Last week’s loss at home to Northern Illinois was another grim scene for Nebraska fans. (Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)
Columnist

This story, originally published Wednesday, was updated with Nebraska's firing of its athletic director.

Nebraska will open its sixth season in the Big Ten on Saturday afternoon, hosting Rutgers. Put aside how ludicrous that sentence sounds. Whatever happened to the Cornhuskers hosting Iowa State or Kansas or Kansas State in games against longtime rivals? How can it be that Nebraska is now set to play Rutgers and Maryland on a semi-regular basis and doesn't play Oklahoma or Oklahoma State?

Different story for a different day. The good folks in the football-mad state don't care that much about whom their beloved Huskers are playing. They show up — more than 85,000 of them — on game days, regardless.

And they'll show up Saturday, even after the latest upheaval, Thursday's firing of Shawn Eichorst as athletic director in the wake the Huskers' upset loss at home on Saturday to Northern Illinois.

That defeat was another blow to the psyche of fans over how their team has fallen over the better part of the last 20 years. Consider the thumbnail sketch of Saturday's game: Rutgers is 1-2, having broken an 11-game losing streak Saturday against Morgan State, a weak Football Championship Subdivision team. Nebraska is also 1-2, the win a squeaky 43-36 verdict over Arkansas State followed by losses to Oregon and Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois? Okay, let's be fair: The Huskies have been a very solid program in the underrated Mid-American Conference for a number of years now. In fact, they played in the Orange Bowl in 2013, something Nebraska hasn't done since 1998 — the last game in Tom Osborne's 25 years as coach.

That didn't stop Eichorst from telling reporters after Saturday's 21-17 loss to NIU, "I don't think there's any question that it is unacceptable," or from Chancellor Ronnie Green, who fired Eichorst on Thursday, from saying, "Like most of Husker Nation, we're certainly frustrated."

But the college football world has changed in many ways — Nebraska vs. Rutgers in a conference matchup is a pretty good example — and few of them have helped Nebraska.

The numbers put up by Osborne are so mind-boggling that any comparison to them is unfair. Osborne racked up 255 victories ; in the four seasons at the end of that run, when Osborne retired at age 60, Nebraska went 49-2 with two outright national titles and a share of a third.

Those were the days when big, strong kids from Nebraska farms regularly went to Lincoln as walk-ons rather than accept scholarships from another school.

Nebraska's best offensive lineman during the glory years was Dave Rimington, an Omaha native who won the Outland Trophy twice (1981 and 1982) and now has his name on the award for the nation's best center. During an interview this past July, Rimington was asked why Nebraska didn't have dominant offensive lines anymore. His answer was simple: "If I could change one thing, it would be the walk-on program."

The days of bringing aboard dozens of players dying to wear the Huskers uniform for free are not coming back. These days, with college being so expensive, very few, if any, talented players who are offered a scholarship are going to turn it down to pay to go to school. Even Nebraska kids who grow up Nebraska fans.

Decline didn't come immediately. Frank Solich was 58-19 in six seasons, outstanding numbers almost anywhere. In 1999, the Huskers were 12-1, beating Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. Two seasons later, they played Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national title but got hammered, 37-14. Few in Nebraska talked about the 11-2 record. Many talked about the consecutive lopsided losses (including to Colorado in the regular season finale) that ended the season.

As it turned out, that was the last time a Nebraska team lost fewer than three games or played in a major bowl game. Solich was fired after the 2003 regular season even though Nebraska went 9-3. Back-to-back trips to the Independence Bowl and the Alamo Bowl were deemed unacceptable by then-athletic director Steve Pederson, who said it was time for Nebraska to "find a new identity."

"What he found out was that the Nebraska job wasn't as coveted as he thought," said Tom Shatel, who has been a columnist at the Omaha World-Herald since 1991 and has witnessed the fall from grace up close. "Coaches weren't lined up to replace a guy who'd gone 9-3 and gotten fired. [Bill] Callahan was about the fifth person Pederson offered the job to. He came in and put in the West Coast offense. Nebraska football was never about the West Coast offense. It was about smash-mouth. As it turned out, they lost their identity."

Pederson's fear of sliding into mediocrity came true in Callahan's first season when the Huskers went 5-6 — their first losing season since 1961 and their first non-bowl season since 1968.

"Callahan didn't make it any better when he said he didn't worry about those things, he worried about personnel," Shatel said. "Then Pederson made it worse when the bowl streak came up and he said, 'These traditions all have to end sometime.' "

Pederson was fired midway through a 5-7 season in 2007 and replaced by Osborne — who fired Callahan and hired Bo Pelini.

Pelini was a model of consistency: His teams lost four games for seven straight seasons — winning nine four times and 10 three times. No conference titles, no major bowls.

Out he went after 2014 and in came Mike Riley. If nothing else Riley, who was 61, was well-traveled: Canadian Football League; World League of American Football; NFL; then 14 seasons as head coach at Oregon State. His hiring was a surprise, if only because he was comfortable in Corvallis and his record there was solid (93-80) but not overwhelming.

Three games into his third season, he hasn't overwhelmed anyone in Nebraska and he knows it. On Monday, Riley was asked by a reporter whether he was coaching for his job and answered: "Oh, I always think that."

With Eichorst's ouster, there now seems plenty of reason for everyone to think that.

"He was an out-of-left-field hire," Shatel said of Riley. "When I heard it, I remember thinking, 'Who?' But if you talk to coaches, he's highly respected. He's also done everything right off the field. Recruiting has been very good; he's great with fans and alumni and the media. He's developed very good relationships with high school coaches. But people want to see wins. The Northern Illinois game really shook people up."

Nebraska certainly isn't the only dynastic school to fall from grace: Penn State, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Texas, Miami, Michigan and Florida State have all gone through down cycles at some point in the last 20 years. Even Alabama, before Nick Saban's arrival, had some seriously mediocre seasons.

"What you find out," Shatel said, "is that it's not about the school, it's about the coach. What people in Nebraska know now for sure is that Tom Osborne was that good a coach."

Osborne is 80 now. Before this season, he gave up the huge luxury box inside Memorial Stadium that he had occupied on game days for years, saying he couldn't make it to every game and the school could put it to better financial use without him taking up the space.

Even Tom Osborne has left the building at Nebraska. Rutgers is coming to town. There's little joy in Lincoln right now.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.