He was always the low-profile guy accompanying Frank Solich to various places, often wearing a spiffy leather jacket.
That's how I remember Bob Sawdon. This was during Solich's time as Nebraska's head football coach (1998-2003). As time passed I came to realize Sawdon was one of Solich's closest friends dating to their college days in the 1960s. Sawdon forever has been one of Solich's foremost allies, which is why Bob was all smiles Friday morning as we discussed over eggs and sausage what will be a memorable week ahead for his friend.
It could be a period of healing for both Solich and Husker Nation.
"I'd say it'll be a step toward healing for Frank," Sawdon said of Solich, who will be receiving the Tom Osborne Award for his contributions to college football Wednesday night during the Outland Trophy Dinner in Omaha.
The 74-year-old Solich just completed his 14th season as Ohio University's head coach. He succeeded Osborne as Nebraska's head coach before being fired with a 9-3 record following the 2003 regular season. The Huskers' 10th win that season came in the Alamo Bowl. Someday, Scott Frost will win 10 games at NU, and the entire state will rejoice.
When Solich was fired, it was an emotional time for Nebraska fans. The decision divided the state, and conversations still can get heated. No reason to dredge up that mess now. Having Solich and Osborne — and, yes, Frost — in a sold-out ballroom Wednesday night will be compelling theater. It will feel enormous. It will be a feel-good occasion that, yeah, will be a step toward healing deep wounds.
"I don't want it to sound like it's all good in that regard, that you just forget everything," Sawdon said.
Bottom line, he said, Frank's focus now is the Ohio Bobcats.
"You can't overstate the job he's done back there," Sawdon said.
Solich hasn't been back to Memorial Stadium since 2003. Plenty of folks have mentioned how nice it would be to honor him at halftime of a game in Lincoln, but hey, the guy's still working most fall Saturdays. Plus, Frank being Frank, he's not overly warm to the idea of being the focus of anything, let alone having 90,000 fans staring at him. But he'll be a major focus at the Outland Dinner, and I was frankly a little surprised he agreed to be part of it at all.
The fact Solich is receiving an award named in honor of Osborne was a deciding factor, Sawdon said.
"He and Osborne still talk often and Frank really looks up to him," Sawdon said. "Frank stays in touch with more people than you might realize back here (in Nebraska)."
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Sawdon, of course, will be on hand Wednesday night.
"I think it's great that it's happening," he said. "I think it's something that needed to happen for the state of Nebraska. You can't go into a bar or wherever and somehow the conversation doesn't get around to 'Solich got screwed' or something along those lines. Somehow I always get into those discussions and I always end up saying, 'What you see happening in the program now is because of what happened 15 years ago.'
"People will say, 'Frank went 7-7 in 2002.' And I'll say, 'But he followed it up with a 10-3.' That's what companies do when they hit problems with sales or operations. They make changes and get back on track."
Sawdon, though, emphasizes that this week is a celebration. A celebration of unity. A celebration for Frank. After all, Frost is trying to push the program forward while simultaneously continuing to honor its past. Keep in mind, Frost has been complimentary of Solich's work as the Huskers' head coach.
Solich was upbeat last week when I touched base with him. He politely declined an interview request, saying he would handle that aspect when he returns to Nebraska in coming days. We talked about Ohio's season — the Bobcats finished 9-4 (6-2 in the Mid-American Conference), closing with a 27-0 win against San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl, his fourth bowl triumph at Ohio, which had never won a bowl before his arrival. Under Solich, the Bobcats have been bowl-eligible each of the last 10 seasons.
Ohio has won the East Division of the MAC four times under Solich's watch, but never the MAC title. So he's on the chase, determined, full of fire. He's well-respected nationally, especially among his peers. To wit: He's first vice president of the American Football Coaches Association, poised to ascend to the presidency.
So, while coaches like Urban Meyer (age 54), Mark Richt (58) and Bob Stoops (58) dance into the sunset, Solich strides into meeting rooms and locker rooms and still commands respect.
"You've heard him say it: He still can relate to the kids," Sawdon said. "I've seen the respect he gets from those players. It's like, 'OK, Coach is here.' The general has walked in the room."
The general will walk into a hotel ballroom Wednesday night in downtown Omaha — and command enormous respect.
His friend Bob will smile all the while.