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Jim Polzin: Nebraska's plight a reminder of why Wisconsin football fans shouldn't be spoiled by success

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coaches photo 11-19

Nebraska coach Scott Frost and UW coach Paul Chryst talk before the Nov. 16, 2019, game in Lincoln. UW won 37-21.

The University of Wisconsin football team’s next opponent brings a cautionary tale along with it to Camp Randall Stadium.

Nebraska’s road uniforms should come with a warning label: Beware, Badgers, this could be you if you’re not careful.

There was a time when nine-win seasons weren’t good enough for the Cornhuskers and led to coaches getting fired. That merry-go-round has been spinning for two decades and Nebraska is as far away from its glory years of the 1990s as it has ever been.

This season may be rock bottom for the Huskers, or the fall may continue beyond 2021: They bring a 3-7 overall record and 1-6 mark in Big Ten Conference play into a game against the No. 19 Badgers (7-3, 5-2) on Saturday.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost fired four of his offensive assistants earlier this month. Even in a college football coaching landscape that’s as volatile as ever, a move like that is almost unheard of and reeks of desperation.

Frost, meanwhile, will return for a fifth season in 2022 (with a lower buyout) despite being 15-27 overall, 10-23 in Big Ten play and 6-15 against West Division opponents at his alma mater.

On the other sideline is a coach with a much higher approval rating but, I’d argue, not as high as it should be for a portion of the UW fan base. The Badgers are riding a six-game winning streak since an ugly start to the season, and two more victories will give them their fourth division title in seven seasons under Paul Chryst.

The members of the “Fire Chryst” club were loud when UW was 1-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten in early October, even though Chryst still had a .722 overall winning percentage and 37-15 mark in conference play at that point. That noise has quieted down, though all it will take is a loss in the next three weeks to strike up the angry band once again.

But it’s not just what I hear, it’s what I see. And what I saw last week during a 35-7 win over Northwestern was a venue with a lot of open seats.

When we reached out to fans for a story on that topic this week, most of the reasons given for skipping the game were predictable and understandable: the pandemic, long lines to get in the stadium and at concession stands, bad opponent, 11 a.m. kickoff, the weather, etc.

What surprised me was to hear multiple people admit they essentially gave up on the Badgers once they fell out of contention for the College Football Playoff. Far be it from me to tell fans how they should spend their hard-earned money, but drawing the line at playoff elimination and not supporting a team still in the running for a Big Ten title is a real head-scratcher.

Not to belabor a point I made earlier in the season, but those who believe UW can become Ohio State should realize there’s a better chance of the Badgers going the other way and becoming, well, the Cornhuskers.

“It’s easy to take winning for granted,” said former UW athletic director and football coach Barry Alvarez, who played for the Cornhuskers. “I think that here sometimes. How many years in a row going to bowl games, where we didn’t go for a long time, and now it’s automatic and it’s not easy. It’s not just automatic and it’s a very, very competitive league.”

Nebraska hasn’t had a winning record, overall or in Big Ten play, since it went 9-4 (6-3) under Mike Riley in 2016. He lasted only one more season after that.

Prior to that, it was four-loss Bo Pelini in charge. Pelini finished with exactly four defeats in each of his six full seasons and was 9-3 in 2014 when he got fired. (Yes, the Huskers lost the bowl game).

Pelini’s predecessor, former Badgers assistant Bill Callahan, went 27-22 in four seasons before getting shown the door. He was hired after Frank Solich, a protégé of the legendary Tom Osborne, wasn’t retained 20 years ago following a 9-3 regular season that left him with a 58-19 mark.

“Just speaking in generalities — not just my university but any university — the culture of college football right now is really tough in terms of demanding perfection without really understanding what it takes to win consistently and at a very high level,” said Kenny Bell, who played wide receiver at Nebraska under Pelini and is now an analyst for Big Ten Network. “I think it’s really dangerous to want greener pastures at all times, because those greener pastures don’t necessarily exist.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding in terms of establishing a culture when it comes to football, especially a winning culture, and that’s not something that happens in three or four years. I think we’re getting to a point in athletics, especially at the college level, of expectations vs. reality. You can really go down a rabbit hole in terms of yeah, we want to win more but how are we going to get there? People don’t appreciate how difficult that is.”

Husker fans may appreciate that challenge now after years and years of climbing uphill. A program once spoiled by success tried to get to another level and instead entered a slide, a lesson that shouldn’t be ignored by those in the UW fan base who have become bored with nine-win seasons.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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