Jeremiah Johnson doesn’t know. And if he does know, he ain’t telling.
You ask anyway.
“Frosty’s big thing,” offers Johnson, the defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa and an old running mate of Nebraska alum/favorite son/alleged coaching target Scott Frost, “and he’s said it publicly and he’s said it privately, is that, ‘Sometimes, people get in too big a hurry to go places when they’ve got it pretty good where they’re at.’
“Do I think he would love to be at Nebraska? Sure, everybody wants to go home, right? But if he doesn’t think the timing of that whole thing is right, maybe it’s not right. I don’t know. It’s not fair for me to say.”
Johnson goes back more than a decade with Frosty. They both were hired by UNI coach Mark Farley before the 2007 season: Johnson, from Division III Loras (Iowa) College, to serve as secondary coach and video coordinator; Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback, from Kansas State, where he’d worked as a graduate assistant, as the Panthers’ linebackers coach.
“What I always look for in guys is, ‘Are they great teachers?’ ” Farley recalls. “But as soon as [Frost] got on the board, and he started talking football, and he started talking spots, and he was detailing how to play the game, and the words that he said, and how it came out, you could see he was a great teacher. You could see all he needed was a great opportunity to get it done.”
‘He can connect with anybody’
In only his second season as a head coach, Frost’s Central Florida side is 6-0 for the first time in school history. The Knights are ranked 18th in the country and host Austin Peay this weekend as one of the most likely suitors for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl slot. His alma mater is 3-4 after seven games for the second time in three seasons. The Cornhuskers are coming off their worst defeat at home to a league opponent since 1949, and visit Purdue (3-4) this weekend as 6-point underdogs.
“You’re very prideful of it, and you’re happy for him,” says Farley, who’s had a number of fast-risers pass through his staff since his arrival at Cedar Falls in 2001, including Indiana linebackers coach William Inge, a former Panthers co-defensive coordinator. “It’s kind of neat to see it. His first year here and then his second year here, basically, all he needed was an opportunity.”
But it’s the next opportunity — Nebraska? Tennessee? Oregon State? — that has the college football world buzzing.
UCF athletic director Danny White recently announced the formation of a “Football Excellence Fund,” a fancy name for passing the hat around to donors to try and bump up assistant coaches pay — a major hurdle for non-majors — and try to entice Frost, who recently got a salary bump to roughly $2 million per year, to stick around. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd mentioned in his weekly program power rankings Monday that he’d heard that the 42-year-old Frost, who quarterbacked the Cornhuskers’ last national championship squad in 1997, “would most likely go to Nebraska if offered.” Meanwhile, Tony Dungy thinks Dodd’s sources are full of hooey:
— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) October 17, 2017
Regardless, someone is going to roll up the Brink’s truck soon and dump the load at Frost’s feet. A Power 5 job for the Wood River, Neb., native isn’t an if anymore — it’s a question of when and where.
“[It’s] because of how he connects to players,” Farley says. “It’s all about connections to players. He’s at that stage in his life where he’s worked for some tremendous people and played for some tremendous people. So he’s got experience offensively and defensively as a player … he can relate to alumni and relate with boosters. He’s the whole package.”
“He’s sharp, now — Frosty is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my whole life,” Johnson laughs. “I guess [his rise] is not that surprising to me, because he’s Frosty.
“People like Scott. He can talk to anybody. He can connect with anybody. And I think the thing that Scott does that always impressed me was, he has a way to make everybody feel important. You know what I mean?
“I think it’s genuine. I think he’s a genuine guy that can [relate to] the people that he comes in contact with … I don’t think it’s hard anymore for recruits and parents to find a phony, and I think Scott’s very real and very genuine.”
During Frost’s two years on the UNI staff — 2007 and 2008 — the Panthers won conference titles. Farley still chuckles when he thinks about the A-list references on Frost’s resume — including one in particular who made it a point to call and recommend his former prodigy.
“I’ll never forget when coach [Tom] Osborne called me about him,” Farley laughs. “I was just sitting in a chair in the middle of the summer. He called up and said, ‘Mark, this is Tom Osborne.’
“And I remember sitting up in my chair. I remember sitting up in my chair real straight.”
In his second season, Frost was elevated to co-defensive coordinator; the Panthers finished among the FCS top 25 in total defense that fall and reached the national semifinals.
“I think it would be a pretty cool deal if it happened. But that’s way over my pay grade.”
— Northern Iowa defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson on Scott Frost returning to Nebraska
“He understood the game — he could watch some film one time and he knew what they were doing,” Johnson says. “Where the rest of us, we have to watch a couple times before we figure it out.
“In the spring, I sat in his room and tried to learn as much as I could from him when he had his position meetings. He relates to kids, the way that he could explain things obviously made sense. And the kids understood and the kids played hard for him.”
And if explaining and telling didn’t do the trick, Frost, who threw for 18 scores and ran for 28 more as the Huskers’ starting signal caller, wasn’t averse to showing in a pinch. Farley recalled his young coach expressing frustration during one late November practice as the scout team struggled to replicate the pace of New Hampshire’s high-octane offense.
“I remember Scott kind of jumping in right there and he took over the quarterback [role] and he said, ‘This isn’t going fast enough,’ and he took over and played quarterback that day,” Farley says.
“But that’s the kind of competitor he was. He jumped in and took over. And players can respond to that and players can respect that, and that’s what stood out.”
‘Tom Osborne is his greatest mentor besides his folks’
He translates. Defense. Offense. Staff. Big school. Little school. Spread. Option. Pro style. Boosters. Alumni. Faculty. The whole package is out there for somebody, somewhere, to unwrap.
And while we’re on the subject of packages, the UNI assistant offers up this story: When Frost was getting ready to move across country to join Chip Kelly’s staff at Oregon, Johnson’s wife, Nicki, was about three months away from delivering their firstborn.
Before he left, Frost presented the Johnsons with a gift box.
“This is for your child,” he told them.
“Frosty bought us a Wii for the kids,” Johnson says with a laugh. “Which we still have today, by the way.”
Scott Frost doesn’t forget a friend.
Or his roots.
“The way that Scott and I always talked about it, Tom Osborne is his greatest mentor besides his folks,” Johnson says. “And he always spoke very, very highly of coach Osborne and obviously of the experience that he had at Nebraska. And it’s amazing that he played for Bill Walsh [at Stanford], too — there’s not very many people in the world that played for Bill Walsh and Tom Osborne, and he’s one of them.
“I know he has an extremely high affinity for Lincoln and for the University of Nebraska and for the football program. And I think it would be a pretty cool deal if it happened. But that’s way over my pay grade.”
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