Could Carl Crawford Have Saved Frank Solich’s Job at Nebraska?
Story by Shane G. Gilster
It was Feb. 7, 1999, and Nebraska had just signed its future star quarterback, Carl Crawford.
The Huskers were already established at quarterback with returning starters in junior Bobby Newcombe and sophomore Eric Crouch. But Crawford was the heir apparent and, with a redshirt year, he would likely be a two-year starter for NU in 2002 and 2003.
“Crawford would have been a perfect fit for us,” NU coach Frank Solich said, according to published reports from that time. “He’d have been like Eric Crouch, and Eric ended up winning the Heisman. I think he’d have hit the ground running for us and picked up right where Eric left off.”
As a senior at Jefferson Davis High School in Houston, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Crawford ran the option offense for head coach Chuck Arnold. He had 1,213 yards rushing and 19 scores while passing for another eight touchdowns. Twenty of his carries were of 50 yards or more, which showed his speed and game-breaking ability.
“Our third-and-long play was for Carl to drop back and if the cornerback doesn’t fall down, then run it. (Crawford) wasn’t a bad passer, but we didn’t have a lot of receivers, so all our pass plays were play action. He had a good, quick release, but all we had was a couple good running backs and Carl. Also, our offensive line was small, weighing under 180 pounds per player,” Arnold said.
Saying that Jefferson Davis High School wasn’t known for football was an understatement. Before Arnold arrived, the school hadn’t won a game in six years.
“We had small football teams; we struggled to keep 30 kids on the team,” Arnold said. “When I came to Jefferson Davis, it took me three years to win one game. Carl was in the sixth year I was there and we had a winning record each year with him.”
Solich, then in his first year as head coach at Nebraska, saw Crawford as a perfect fit for his offense. Solich, along with quarterback coach Turner Gill, went all out recruiting the talented athlete who was courted by colleges to play baseball, basketball and football.
“Back then Nebraska was nationally known and was on TV a lot,” Arnold said. “Everybody knew that Carl was being recruited by them. I remember the Nebraska coaches coming to our school in a helicopter and landing on the football field.”
The Huskers’ main competition for Crawford’s services wasn’t another college. Crawford also loved baseball and had pro scouts flocking to Houston.
“Playing another sport at a high level was leverage for Carl because (Major League Baseball) had to come up with a big paycheck to get him from playing football at Nebraska,” Arnold said. “If he didn’t get the money he was looking for, I think he would have ended up at Nebraska. Teams were worried about drafting him because he had already signed with Nebraska, but we told them if they came up with the money, Carl would sign to play baseball.”
Gerald Garcia, Crawford’s high school baseball coach, had no doubt his star player would choose baseball. Garcia said Crawford was a natural but needed some coaching in order for his potential to blossom.
“When you get a kid that good, coaches don’t want to screw him up,” Garcia said. “But our coaches taught him a nice little work ethic. That kid became a working machine and always wanted extra batting practice and (to catch) fly balls. Some guys have the God-given talent and don’t work, but he worked at it.”
Crawford grew up as a first baseman, but Garcia told him he was going to play outfield because of his speed. Crawford was left-handed and when he would hit a routine ground ball, Garcia said he would beat the throw to first base about 90% of the time.
Nebraska offered Crawford the chance to play both baseball and football.
“Our baseball program was very strong and the idea (playing both sports) appealed to him and his family,” Solich said at the time. “They were looking at him getting his education, but we knew the draft was looming large.”
Garcia helped counsel Crawford on whether to play college football and baseball or get a paycheck from professional baseball. A main factor in Crawford’s decision was that he came from a low-income neighborhood and his mother was the sole provider for him and his brother.
“It came down to making money with baseball or being a crash dummy and getting hit in football,” Garcia said. “Carl was an action guy and really loved football. He was a read-option quarterback and would have fit in nicely at Nebraska. He was like a Tommie Frazier – that type of athlete. The MLB scouts would come to my office and ask if Carl was using football as a gambling chip, but I told them he was going to play professional baseball.”
But Solich still had hope his quarterback recruit would choose football. After Crawford signed his letter of intent, the Husker coaching staff had to patiently wait until the baseball draft in June to see what Crawford would do.
Unfortunately for NU, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays nabbed Crawford in the second round and 52nd overall in the 1999 draft. They offered a signing bonus of $1.2 million, and Solich lost his quarterback.
“It made sense to go through the effort to recruit him, have him verbally commit, and sign with us,” Solich said in the aftermath of the decision. “But that all became moot when he signed the baseball contract. He really loved the sport of football and was committed to coming to Nebraska, but that amount of money … I don’t know who would pass that up.”
Losing a recruit isn’t anything new to colleges like Nebraska. But for Solich, not having Crawford take over at quarterback after Crouch in 2002 had bigger repercussions for him and his football program.
Nebraska went 7-7 in 2002 and even though the Huskers finished 9-3 in 2003, Solich was fired before the bowl game. Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson said he felt the Huskers were gravitating toward mediocrity, thus the reason for the coaching change.
“If he (Crawford) would have gone to Nebraska, Frank Solich wouldn’t have gotten fired at Nebraska,” Garcia said. “Carl was that good of a player. He could have saved Solich’s job.”
It is purely hypothetical what Crawford would have done at Nebraska, but looking back, it’s hard to argue with his choice.
Crawford was only 20 years old when he made his major league debut in July of 2002 and from there had a 15-year career. He was a four-time All-Star, led the American League in steals and triples four times and won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
Crawford had the talent, but his competitive nature gave him the “It” factor that made him elite.
“He always wanted to win,” Garcia said. “He was just a competitive son of a gun.”
Since his retirement from baseball in 2016, Crawford is still revered in his Houston community. His high school, now called Northside, held a ceremony in June 2021 to rename its baseball field “Carl Crawford Field.”
Crawford is now the CEO of 1501 Certified Entertainment, an independent record label based in his hometown. He called into radio station 97.9 The Box during the “Good Morning H-Town” radio show when the topic of the greatest prep athlete to come from Houston was raised.
“I go down in history, I think,” said Crawford, who made it clear who he feels was the best. “I’m the only athlete that made All-Texas teams in every sport. Football, basketball and baseball. I didn’t even play basketball my senior year to focus on baseball, but I played all three sports at a high level.”
Arnold, who coached at Jefferson Davis for 23 years and 43 years overall in the Houston area, said without a doubt that Crawford was the No. 1 player he ever coached.
“You don’t get those pro-caliber athletes in a lower-income, inner-city high school,” he said. “I coached at Madison High School while (Texas quarterback) Vince Young was there. Vince was a lot taller, but Carl was a better overall athlete.”
Garcia agreed with Arnold. He never coached a talent equal to Crawford, either. “I used to kid him and say I was going to take him to Galveston and see if he could surf because he was such a great athlete,” Garcia said. “He could do anything.”
It’s just too bad for Husker fans that Crawford didn’t get to showcase his talent in the scarlet and cream.
“It was pretty clear to us that he could be a great option quarterback,” Solich said. “And with his athletic talent, we felt he could have been a dominating player for us. Obviously, we’ll never know, because we never got a chance to have him there.”