ORLANDO, Fla. — There’s a lot of hate on a winless football team.
In 2015, after Central Florida’s 0-12 season, defensive back Tre Neal hated pretty much everyone.
He hated a lot of his teammates. Didn’t hang out with any besides in his position group. That was the norm, he said.
He hated practice. Hated losing every week. Hated the coaching staff and the fact coach George O’Leary resigned midway through the season. And Neal wasn’t alone. He could sense everyone was upset with everyone.
“It’s crazy how much hate that 0-12 team had,” Neal said.
And then in December 2015, Scott Frost walked in the door and refused to let his team be anything but close.
“It’s crazy how far we got just from love,” Neal said.
According to a handful of UCF players, the foundation of the 0-12 to 12-0 turnaround in two seasons was a culture Frost and his staff built of love, respect and joy. Three things that were barren inside the program before Frost’s arrival.
“When Coach Frost got here, we just started working on loving each other,” Neal said. “Guys are gonna play, guys aren’t gonna play. We all love each other.”
Frost was formally introduced as Nebraska’s 33rd coach on Sunday. He’ll be taking over an NU program that wasn’t winless in 2017, but is coming off a tough stretch of seasons. In three years under coach Mike Riley, the Huskers were 19-19. In 2017, they finished 4-8, their worst record since 1961.
But similar to UCF, Nebraska needs some rebuilding from the inside. Which is what Frost does best, UCF players said.
After the 2015 season, UCF wasn’t a team as much as a collection of guys who happened to wear the same uniform. Everyone was doing what was best for himself, linebacker Shaquem Griffin said.
So one of the first things Frost did was schedule a one-on-one meeting with every player, Griffin said. He asked questions about their families, their backgrounds. Then he told his players to do the same thing with one another.
Frost and the coaching staff made a directive that the entire team needed to stick together. If you’re going around campus, bring a teammate, he’d say. Hang out outside of the football complex. Learn about one another.
Frost arranged a mandatory barbecue in fall camp for players to come to the stadium, eat and chat.
The entire coaching staff reiterated the idea of unity in every breakdown during practice, too.
Before practice in the huddle, Frost or defensive coordinator Erik Chinander would yell: “One team!”
The players responded: “One heartbeat.”
“That carried us a long way,” Griffin said. “It’s not about who your best friends are, it’s about seeing each other as family and being there for each other.”
As guys got to know one another, and as the wins became more and more frequent, the fun Frost promised when he was hired set in, quarterback McKenzie Milton said.
Because of scheduling conflicts, UCF played 11 straight games in 2017. The team dealt with lightning delays and hurricanes, and that can all wear on a team, Milton said. But there wasn’t a day in that 11-week stretch when he and his teammates didn’t love what they were doing.
“I think a lot of times in college football guys get caught up in the pressure and stuff like that, but this coaching staff, especially Coach Frost, they just made everything so fun,” Milton said.
Unity is something Frost’s already preaching at Nebraska. It’s something he’s believed in since his playing days. On the day he was hired, Frost mentioned that at Nebraska under Tom Osborne there was a “unity in purpose, and unity in belief, and unity of understanding and unity of support for this program, what it stood for, and what it was accomplishing.”
“This program needs that again. This state needs that again,” Frost added. “We’re going to be a more united team than anybody else. That’s what Nebraska’s about.”
Frost’s vision of a united team is what he saw after UCF’s 62-55 double-overtime victory over Memphis last weekend.
Neal intercepted the pass that ended the game and won Central Florida the American Athletic Conference. Neal fell into the end zone after the whistle blew the play dead, and the UCF sideline dogpiled on top of him. Frost included.
Before the Knights posed for pictures with the AAC trophy on the field, Frost hopped the barricade between himself and his players. He wrapped his arms around the guys next to him and smiled with tears in his eyes. Players slapped Frost on the back after the photographers finished, and when the ceremony was over, Frost stood arm in arm with his team and sang the UCF alma mater one final time.
A few hours later, when news was confirmed that Frost was leaving UCF for Nebraska, a broken Frost addressed his team in tears.
Inside the sullen locker room, the hate from a couple of years prior was gone. He stood in front of what he promised he’d build at UCF. A cohesive, well-oiled machine. A team that won and won together.
But the unity he built was breaking because of him. And in his final speech to his team last weekend, he showed just how strong that bond he helped create was.
“You guys have touched my life more than you know,” Frost said, hardly getting the words out. “And I hope that I’ve touched yours. There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do for any one of you guys. I would do absolutely anything for you guys if you reach out to me. It’s been the best year of my life. You guys are family.
“I love you,” Frost said. “And I always will.”
20 Husker football legends reveal why they're optimistic about Scott Frost's return to Nebraska
The World-Herald reached out to a number of former Nebraska players from several different decades to get their thoughts on Scott Frost returning to Lincoln. Here's what they think the hiring of the former Husker quarterback will mean for the NU program.