowed to be unconventional.
Let’s backtrack a few seconds.
For NU’s first scripted play, the White team ran a fullback dive through the B gap out of the I-Formation — a not-so-subtle nod to Solich.
There’s the inspiration for the early timeout.
Rhule walked over, with the ball in-hand, and gifted it to Solich. After the two shared a hug, Solich raised the ball over his head toward West Stadium in a visible show of appreciation.
“He’s someone I’ve always looked up to,” Rhule said after the game. “He’s always been so kind to me. And so, to hand the ball off to the fullback on the first play and be able to hand the ball to him, that’s a bucket list item for me.”
Solich being back here, you could tell it was a bucket list item for him too.
The Solich family had places to be after Frank’s halftime ceremony, but he felt the pull of all the Husker fans clamoring for autographs and selfies and all the ex-Husker players wanting a word.
For nearly half the third quarter, Solich happily obliged — slowly making his way down the red fence near the northwest tunnel.
Something tells me that won’t be the last time he’ll make an appearance here.
He appeared to be at ease. At home.
“It’s good for me,” Solich said Friday. “I looked forward to coming back and just never found the opportunity to be right. Now it seems to be right. So, I’m glad I’m back. I’ve got a lot of really good friends here. Get a chance to visit them and maybe come to some games.”
A Funk native and graduate of Lincoln Southeast, Amie Just joined the Journal Star as sports columnist after spending five seasons covering football for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Missoulian in Missoula, Montana.