By Paul Putz
If you’re a member of the so-called liberal coastal elite, you probably don’t understand the power of Scott Frost in Nebraska right now. So let me try: imagine the excitement and euphoria you felt for Barack Obama’s election in 2008—then multiply that by whatever additional excitement you would have felt if it would have been discovered that, by the miracle of modern medicine, Obama had actually served in the cabinet of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, and he was dead set on restoring the order disrupted by the Reagan Revolution.
Think of the parallels: in the midst of decline and disillusionment, a savior comes along preaching a message of hope—and that savior just happens to be personally connected to a past era in history in which your team stood all powerful.
In Nebraska, football is bigger than politics, bigger than religion. There is no big-league professional sports team in the state, no other division one football program. And there is a history, from 1962 to 2001, of dominance: no losing seasons, thirty-eight (out of forty) nine-win seasons, twenty-one conference championships, five national titles, three Heisman winners, and every single game sold out.
Then 2002 happened. Frank Solich, the hand-picked successor to Tom Osborne—who in turn was the hand-picked successor to Bob Devaney, the architect of Nebraska’s football dynasty—turned in a disastrous 7-7 season. He was given one more year, finishing 9-3, but it wasn’t enough. He was shown the door. Since that day in 2003, Nebraska football has wandered in the wilderness of mediocrity, led by guides—Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini, and Mike Riley—who could not get them back to the Promised Land.
Enter Scott Frost.
Born and raised in small-town Nebraska, Frost is a native son who quarterbacked the Cornhuskers to their last national championship in 1997. But he’s not just a native son; he’s a hometown kid who went out into the world and made it. He played as a reserve in the NFL, learning from Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, and Jon Gruden. He worked his way up the college coaching ranks, eventually landing at Oregon where he spent three years as offensive coordinator. Then he took over at Central Florida, transforming the team from 0-12 to undefeated in two years.
Frost was the hottest name on the coaching market last year (shh, quiet down Chip Kelly), and Nebraska got him. He is one of the most prominent symbols of Nebraska’s past glory, and he came home. It’s no wonder he has uplifted the mood of a state in a way that only something absurd like politics or religion or football ever could, drawing 86,000 fans (more than any other team) to Nebraska’s spring game this year and inspiring a hashtag that chronicles his transformative power: #FrostEffect.
Frost has returned home preaching a message of both hope and nostalgia, a small dose of “Yes We Can” mixed with a whole lot of “Make Nebraska Great Again.” And it’s precisely for this reason that the announcement on July 18 from Nebraska makes sense: the Cornhuskers have hired controversial coach Ron Brown, a Cornhusker assistant from 1987-2003 and 2008-2014, as their Director of Player Development.
Brown, an outspoken evangelical Christian, is connected to the former days of Nebraska glory, but he’s also connected to culture wars controversy. Football, of course, is lined with coaches and players who have conservative Christian beliefs, but few can match Brown in zeal and willingness to speak up on controversial issues, especially gay rights and homosexuality.
His most infamous moment came in 2012 when he opposed a proposed ordinance in Omaha (Nebraska’s largest city) that would ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Prior to making his comments, Brown listed his address as “Memorial Stadium.” He then proceeded to denounce the law, appealing to the religious beliefs of city council members. “For those of you on this council who have a relationship with Christ, and only you know if you do,” he stated, “you will be held to great accountability for the decision you make.”
Intense backlash and calls for Brown to be fired or censured ensued, with national media picking up the story. Brown did not apologize for his opinion. Instead, he tried to assure people that his views did not affect his ability to coach any and all players on the team. “I have and will embrace every player I coach, gay or straight,” he wrote, “but I won’t embrace a legal policy that supports a lifestyle that God calls sin.”
Brown’s statement, of course, was little comfort to supporters of gay rights, nor was the fact that he retained his job. But in 2012, the very existence of intense backlash against his comments seemed to be a sign of greater resistance to homophobia in sports. Writing for Grantland, Charles Pierce saw in the saga evidence of an ever-more-tolerant world: “I do not believe that any action should be taken against Ron Brown based on what he says and what he believes,” Pierce wrote. “That’s not what we should be doing to people in this country. But somebody should take him aside and explain to him that the world is changing around him and that, for everyone’s sake, it’s time for him to adjust or get out of the way.”
For a brief time, Brown’s travails seemed to give credence to Pierce’s perspective. In 2015 after Bo Pelini was fired from Nebraska and Brown was not retained by new head coach Mike Riley, Brown was set to join Pelini at Youngstown State. But within a few months of the announced hire, outcry over Brown’s outspoken views on homosexuality played a part in Brown’s decision to change course. He decided instead to join the football staff at Liberty University, a conservative Christian university struggling to make it into the lower echelons of Division I football.
Having toiled in exile for a few years, Brown is now back in the big leagues. His call back home to join Frost’s staff has elicited some condemnation, including from Outsports. “Ron Brown has used his Christianity to attack and demean gay people,” its July 18 subheading read. “Now he’s mentoring football players.”
Nebraska state senator Adam Morfield took to social media to express his disapproval as well. “There should be no place for coaches who use their religion and position at the university to advocate for discrimination against people simply for who they are and who they love,” he tweeted in response to the news.
And on July 20, Eric Lueshen, a gay former Nebraska football player who played for one season while Brown was a coach, offered a measured response for Outsports, calling on Nebraska and Ron Brown to address the concerns and hurt feelings of those in the LGBTQ community.
Yet, while there may be some fire and fury, don’t count on a situation like Youngstown State to play out. In a deep-red state that voted heavily for Trump, most Nebraskans will likely point to Brown’s involvement with the team’s glory years and his history of apparently working respectfully with those who do not share his beliefs, including Lueshen (who wrote that Brown never treated him with disrespect) and Muslim players like Ameer Abdullah. Perhaps of even greater importance, many Nebraskans will view calls to fire Brown as a sign of liberal intolerance for conservative values. With the University of Nebraska already facing heat from conservatives who claim that the school is a bastion of liberalism, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which embattled university leaders oust Brown and draw even more ire from the state’s mostly conservative constituency.
No, Scott Frost is here to Make Nebraska Great Again, and if he wants Ron Brown to help him, Ron Brown is going to help him.
Few flagship public universities these days would risk the backlash of hiring a Director of Player Operations with so public a reputation for anti-gay positions and statements. That Nebraska is going to do it is, perhaps more than anything else, a sign of the power of Scott Frost in Nebraska right now.
Paul Putz is a Lecturer in History at Messiah College. He is working on a book manuscript that explores the history behind the blending of sports and Christianity in the modern United States. You can follow him on twitter or read more about his work at his website.