Harbaugh, Frost and the joy (and pain) of coaching your alma mater

All eyes -- and Huskers fans' hopes -- were on Scott Frost as he got off the bus before his first game back at Nebraska. Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Twenty-two head coaches in the FBS share the responsibility of leading the programs for which they played. There's joy in the experience, immense pride and always, at some point, a dash of pain.

"You can't call it work," said Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield, who quarterbacked the Mountaineers from 1992 to '95.

The highs are higher and the lows are lower when they happen at your alma mater.

"You don't ever escape it," Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury said. "Win, lose or draw, a lot of people in your life know the score. They know how it went, and they want to talk about it."

Said Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst: "There's just a lot more layers."

In relationship-status terms, well, it's complicated.

"It's just different than being at another school," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.

Saturday at Michigan Stadium, two of the most high-profile college players to return as coach meet in the Big Ten opener for both. Nebraska, winless under Scott Frost in his first season, visits Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, known in his fourth year more for six losses in seven games against the Wolverines' chief rivals than for his 30 victories.

Both former quarterbacks achieved head-coaching success elsewhere before answering the call from home -- Harbaugh with the University of San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, and Frost for the past two seasons at UCF. They endure intense scrutiny but said that the potential reward of restoring championship-level play at their proud programs is worth the pressure and weight of increased expectations.

"It's heightened," Harbaugh said this week when asked whether the moments mean more to him because it's Michigan.

Last year, before UCF embarked on a 13-0 season that vaulted Frost to the top of the Group of 5 coaching hierarchy, his mother, Carol Frost -- a pioneer for female athletes and coaches in Nebraska some five decades ago -- granted a lengthy podcast interview to Omaha World-Herald writer Dirk Chatelain.

He asked if she could see her son someday in charge of the Cornhuskers.

"It would be fun to envision," Carol Frost said, "if you could ensure that he would win 10 games every year. Because nine is never enough."

When Frost took the job in December after Nebraska slipped to 4-8 in 2017, its worst finish since 1961, the coach sternly asked media members to steer clear of his parents, wife and infant son. No family appeared with Frost at his introductory media conference, unusual under normal circumstances.

Clearly, though, this was an unusual moment. And it continues for the native son, who was QB on former coach Tom Osborne's final two teams, including the unbeaten 1997 group that shared a national title with Michigan.

Frost is 0-2 this month after his much-hyped opener against Akron was canceled because of thunderstorms. Nebraska started slowly in five-point home losses to Colorado and Troy, committing untimely penalties and special-teams errors while relying on quarterbacks in both games who were making their major-college debuts.

Big Ten Network cameras captured Frost last week on the sideline amid the storm of three Nebraska turnovers for a second straight week, 10 flags and a 58-yard punt-return TD by Troy's Cedarius Rookard.

The 43-year-old Frost appeared not angry or impatient; rather, he looked a special kind of miserable.

"I'd say dissatisfaction," Frost said.

Are those emotions magnified because he's living it at Nebraska? Yes and no, said Frost, who heads to Michigan unsure whether true freshman QB Adrian Martinez is ready to return from a one-week absence after he suffered a leg injury in Week 2. Walk-on Andrew Bunch played in his place against Troy.

"I want it to work more, and I know it's going to work," he said. "It hasn't happened as quickly as we wanted. We've had some pretty tough breaks in the first few weeks. But that's the way the sport goes."

In the next breath, Frost said, he wouldn't feel different in this spot as coach of the Green Bay Packers or at Malcolm (Nebraska) High. That's the school from which Osborne -- then an assistant coach under Bob Devaney -- recruited Frost's father, Larry, to Nebraska as a halfback in 1966.

You see, part of what complicates matters so much for the likes of Frost and Harbaugh is just how deep the roots extend.

Devaney, the figurative godfather of Nebraska coaches, arrived at Nebraska from Wyoming in 1962 and coached his first road game as a big underdog at Michigan. The Huskers won 25-13. Five weeks later began the school's NCAA-record sellout streak, now at 363 games.

A decade after the landmark win at Michigan, Devaney had won back-to-back national championships. Nebraska's fandom, of course, salivates over the parallels, but Frost isn't making plans for a parade.

"This will get worse before it gets better," he said Saturday in the aftermath of the defeat to Troy, "but it's always darkest before the dawn."

Such realism is essential. Ask Mark Richt at Miami, Kirby Smart at Georgia and David Shaw at Stanford.

Not every day is rosy.

"It means so much," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, an All-American linebacker at the school in 1995 and '96. "But sometimes everybody thinks you know who they are. So building relationships is equally, if not more, important."

It's personal, said Central Michigan's John Bonamego, 21-21 in his fourth season after an 0-3 start this fall.

"This is not just a job for me," he said. "This is a passion of mine."

So it goes for Harbaugh, who started for 2½ seasons at Michigan and led the Wolverines to a share of the 1986 Big Ten title and a Fiesta Bowl win against Nebraska the season prior.

Like Frost, his ties to the program run deep. Harbaugh's father, Jack, coached at Michigan from 1973 to '79. Jim began high school in Ann Arbor. And of course, like Frost, Harbaugh, 54, emulated his college coach, Bo Schembechler.

"It's been a great thrill," Harbaugh said this week of coaching at Michigan, "one of the great thrills of my life to be here. Love it. I love coaching. I love football. I love coaching at my alma mater. [It's] been wonderful."

According to Harbaugh's former Michigan teammate, John Ghindia, reality guides his coaching principles and helps Harbaugh navigate complicated matters.

"If he was unrealistic, it would be more frustrating," Ghindia said. "Fans seem to say, 'Well, these teams win in three years.' Hey, if [left tackle Grant Newsome] doesn't get hurt in 2016, they win three more games that year. It made that big of a difference.

"When you're Scott Frost or Jim Harbaugh, you've got to wear blinders. You can't listen to the outside noise."

You'll hear no such public talk from Harbaugh, whose team rose to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings in 2016 before dropping three of its last four games. At this point, the retort would likely focus on his marks against Ohio State (0-3), Michigan State (1-2) and Notre Dame, 0-1 after a Sept. 1 loss in South Bend.

Perhaps in part because he knows of the scrutiny over his every word, Harbaugh rarely offers much insight his emotions over coaching at Michigan.

"He knows when you win at Michigan," Ghindia said, "there's no better feeling. And as far as he's concerned, he's getting closer every day."

Every day presents another opportunity for the light to shine brighter. And to burn more deeply.