WOOD RIVER, Neb. — Consider the American college football phenomenon, the 0-0 coach. The 0-0 coach remains unbeaten, spotless. The 0-0 coach, simply by his fresh presence, can foment an unstoppable, cascading hope except in those cases when he does not. Some 0-0 coaches are better than other 0-0 coaches, a fact both weird and unarguable.
Here in Nebraska, they have one of the best 0-0 coaches yet seen since Rutgers and Princeton started all this cherished college football tomfoolery some 149 years ago. This coach hails from this fine gumdrop of a town of 1,325, with its old bank sign and its antique shop, its water tower and grain company, its barber and Shear Power hair salon, its store with a peach of a fluffy white dog napping in the doorway.
This 0-0 coach quarterbacked Nebraska to half a 1997 national championship. His post-NFL coaching education took him to six states, to three time zones and to a great-big whoa of a 13-0 record last season at Central Florida. He inherits a program that went 19-19 over the past three seasons and 112-69 the past 14, numbers deemed insufficient.
It’s a recipe for an especially volcanic 0-0.
Nebraska hired Scott Frost on Dec. 2. Anticipation built and built through winter and spring and summer, until kickoff came at last at 7 p.m. Central time this past Saturday. Sixteen miles up Highway 30, people calibrated their time at the state fair in Grand Island to depart with ample cushion. A hundred and three miles east in Lincoln, the stadium filled.
Visiting Akron kicked off.
Then came lightning, team exits, postponement, cancellation and a statewide discussion on the radio and elsewhere about how to concoct a game to replace it — maybe Oct. 27, maybe Dec. 1 — and it’s always stirring, what chatter the aching need for a 12th game can generate, all while Scott Frost at Nebraska remains 0-0.
Until 2:30 p.m. Central time Saturday, when Nebraska apparently will play Colorado for the first time in eight seasons after playing it for 63 consecutive seasons up to then, the 43-year-old Frost will remain a fantastic 0-0.
“I think the biggest thing of anything — wins, losses — I think that he, coming back, has united the whole state,” said Jeff Ashby, the football coach at Wood River High.
It’s rare to muster such unity from Dakota County in the northeast to Kimball County in the southwest and from Richardson County in the southeast to Sioux County in the northwest, and the past few 0-0 coaches could not.
Thus did 7 p.m. last Saturday become a flash point. Of the state fair, which Wood River High Principal Terry Zessin attended, Zessin said, “You can tell everybody’s hustling to get back home to watch the game.”
Ben Egger, a 31-year social studies teacher who taught Frost and who assisted Frost’s father by coaching the running backs back in those early 1990s, said: “My whole day was built around being done early. I also have a fertilizer business.”
If you drew a national map and devised one color for late-summer football anticipation — let’s say, oh, red — the most intensified version of that color would have settled arguably over Nebraska. It’s just that soon, everybody started checking that other national map, the one with the intensified and menacing weather colors.
“You just assume the rain will pass through, and I looked at the radar and thought, ‘I don’t think this is going to pass through,’ ” said Egger, who began studying the radar and checking with his mother in Lincoln.
Zessin, excited by Nebraska’s decision to receive the opening kickoff, soon veered to checking his weather app and Twitter and thinking, “How can they have a game?”
Ashby, the Wood River coach, had arrived at noon in Lincoln, where his son, Cole, works as one of Frost’s graduate assistants. The father-coach wound up spending the would-be game hours in his son-coach’s office, with other graduate assistants, an occasion about which Ashby uttered one of the most singularly American sentences yet uttered:
“We talked about blocking schemes, stuff like that.”
Alas: “My 11-year-old daughter says she’s never going to another game after that,” he said.
He spoke in a quick break from overseeing students painting the field for Wood River’s Friday night game with Southern Valley. He spoke in front of surely one of the most idyllic Friday night fields in the country, its opposing sideline lined by cornfields breathtaking in their sprawl. It’s a field where, both Ashby and Egger noted, a healthy wind can leave the field with the odd husk around. Beside the sidewalk by the field on a Thursday, there’s even — as if some casting company brought it in — a reasonably cute and definitely skittish garter snake.
It’s a distinctive place where you can grow enthralled listening on AM radio to the prices for December corn, October live cattle, December Chicago wheat, December Kansas City wheat. School won’t meet next Wednesday, according to the website, in favor of the 41st Husker Harvest Days, an event that is readying between here and Grand Island and bills itself as “the world’s largest totally irrigated working farm show.”
Into this town, the Frosts arrived in 1989, before the junior year of their first son, Steve, and the freshman year of their second son, Scott. Their father, Larry, would coach football, and their mother, Carol, a U.S. Olympian in the discus in 1968 at Mexico City, would assist him, a curious matter that became less curious whenever anyone saw her throw a football.
Neatly and flawlessly, the public library has shelved the Wood River High yearbooks, beneath the National Geographics and above the Childcrafts. It’s a library that also gives away planting seeds and conducts a community garden with the mighty oversight of assistant Mandy Koperski, yielding squash, pumpkins, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, even peaches. Yet as the yearbooks roll along, all those years through the 20th century and on, the volumes hop from 1992 to 1994. The 1993 edition seems to have gotten up and walked away.
That was Frost’s senior year, but the freshman-through-junior years tell of considerable student-hood and clock management: routine appearances in top-student groups, the Spanish Club, an award for “Entertainment” in a district speech competition, parts in plays such as “Cheaper by the Dozen,” Frost descending a staircase in a photo of the production.
“I mean, he could do anything,” said Egger, the social studies teacher. “He could act. A great political science student. A high-level thinker.”
He could act?
“Yeah, he was a good actor. His brother was better.”
Not many social studies teachers can tell of eye-to-eye encounters with the late Bill Walsh, either the best or among the best football coaches ever, but Egger tells this, from when Walsh successfully recruited Frost to Stanford, where Frost spent two seasons before transferring: “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You guys did a hell of a job ’ ” with Frost.
On the wall to the right just beyond the entry to the school, there’s a homage to Frost with his framed purple No. 7 jersey from his Wood River Eagles days. On the semicircular panels above an open-air, main meeting place, statistics rise above the hubbub of teens, reminding that Frost not only rushed for 4,278 yards and passed for 6,793 and totaled 11,071, but his school record in the shot put — 61 feet 1½ inches — still stands, which reminds, further, that he won state titles in both that and hurdles.
Now that same figure holds down the state’s most visible and exalted job, a post once held by Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, a post where the sight of him seems “unbelievable,” Egger said, even if Egger did have “high expectations because you know what kind of kid he is, what kind of human being he is.” And while the students of 2018 weren’t born when Frost stomped through the fields and maybe even over a stray husk or two and while some know him mainly because their parents do, his move from Orlando to Lincoln carries fresh meaning in the hallways.
“I think it’s just brought hope and how important it is for these guys [students], where you could end up,” Ashby said. “Where you could end up someday. It’s like, sky’s the limit.”
Sometimes, of course, the sky’s the problem, so Frost remains 0-0 as the coach at Nebraska, presumably until sometime after 2:30 p.m. Saturday, when, somehow, Nebraskans will have to regenerate all that anticipation. They surely will manage.