By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
On Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008, Tommy Bowden coached his last game at Clemson.
It didn’t matter that his opponent that night, Wake Forest, was ranked No. 21 in the country, or that the Tigers lost by less than a TD — 12-7. Bowden knew he’d broken an unspoken rule as head of a Tigers program that had just dropped to 3-3.
“You can’t lose to Wake Forest on Thursday night,” he said. “You just can’t.”
Nearly 14 years later, Nebraska’s Scott Frost also found out that there are some games you just can’t lose. In his case, the breaking point was a 45-42 defeat at home against Georgia Southern, which came a week after struggling to beat FCS North Dakota, and two weeks after blowing an 11-point lead to Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland.
He was relieved of his duties on Sunday.
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Whenever there is a change like this, though, there is reason for hope.
In the Tigers’ case, then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips filled Bowden’s spot by elevating wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney to interim head coach. It was a title Swinney thought so highly of that he told his wife that “we got fired today.”
But not only did Swinney retain the job after guiding the Tigers to a 7-6 season, he has since developed Clemson into one of the most dominant programs of the last decade. Now, he seems destined for the College Football Hall of Fame when his career comes to an end.
In Nebraska’s case, the next man up is Mickey Joseph. Like Swinney, Joseph has taken on the tag of interim head coach. Like Swinney, he now finds himself running a program he probably never expected to run. Like Swinney, he is the man a fan base now turns to for hope.
Now, far be it from me to anoint Joseph as a man who could match Swinney win-for-win before he’s even coached a game as interim head coach at Nebraska. But you’ll pardon me for seeing similarities that might allow the Huskers faithful to find some joy and belief in what lies in wait for the remainder of their 2022 season.
Like Swinney, Joseph is not just a receivers coach but one who is recognized as among the best in the profession.
Before moving to Nebraska, Mickey Joseph was receivers coach at LSU, where he led the trio of Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall. (Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
In 2019, his LSU receiving corps featured Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall and Justin Jefferson. That group is on the short list of the best units to play the game and one reason Joe Burrow went from virtual unknown to Heisman winner and No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020.
Joseph not only brought his knowledge of the position to Lincoln — along with prize LSU transfer Trey Palmer and freshman De’Coldest Crawford — but, like his predecessor, has come home to a program where he was a standout player at one of the blueblood programs in the sport.
Also like Swinney, Joseph has never served as a play-calling coordinator — offensive or defensive — in his 27 years in the profession. Odds are he’s not going to be looking to learn how to do that now.
With Joseph as the man at the front of the tunnel, there’s no question who is going to call the plays or run the offense. That’s Mark Whipple’s job.
There will be little reflection on what the first three games have been like and more emphasis on being a part that makes up the whole that is Nebraska football. Joseph’s focus will be on the team, though much will be said — and should be — about him being the first Black head coach of any sport in Nebraska’s history.
In a sport where Black men make up a large percentage of the sport, Joseph’s hire is as culturally important as it is to the win-loss record of Nebraska football.
The Big Ten will feature four Black head coaches in the same season for the first time in its history, along with the only Black commissioner of a Power 5 league. This is in a sport that features 130 FBS programs but made just three Black head-coaching hires during the last cycle.
Meanwhile, the SEC fields 14 teams without a Black head coach for the second consecutive season. And, make no mistake, college football’s two most important leagues are the SEC and the Big Ten, so they are worth comparing.
Of course, Joseph has a chance to be not just a walking, talking Black history fact, but a Nebraska legend. That will take winning.
After all, Swinney needed to win more games than he lost to have that interim tag removed from his title, and he had to keep on winning to earn anything approaching job security. Joseph will be held to the same standard.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t say, as much as it’s awful for another man to lose his job, I am thrilled for Joseph. I daresay Husker fans are too — especially if this decision by athletic director Trev Alberts returns Nebraska to being among the most-feared programs in the sport.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.
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