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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Most people don't remember precisely when Scott Frost first helped coach a college football team.

They don't remember this small slice of Frost's career because it involved a period of time that most Nebraska fans prefer to forget.

Rewind to early December of 2002. Frank Solich, in his fifth season as head coach, fired three assistants right after a 7-6 finish to the regular season. Those jettisoned were defensive coordinator Craig Bohl, secondary coach George Darlington and rush ends coach Nelson Barnes.

That left Solich short of help for Independence Bowl preparations.

The opponent, Ole Miss, wasn't a great team by any stretch. But it did feature Eli Manning at quarterback.

No way Solich wanted to manage bowl preparations with only two defensive coaches on hand. But all Frank had was interim coordinator Jeff Jamrog, who had coached the defensive line that season, and Jimmy Burrow, who was elevated from his usual graduate-assistant duties.

Enter Frost into the equation. He was in Lincoln at the time, training for what he hoped was another go-round with an NFL team — at least that's the way Burrow remembers it.

"I just know we went to Coach Solich and asked for help," said Burrow, who is now Solich's defensive coordinator at Ohio University. "Somehow it got worked out with Scott. I know he was with us during practices before we left Lincoln. He went with us to the bowl game and helped — and it was definitely needed."

Thus Frost's coaching career got off the ground, at least to a certain extent. His first full-time gig didn't occur until March of 2006, when he became a graduate assistant at Kansas State under Ron Prince.

In pursuing the K-State job, Frost perhaps told Prince he had coached in a bowl game. That's right, Frost had cut his teeth in the Independence Bowl in good ol' Shreveport, Louisiana. On a chilly Friday night in a stadium with rows of empty bleachers, Nebraska limped out of the 2002 season with a 27-23 loss.

The Huskers endured what at the time was their first nonwinning season since 1961. But the defense held up OK that day. Manning was 25-for-44 passing for 313 yards, but Ole Miss rushed for only 52 yards.

"We did pretty well, actually," Burrow said.

The defense showed focus and passion, especially early in the game. But part of the conversation back then continues to this day: Nebraska had trouble getting pressure on Manning.

But that wasn't really Frost's problem back then.

"I basically had the front seven for that game, and Scott and Jimmy had the back end," Jamrog, now the head coach at Midland University in Fremont, recalled recently. "If I remember right, Scott did most of his work with the corners, and Jimmy had the safeties."

Jamrog said he was impressed with Frost from the get-go. Mind you, it was far from a given that Frost would be an effective assistant. Young and inexperienced assistants are sometimes timid — not quite ready to coach with the forcefulness and vigor of confident veterans.

"Scott has a calm demeanor," Jamrog said. "He's got an aura about him that instills confidence. Obviously, having played at Nebraska and in the NFL, the kids looked up to him because he'd been there, done that. When he'd explain this is how you do it, this is why you do it, I think it was easier for kids to buy-in from someone who came from the pro ranks.

"It's like every word he said, the kids embraced."

But nobody could've guessed he'd become the Associated Press national coach of the year, as was the case in 2017.

"I think the thing that helps separate him from a lot of people is he's coached on both sides of the football in his career," Jamrog said. "He could coach any position on the field. You can't say that about everyone."

Frost played quarterback at both Stanford and Nebraska, then was drafted in the third round in 1998 by the New York Jets — as a safety. He played nearly six seasons in the NFL, ending his career in 2003 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"When you play safety, you better fully understand what the linebackers' fits and responsibilities are, and same goes for the defensive linemen," Jamrog said.

Frost's coaching acumen on offense is no doubt helped by how well he understands defense.

Maybe, just maybe, he learned some valuable lessons in late 2002 — something that could help him now that he occupies the big chair at North Stadium.

"I've kept in touch with Scott and followed him wherever he's been," said Burrow, who lettered as a defensive back at Nebraska in 1974-75. "He's seen a lot in the game, even though he's a relatively young guy (age 42). You combine that with his knowledge of what Nebraska is all about, that to me is one of the biggest factors in thinking it's going to get done.

"He understands the culture there and understands how it became one of the best programs in the country."

Frost also understands not every season goes as planned.

Sometimes you end up in Shreveport.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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