LINCOLN, Neb. -- They came with paper, wood and two decades of angst. Maybe the 200 or so people who showed up had watched too much "Ted Lasso" and thought everything that plagued Nebraska football could be fixed with a symbolic burning of things they held dear. The Lincoln fire department put the kibosh on any burning of jerseys, footballs or pretty much anything synthetic, so they wrote down all their bad memories on slips of paper and blocks of wood and tossed them into a burning barrel.
It was Aug. 25, two days before the start of Nebraska's football season, and a group of diehards who couldn't afford a trip to Ireland to watch their team take on Northwestern assembled in the concourse of Nebraska's baseball stadium for a "Break the Curse" event.
Needless to say, things got a little weird. They doused old football jerseys with a cleansing water made with some salt found on a wiccan website. A radio intern cracked an egg on his head, and a band played as dusk fell over downtown Lincoln.
Jack Mitchell, one of the creators of the event, stood and watched and knew in his gut it wasn't enough. He had failed to deliver the most important participant: Frank Solich.
The Curse of Frank Solich is as real as cutworm on a cornstalk in some parts of Nebraska, and if you believe in such things, it won't go away until amends are made, or at least until a substantial amount of time has been spent in purgatory.
It's been 18 years, nine months and 16 days since Nebraska famously fired Solich after a 9-3 regular season. And Nebraska, once a powerhouse that won five national championships and went 414-82-5 in a four-decade span from the early '60s to 2003, has languished through eight losing seasons since then. Four coaches have been hired and fired at Nebraska since Solich, and the Cornhuskers have failed to finish better than the 10-3 mark achieved by his last team, which went on to win its bowl game in his absence.
Mitchell, co-host of KLIN's Morning Drive in Lincoln, knew it was a longshot that Solich would come. But he was hoping to get him to speak on the video board, decked out in Husker gear, and say that all is forgiven.
Through an intermediary, Solich naturally declined, albeit politely. Solich had spent more than half of his life in Nebraska, as a player, a high school coach, a longtime NU assistant and then six years as head coach. But it's believed that he hasn't stepped foot near Memorial Stadium in Lincoln since his 2003 dismissal.
On Saturday, less than a week after Nebraska fired native son Scott Frost, the Cornhuskers will face No. 6 Oklahoma in Lincoln. The school that was once the model of coaching continuity, with just three coaching changes in four decades from the 1960s through the early 2000s, will rest its hopes in the hands of interim coach Mickey Joseph.
Just a few years ago, Frost appeared to be the most surefire hire since, well, Solich. Frost was a former NU quarterback who led the program to its last national championship, in 1997, and was one of the hottest names in the 2017 coaching carousel. He finished 16-31 at Nebraska, coached the first team in the history of major college football to lose seven straight games by a single-digit margin, and in the 2022 season opener decided to gamble on an onside kick with his Cornhuskers carrying an 11-point second-half lead and all the momentum.
It did not go well.
"The abject cruelty of it all does make it feel like there is something, some metaphysical debt that needs to be paid," Mitchell says. "I can't figure it out, but I feel like this fan base has been in collections for 20 years and you don't know how to get out of it and the interest rate is 50%.
"I almost feel that I failed. If I had delivered Frank, we'd be 3-0 heading into Oklahoma."
In Nebraska, there are reasons to believe in the curse.
There was the embarrassing 41-day coaching search to find Solich's replacement when multiple candidates turned the job down.
There was the extra second added to the game clock in the 2009 Big 12 championship game against Texas, denying the Cornhuskers what could have been their first and only conference title post-Solich.
There was the Bo Pelini hat swipe, the seven-game losing skid (and counting) to Iowa, and Frost's coaching debut in 2018 against Akron. The teams ran out onto the field, and the Zips booted the opening kickoff. Then lightning flashed, the sky opened and after a two-hour and 40-minute delay, the game was canceled.
Mike Lippman, an associate professor at Nebraska who teaches a class called Ancient Greek Athletics, is sitting outside in a coffee shop/beer garden near campus Tuesday night when I ask him if he believes in curses.
"I believe in luck," Lippman says. "And I think you can have bad luck because of bad actions."
In the spring of 2017, a few months before the Cornhuskers embarked upon another losing season, a young woman, supposedly a descendant of Solich, spoke to about 90 people in one of Lippman's classes. She said her mother had put a curse on Nebraska football. One of the students in that class, Matt Reynoldson, eventually tweeted about it.
Reynoldson is a sports anchor for WFRV in Green Bay, Wisconsin, now, and doesn't remember all the details. But he recalls that the woman said her mother "went and put a curse on Memorial Stadium in 2003, and that until Nebraska makes things right with Frank that they will never win at the level they saw in previous years."
Lippman does not want to disclose the young woman's name because she'd told him that years ago, when Solich was coaching at Nebraska and the Huskers weren't winning enough games, the family had been the recipient of threats, and she didn't want to experience any of that.
He asked her to speak to his class because he was trying to get students to think about the importance of athletics in society. Lippman, originally from New Jersey, doesn't really follow the football team, refers to the former football coach as Jack Frost and doesn't seem to put much stock in the curse.
"The way I heard the story is that [Solich] was pretty good," he says, "and he did his job well, but he was no Tom Osborne. So that's kind of like saying you're not Superman but you're still a firefighter.
"I think [football] is a religion here, at least from an ancient Greek point of view."
Imagine succeeding Tom Osborne. Imagine being 53 years old when you're finally handed the keys to your dream job then trying to live up to a man who won 255 games, had an .836 winning percentage and never lost more than three games in a season in 25 years. All these years later, whenever something big happens in the program, or even the state, he's still the guy whom reporters call to gauge his reaction.
Solich was never going to be that person. He came along when the landscape in college football was changing. Nebraska no longer could boast about being one of the select teams with TV exposure or having the fanciest weight room or practice field. Solich's supporters wanted the school to commit to facilities upgrades so Nebraska could compete in the Big 12 arms race. He never made it that far.
The last game of the 2003 regular season was on the Friday after Thanksgiving at Colorado, where Nebraska was humiliated two years earlier in a 62-36 loss so iconic the score was stamped on vanity license plates in Colorado. If the Huskers could win in Boulder that '03 season, there was a general sense that Solich's job would be safe.
The postgame scene was emotional after Nebraska beat the Buffaloes 31-22, seemingly exorcising the demons of Boulder from '01.
"We 100% went to bed that night thinking coach Solich was safe," says Lornell McPherson, a cornerback on the '03 team. "We thought we were going to save Coach's job when we beat Colorado."
But that Saturday, Solich was gone. Steve Pederson, Nebraska's athletic director at the time, vowed during a news conference that he would not allow Nebraska's program to be mediocre. Almost two decades later, Husker fans would kill for the "mediocrity" of going 9-3.
McPherson is part of a group text among about 30 former players, and he acknowledges some of the comments exchanged during the Northwestern game were not suitable for family audiences. He wonders where the program would be now if Solich wasn't fired in 2003.
"I think Solich was done wrong, and I think Pelini was done wrong," McPherson says. "When was 9-3 bad? Now look at us."
Bill Moos, Nebraska's AD from 2017 to 2021, says when he was trying to hire Frost in late '17, the native son was apprehensive to come back in part because of the Solich firing.
"He didn't think Nebraska was Nebraska and had gone away from the tradition and legacy of what made it what it was," Moos says. "To be fair, he was pointing to that period of [Pederson] and [former chancellor Harvey Perlman].
"I convinced him we could get back to that, and that I had a track record of being a coaches' AD and I was going to have his back."
Moos got a sense of the expectations at Nebraska during the 2019 Big Ten media day, when he told reporters he was hoping that the Huskers could win six games. He said the news media "ripped my ass" for aiming for such low goals. But Moos told them that six wins would get them to a bowl game, and that the extra practices would lay the foundation for future success. Nebraska never went to a bowl game under Frost, but Moos isn't sure that it was because of any curse.
"Well, I'm a little bit superstitious," Moos says. "But I don't know if the curse is as big a piece of it as maybe bad decisions along the way. And maybe the curse led to bad decisions. There was a series of those. Certainly, I hope I don't go down as one of them. We did some amazing things to set up that curse going away. The industry's different than the 1990s, and there's so much parity."
When he came to Nebraska, Moos had hoped that the school could make amends to Solich. In 2019, Solich traveled to Omaha to receive the Tom Osborne Award at the Outland Trophy banquet. It was believed to be the first time he'd made a public appearance in the state since 2003.
Solich smiled and posed for photos with Moos and Frost, and Moos felt as if any hard feelings had gone away.
Solich thrived after he left Nebraska. He went to Ohio University, turned around a moribund program and became the Mid-American Conference's all-time winningest coach. He won 115 games, lost 82, and thrilled the Bobcats' fan base. Next month, Ohio will name its football field after Solich, who wasn't immediately available for this story.
Jimmy Burrow, a Nebraska alum who coached alongside Solich at Ohio, says Solich was uncomfortable with the field-naming at first. He's never been one to crave attention. But eventually he was convinced that it wasn't just honoring him; it was honoring all of the players he'd coached.
Burrow, whose son Joe is quarterback for the Bengals, was Solich's graduate assistant in the early 2000s and they became close friends in Ohio. He's grateful for Solich's kindness, and how he allowed him to get in his car on Friday nights and drive to his son's high school games. "Those are things as a dad you can't put value on," Burrow says.
In the end, everything worked out for Frank Solich. He's beloved by a fan base, and, in some ways, yearned for by another. Shortly after Trev Alberts became Nebraska's athletic director last year, Burrow and Alberts texted each other about the possibility of a Solich homecoming in Lincoln. Burrow says it's still "a work in progress."
"It still all goes back to the way it ended at Nebraska," Burrow says. "I mean, he's had opportunities to go back. He's had opportunities to be the face of different spring clinics and those type of things. He's just chosen not to do it. I'm sure Trev at some point will really push for that to happen."
The Break the Curse event in Lincoln obviously did not work, and over the past four weeks, employees at KLIN, and most likely the co-sponsor, Omaha's 1620 the Zone, have received their share of snarky comments.
Jack Mitchell was a high school student in Lincoln during those rollicking years in the '90s, and he's been so mystified by the Cornhuskers' struggles that he's immersed himself in alternative curse theories. What else, he thought, happened in the early 2000s that could have messed with Nebraska?
He did a lot of research on Oren "Buck" Beltzer, a two-sport star who captained Nebraska's football and baseball teams in 1909. The university would later name its baseball field after Beltzer, but in 2002, the baseball team moved to its new digs at Haymarket Park, and Buck Beltzer Field eventually was converted to outdoor practice fields for the football team.
Mitchell developed this theory that maybe Buck Beltzer was mad that his field got torn down, and that he was controlling Nebraska athletics from the grave. He noted the year Beltzer died, 1959, was the same year in which an unranked Nebraska team upset No. 19 Oklahoma 25-21 on Halloween, ending OU's 16-game winning streak against the Cornhuskers.
Mitchell gave his Beltzer spiel to the crowd at the Break the Curse event, but no one seemed very interested in it. Most of the audience was focused on the Solich curse, and 19 autumns of misery.