The first warning sign appeared in an underground hallway of the Chicago Hilton.
It was July 2019 and optimism for Nebraska’s coming football season was in full bloom. National media considered the Huskers a co-favorite to win the Big Ten West division. NU was a trendy breakout pick after a strong finish the previous fall.
But before Nebraska coach Scott Frost and players spoke to reporters that afternoon, then-Athletic Director Bill Moos offered a different standard for a successful year around a huddle of cameras and microphones in a dim corridor a few yards outside the main conference rooms.
“We really need to get to six (wins),” he said. “We need to get into the postseason and get all those extra practices and get that recognition in college football.”
Alas, the Huskers ultimately fell short — a 5-7 campaign followed to put a damper on Year 2 of the Frost era.
Now Big Ten media days are back, an eclectic family reunion returning after a one-year hiatus during the pandemic. Coaches from all 14 league schools will bring three players apiece in a two-day event at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis where fresh storylines, perspectives and predictions are sure to emerge ahead of a new season.
The Huskers are among seven teams submitting to questions Thursday, with Frost speaking for 15 minutes at 10:30 a.m. and then again for an hour beginning at 12:15 p.m. Veteran players Deontai Williams (safety), Ben Stille (defensive end) and Austin Allen (tight end) take their turns at 2 p.m.
Whatever message NU’s reps send will contribute to the tone for the months ahead. Frost in 2018 made national headlines for his “People better get us now” line in a debut appearance full of bravado and conviction. Beyond Moos’ comments in 2019, questions about lingering legal issues with running back Maurice Washington and Frost’s pitch for expanded facilities portended future developments.
And while media days were canceled in 2020 amid the pandemic, the events that followed — including eight Nebraska players suing the Big Ten and NU leadership rallying against league consensus while fighting for a season — strained Nebraska’s relationship with its peers.
“I look back at our stance on it and we took a pretty strong stance on it,” Frost said last month in Kearney. “I’m not sure if I’d do it again because it put the crosshairs on us.”
Now Nebraska will again be in close proximity with its league brethren, from administrators to coaches on down. Its standing within the league figures to be one of many talking points inside the home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, which will host the Big Ten championship (Dec. 4) and the College Football Playoff title game (Jan. 10) this year.
Other Husker-related storylines to watch:
» A “prove-it” year for Frost. Embarking on his fourth year in Lincoln with a 12-20 record and an offense that hasn’t come close to conquering league defenses, the NU coach will surely receive some pointed questions from national media in particular. That the campaign will play out under a new athletic director in Trev Alberts only adds to the rising sense of urgency to win games in Lincoln.
» Alberts is set to be in the building as he gets to know the people and landscape of his new conference. Will he give interviews like Moos did two years ago or stay behind the scenes following his hire last week? Frost will also field plenty of questions about his new boss after only issuing a statement supporting Alberts while on vacation.
» The defense. Williams and Stille are longtime starters who chose to return for a sixth year of college football because of their faith in the Blackshirts, who return nine of 11 starters and their top eight tacklers from 2020. Add Allen, NU’s top returning receiver, and the Huskers are bringing three of their more thoughtful, colorful and occasionally blunt interviews to Indy even if two of their brightest stars are staying home in quarterback Adrian Martinez and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.
» Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren will begin Thursday with a 30-minute press conference at 9:30 a.m. What sort of COVID-19 protocols might be in place for the 2021 campaign? How controlled his session is and the questions he receives will be of high interest after his disastrous handling of last year.
» NIL. The acronym — representing athletes’ new ability to profit from their name, image and likeness — will be a popular topic throughout the week. Nebraska, with no professional teams as competition and a rabid fan base, has a perceived recruiting edge in the new reality. What do current Huskers think? Perspective from other schools’ coaches and players should give better insight into where NU really stands in the NIL arms race.