Frank Solich took long road through Ohio to record-breaking success

Sporting News

ATHENS, Ohio — Longtime Ohio coach Frank Solich surveyed the locker room moments after Tuesday's 66-24 victory against Bowling Green. Solich had just become the Mid-American Conference's all-time wins leader with his 111th victory with the Bobcats, and in that moment the 75 year old thought about everyone else.

"The thought that went through my head was how fortunate I've been to be able to work with so many great players, so many guys who were dedicated to winning and moving this program forward, and the same with our coaches," Solich told Sporting News on Wednesday. "That's the thing that popped up at me."

Solich molded those players and coaches with a toughness that defined him as a fullback, assistant coach and head coach at Nebraska. That "tough" label still sticks with "Fearless Frank," and it's what helped make possible the long-term project at Ohio.

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"Toughness is one of the very first things we look for when we are recruiting, and so when other coaches mention something about that, that’s great to hear," he said. "It kind of reinforces that we are always on the right track."

Solich took over at Ohio in 2005 and has put together a 111-81 record. He has led the Bobcats to 10 winning seasons. A win in the regular-season finale at Akron on Nov. 26 would make Ohio eligible for an 11th bowl appearance.

It's a remarkable display of stability in a volatile profession, and Solich cultivated that approach with his first two Nebraska high school coaching jobs at Omaha Holy Name (1966-67) and Lincoln Southeast (1968-78). He simply adapts with the scenery around him.

"When I took the job over here, and no matter which I job I took of the four, I never looked down the road and said, 'Hey, this is where I want to be. This is where I want to go down the road,'" Solich said. "I just show up and do the best job I can."

With Tuesday's victory, Solich passed former Central Michigan coach Herb Deromedi, who had a 110-55-1 with the Chippewas from 1978-94. Deromedi knew that day was coming, and he made the drive from Mount Pleasant, Mich., to Detroit on July 23 to congratulate Solich in advance at MAC Media Day.

"I have nothing but respect for him," Deromedi told SN. "I knew of him when he played for Nebraska as a 165-pound fullback and admired the way he played the game. He was tough. Then, I followed him when he was a coach at Nebraska."

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Everybody did after watching him serve as an assistant at Nebraska from 1979-93. He took over for legendary coach Tom Osborne in 1998, compiled a 58-19 record, led the Cornhuskers to a BCS national championship game in 2001 and was fired after a 9-3 season in 2003. To this day, Solich still has a legion of fans among Huskers faithful.

"That's a really great thing," Solich said. "I was fortunate there to obviously be involved in a program that was run by Tom Osborne and played under Bob Devaney. That was in my blood, obviously, and to be able to coach under Tom and get the head job was tremendous. I had a lot of great moments from those times and still have a lot of great friends from Nebraska."

That is a part of Solich's story, but the stint at Ohio has come to define the elder statesman among FBS coaches. He is the longest-tenured Group of 5 coach. Only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (1999) and TCU's Gary Patterson (2001) have been at their current schools longer.

In that sense, Solich is one of the best Group of 5 hires of all time considering the stability he brought to a program that had caught only fleeting glimpses of success.

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Ohio won its last MAC championship with a 10-1 season in 1968. Several lean years followed. The Bobcats had only two seasons with at least seven wins — both under Jim Grobe before he left for Wake Forest after the 2000 season. Grobe continues to watch the Bobcats under Solich and remains impressed with the consistency.

"It says a lot for the coach, and it says a lot for Ohio University," Grobe told SN. "They knew they had the right guy, and they stayed with him. To me, that's really, really refreshing. So many times, you have people who get tired of the coach. In this case, it was just a great match."

It took two games for that match to materialize into something special. In a Friday night ESPN game on Sept. 9, 2005, Ohio upset Pitt 16-10 in overtime at Peden Stadium on a walkoff interception return for a touchdown by Dion Byrum for Solich's first victory.

"It's pretty cool — it's an awesome feeling and experience," Byrum told SN. "I never thought it would resonate as big or play a role in a special play in Ohio football history."

Even in that moment, however, Solich was thinking of others. That's what he remembers from that game. He was thinking of building something that would last more than that one night.

"Part of me loves taking over a program that needs to be restructured and rebuilt," Solich said. "One of the best things that a player has ever said to me was actually Dion Byrum when he said, 'Thanks, coach, for helping us feel like we are a Division I program.' That meant the world to me."

That victory against Pitt still resonates in Athens, and the program remains stable even in tough seasons. Solich lauded this year's team for fighting through the struggles of a 5-6 year after being preseaon favorites to win the MAC, and that another quality Deromedi and Grobe appreciate more than most.

"It's really been his leadership and the quality of terms he's produced here," Deromedi said. "It's an easy thing to admire. At some point it was going to be broken. You couldn't have it be broken by a better person than Frank."

"He's always been regarded as one of the better football coaches in the country," Grobe added. "What he's done at Ohio has been remarkable."

"Fearless Frank" has become to be known as "Ageless Frank," but the only question now is how long his run will continue. Solich, whose contract is up on Jan. 3, hopes to return to Ohio for a 16th season in 2020. He is still hoping to lead the program to its first MAC championship since 1968. He also can pass Don Peden, who compiled 121 wins at Ohio before the school joined the MAC.

There is always another moment to chase, and Solich will do that as long as it benefits everyone else.

"There's no immediate plan that is there to retire," Solich said. "I feel like I'm still relating to the players. I think they still feel good about me being head of the program. The administration does. As long as I feel like I can contribute to our athletes and to our program and my health is good and my energy is good — they've all got to be there. I'll just kind of take it a little bit at a time and keep moving forward."

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