OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Fifteen years later, the decision to fire Frank Solich after he won 75 percent of his games in six seasons at Nebraska still stirs debate among Cornhuskers fans.
Solich had kept a low profile when he came back to the state to see family and friends over the years, and he never said much publicly about getting let go.
On Tuesday, three weeks after finishing his 14th season at Ohio, Solich was back in Nebraska to be honored at the Outland Trophy banquet Wednesday night in Omaha. During a media availability at Boys Town, a home for troubled youth, Solich expressed no hard feelings about how things ended at Nebraska. In fact, he said, life's been good.
"I don't know that I was ever in shock," he said of his 2003 firing. "Coaching, especially the sport of football, is a tough business. I understood that going in. You don't have it happen the way it happened for Coach (Tom) Osborne all the time. There are a lot of people that, no matter what you get done, want it to be a little bit better, and I understand that. I was able to move on very quickly and just continued to do what I love."
The 74-year-old Solich will receive the Tom Osborne Legacy Award for his contributions to the sport on and off the field. Osborne said he first recommended Solich for the award two or three years ago and is pleased Solich, who at first was hesitant, agreed to appear this year.
"I think as time went on he warmed up to the idea and decided this would be a good thing to do," Osborne said. "I think there's maybe a little closure needed. There's no question I felt his departure was unjustified, and many people did. Hopefully this will bring a little closure."
Solich played fullback for the Huskers in the 1960s and coached in the state at the high school level before joining Osborne's staff in 1979. Osborne retired after the 1997 season and made Solich his hand-picked successor. Solich went 58-19, won the 1999 Big 12 championship and appeared in the 2001 national championship game.
Following a 7-7 season in 2002, Solich fired several longtime assistants who also had worked for Osborne, and his 2003 squad rebounded to finish the regular season 9-3.
But former athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich because he didn't sense the Huskers, the dominant team of the 1990s, were heading the right direction. Pederson famously said he refused "to let the program gravitate into mediocrity."
The national fallout from Nebraska firing a coach who averaged more than 9½ wins a season was significant, and a protracted coaching search followed. Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini and Mike Riley came and went — each hired by a different athletic director — and all fell far short of Solich's record. Scott Frost just completed his first season with a 4-8 record.
Solich was an assistant when Frost quarterbacked the Huskers to a share of the 1997 national title and believes the program has a bright future.
"I think he'll be a great coach for Nebraska," Solich said. "He understands the game really well, he understands the recruiting process. I think he's a bright coach. I think it will all fit."
Pederson has been gone for more than 10 years, and so is the chancellor who rubber-stamped Pederson's decision to fire Solich.
Asked if it were important for him to be back in the fold at Nebraska now, Solich said he didn't look at it that way.
"Things have worked out really well for me," he said. "I love what I'm doing. I couldn't be any happier being around the coaches and players I'm around. I think I've been fortunate in this business."