George Darlington views the state of the Nebraska football program through a unique lens.
The Huskers have lost eight of their last nine games dating to last season. For fans of a certain age, it’s a remarkable development.
Darlington was an integral part of an era of Nebraska football that was remarkable for different reasons.
He became an assistant in 1973, when teams played 11 regular-season games. Darlington recalls another former Husker assistant, Jim Ross, proclaiming after the sixth win each year that it was "yet another winning season in the books." Of course, winning six games was a given in those days. After all, Tom Osborne’s teams won at least nine every season starting in 1973 until he retired following the 1997 campaign.
Unfortunately, nine-win seasons came to be taken for granted by many fans.
“Years later, when Nelson Barnes came here as an assistant (in 1997), we always made a joke, ‘We just won our sixth game; it’s a winning season,’” Darlington recalled this week. “Nelson would say, ‘No, no, no, no. A winning season at Nebraska is nine wins.’
“Sometimes even if we won nine, it was considered a terrible year.”
Think about that for a second, Husker fans.
Nebraska’s resounding success under Osborne — capped, of course, by national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997 — created certain standards, certain expectations. But the program Osborne led essentially was destroyed in a series of awful decisions by upper-level university administrators, most notably former chancellor Harvey Perlman. Long story short, current Husker coach Scott Frost inherited a situation so dire — the team was 4-8 last season and often noncompetitive — that the program’s longtime standards of winning are temporarily suspended.
Nebraska, which fired two head coaches who won nine regular-season games, would throw a downtown parade this year if the Huskers win nine, especially after their 0-2 start. Six wins would be regarded by many as success. But I'm guessing such diminished standards won’t last long.
“They are doing the things necessary to get it back,” says Darlington, the program’s secondary coach in 1997 when Frost guided Nebraska to an undefeated season as a senior quarterback.
“They practice hard,” Darlington adds. “Players get a lot of repetitions. Everyone’s aware of the offense’s fast pace. They’re doing it all while demanding that kids play hard. And I’ll say this: With Mike Riley’s approach — and in some ways Bo Pelini’s, too — the players weren’t trained to go four quarters. They really weren’t.
“With Scott’s practices, they get more done in one practice than those guys would get in three practices.”
Keep in mind Darlington’s credentials. In his 30 years as a Nebraska assistant, Husker teams were more often than not regarded as serious national championship contenders. He was the position coach for no fewer than six first-team All-Americans. Oklahoma and Nebraska competed in a series of rivalry games that captured the national spotlight because the winner often played for all the marbles.
So, when Darlington praises Frost’s practice organization, I listen.
He says in recent years there were far too many players standing around during practice.
“How in the world do you expect a player to play well on Saturdays when he’s been on the sideline picking his nose and thinking about pizza?” he says. "Because of the fast pace of Scott’s practices and the way practice is organized (with multiple stations), they’re going to work on things and get more repetition with the long-range approach of developing players.
"The scout team is energized. They work their butt off. The coaches are forcing guys to play every play in practice.”
The development component obviously won't bear fruit overnight. Darlington hopes fans keep that in mind.
Please be patient, Darlington tells those in his annual football class Thursday evenings at Southeast Community College. Attendance is up because of excitement about the Frost era. The first class was this week, but you can still sign up by calling 402-437-2700.
He teaches a similar class in Omaha. He’s insightful, humorous and can be wonderfully blunt.
“I’m big on speed, and I don’t see a whole bunch of guys on this year’s team who can fly around,” he says. “But they’re trying and hustling and ultimately, that’s all you can ask. If you see effort, that’s the first step of a 1,000-mile journey.”
You didn’t always see Nebraska sell out with maximum effort last season.
“You’d be lying through your teeth if you said you thought it was going to get better under Riley,” Darlington says. “They might’ve been able to luck out in a season, but they were going to revert back to the way it was before Bob Devaney came.”
OK, maybe not that bad. Devaney’s predecessor, Bill Jennings, was 15-34-1 from 1957-61. But you get the idea.
"I'll tell you this straight out: Two or three years from now, they aren't going to lose to the likes of Colorado and Troy," Darlington says. "You're going to see a better product. But for awhile, it could be painful."
A little pain's good for the soul, an American Legion baseball coach used to tell me.
I trust what George tells me, too.