End of an Era

Frank Solich inside Peden Stadium during a home win over Kent State in 2019. Photo by Jason Arkley

The first day of the rest of Frank Solich’s life began like so many that had come before it —  bright and early, coffee in hand, and at the football office.

It’s July 15, 2021, and Solich — at this moment — is less than 24 hours removed from the announcement of his retirement as the head football coach at Ohio University. The decision marked the end of nearly six decades as a player, a coach, and — his favorite role — a program builder. Yet, here he is. Talking with a fan in the parking lot outside Peden Stadium with the clock not yet pushing 8 a.m.

Solich may be retiring, but he won’t be slowing down too much. 

“You gotta see this,” Solich says as he unlocks the door to the bottom floor of Peden Tower, eager to show off recent improvements of the team’s locker room. He’s the first person to arrive at the facility on the first day of his retirement. The irony isn’t lost on him.

“In some ways, I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Solich says, referring to work in promoting the Ohio program to potential and current boosters as part of his special consultant role. “I’m not the guy anymore, but I’m still a guy trying to do what I can to move this program forward.”

College football programs never operate from a place of contentment. There are goals to set, players to recruit to get there, boosters to entice for needed funding, and facilities to upgrade. And for nearly every day of every year for the last 16 years, that was Solich’s focus as the head of the Bobcats’ program. 

Did Solich move the program forward? He did more than that. He made it relevant in ways it hadn’t been in a generation.

Any account of Solich’s tenure with the Bobcats isn’t complete without a nod to the state of the program when he arrived. A five-year run from Jim Grobe saw some competitive football (two winning seasons between 1996-2000), but a four-year swoon with Brian Knorr followed. From 1978-2004, OU notched just five winning seasons — and 11 with two or fewer victories.

Bobcat football was an afterthought, in college football at large, in the Mid-American Conference, and many seasons even in their own community in Athens.

Once he was hired late in 2004, it took Solich just two games to add a veneer of respectability back to the program. In his first home game, inside a packed Peden Stadium, Ohio knocked off visiting Pitt, 16-10 in overtime. Fans stormed the field after the nationally televised win. The Bobcats were back.

Defensive back Dion Byrum won the game with a pair of interceptions that he returned for touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime. 

“I told (Solich) after that he made me feel like I was part of a real Division I program for the first time,” Byrum said, years later. “I was a senior. But it never felt like a real program you know? 

“He gave us that. We mattered again.”

It was a comment that Solich still felt all these years later. 

“That’s right up there, I’ll always remember that,” Solich said in July. “I was really proud of those early teams and how they embraced everything. They wanted to be coached.”

The coaching began in 2005 and the wins followed. 

Solich retired as the winningest head coach in the history of the MAC with 115 victories. Ohio went to 11 bowl games under Solich, and won five of them. OU had just two bowl appearances (no wins) before his arrival. The Bobcats won the only four MAC East Division titles in program history under his watch, but were 0-4 in the MAC Championship game. Ohio hasn’t won the MAC title since 1968.

It’s the only thing Solich said he found “bothersome” about his tenure. Those losses in Detroit will always haunt him as missed opportunities to truly finish the job.

Photo by Jason Arkley

“Really, I was disappointed for the players. They deserved one of those,” he said. 

Including time as the head coach at Nebraska, Solich was 173-101 as a college head coach. As an undersized fullback out of Cleveland, Solich joined the Cornhuskers as a player in the mid-1960s. After his playing career, he became a high school coach in Nebraska — even then taking on rebuilding jobs. 

In 1979, he returned to the ‘Huskers and joined Tom Osborne’s staff in time for the program’s best stretch. He replaced the Hall of Fame coach in 1998, after a string of three national titles in four years. 

Solich was 58-19 with Nebraska but wasn’t enough in Lincoln. He was fired after going 9-3 in 2003. Nebraska’s last conference title (Big 12) was the one it won in 1999 under Solich. After a year off, he settled on Ohio because of the chance to make the program his own in every facet. 

In 55 years in college football, Solich was only affiliated with two schools — Nebraska and Ohio. 

“When I took this job it was with the idea I was going to build this program and make it work,” Solich said. “I’ve always been that way.

“When I left Nebraska I knew already that I was a good football coach. They wanted to go in a different direction,” he said. “But I knew I could coach…I knew I could help a program. It’s turned out well.”

When he retired, Solich was the oldest active coach in the NCAA FBS at 76. He’ll turn 77 later this month. 

But it wasn’t his age that determined his retirement two months before the start of the season. Solich called it a “rare cardiovascular condition” and the upshot — delivered in his typical straight-ahead style — was that he thought he could manage the treatment and running a Division I program at the same time. Eventually, he was dissatisfied with the split focus.

“I was feeling pretty good, I’m still feeling pretty good,” Solich explained. “But I knew that our players deserved more than I was going to be able to give them coming down the stretch here.”

“You can’t ask (the players) to give all they can and not be able to do it yourself.”

So he retired. Long-time assistant and offensive coordinator Tim Albin was promoted to the head coaching role on the same day, and was given a four-year contract. Solich believes Ohio will enjoy a smooth transition and believes the Bobcats are in good hands.

“He’s really been acting as a head coach for quite a while, with everything he’s doing,” Solich said. “He’ll be great.”

Solich freely admits he doesn’t have a beloved hobby, or specialized interest, outside the game itself. Golf? Travel? Fishing? 

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” he laughs.

For now, he’ll be busy enough. There’s family to see in Boise. There’s his treatment, centered out of Cleveland. And there’s Ohio, where he will continue to act a special consultant to the program. During a fall camp scrimmage, for instance, he spent the exhibition on the top floor of the Sook Center mingling and entertaining (and convincing) boosters and donors. He was still a big hit with the players afterward.

The tributes on the day of his retirement flooded his phone with calls and texts. Even this week, as the 75th season of MAC football kicked off, the conference tweeted out a video stocked with kind words from the league’s coaches about his impact.

Even Dino Babers, the Syracuse head coach whose team plays Ohio in the opener on Saturday night, took time this week to pay his respect. 

“We’re going to miss him dearly in the coaching profession,” Babers said. “The man is a walking book of knowledge.”

Solich is at peace with the decision. He made it through 55 years of college football and was fired just once. 

“I did the best I could,” he said, grinning again. “I think I’m ahead of the game, all things considered.”

Solich has given so much of himself for the game he loved, and the game — for the most part — has been good to him. 

But if there’s anything Solich regrets, it’s not a single game or season. It’s how much the game asked of him when he was younger, when he was trying to raise a family of his own. He has two adult children and four grandkids, and now here at the beginning of the end of his football journey he realizes more than ever how much he may have missed in all those years spent prowling sidelines, on recruiting trips and in meeting rooms. 

“That…that is probably the one thing I do regret,” he said, growing quiet and somber for the first time during a sun-splashed morning in his office overlooking the field at Peden Stadium. 

It was a lesson he had learned before he arrived in Athens. One of the many reasons for the staff stability Ohio has had over the last 16 years is the flexibility Solich had given his assistants to be there with their families.

“That was something I wanted to change if I could,” Solich said. “You can’t get those moments back. Enjoy them as much as you can.”

But the game remains with all it’s intoxicating possibilities. Frank Solich may be done being a college football head coach and will do what he can to address a more palatable balance in his life, but he’s not done with football. 

Ohio’s season begins on Saturday night, and Frank Solich will be there and he’ll likely be grinning again. It’ll be game day after all, and the Bobcats — his Bobcats — will be playing. 

“I’ll be around. There’s still work to do.”

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