Four years of winning began with a loss. Propelled by an errant kick that went wide left, but struck the Nebraska Cornhuskers square in the gut.
When the Cornhuskers trudged off the field at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1994, they had just come up a field goal short of winning the 1993 national championship. Despite being 17-point underdogs to a Charlie Ward-led Florida State team, Nebraska had held the lead with less than two minutes to play and nearly pulled off a major upset, losing 18-16.
Something happened that New Year's night that transformed the Cornhuskers. A resolve was reached. A pact was made by those returning for the following season. Even though the program had a rich history of success, it had been more than two decades since the Cornhuskers had won a national championship. They literally were inches away from changing that in the 1993 season. They were determined to erase that gap entirely in 1994, and beyond.
"Everybody came back to campus about two weeks later, and you could just tell there was this commitment among the team," recalled Jason Peter, a defensive tackle who was a redshirt freshman in 1994. "You were either getting on the boat that was going 100 miles per hour, or we're going to leave you behind. That was it. You had to make the decision whether you were going to commit yourself fully."
That boat roared off and barely slowed down over the next four years. From 1994 through 1997, Nebraska went 49-2 and won three national championships. The 1994 and '95 titles were won outright, while the '97 championship in the pre-BCS era was shared with Michigan (the Coaches' Poll gave the crown to 13-0 Nebraska, but the media went with the 12-0 Wolverines). In 1996 the Cornhuskers had to settle for an 11-2 record and a No. 6 national ranking.
It remains one of the greatest four-year runs in college football history -- and one that the Alabama Crimson Tide are threatening to challenge this season. Alabama is 36-4 with two national championships over the past three seasons, and the Tide figure to be in serious contention for a third title this year.
The lack of a three-peat in college football since World War II has been well documented. But winning three national championships in a four-year span is almost as rare. In fact, Nebraska is the only team to have pulled it off. Alabama captured three titles in five years from 1961-65, and Miami did the same from 1987-91. Some of the premier programs in college football -- Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas, USC -- have come close. Florida had a chance in 2009 but lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game.
So how were those mid-1990s Cornhuskers able to do it? Former head coach Tom Osborne and several players who were there for all three championships said the 1993 Orange Bowl loss truly was the catalyst for the ensuing four-year run. That game prompted Nebraska to adopt the phrase "Unfinished Business" as its slogan for the '94 season.
"The Florida State game proved to us that we were capable of taking this thing to another level, and the way we lost it gave everybody the motivation we needed to do it," offensive tackle Eric Anderson said. "That game was probably about as important to that four-year run as any of them. It essentially laid the foundation for the next four years."
That foundation was then topped with a degree of commitment and unselfishness by the players that Osborne said was as strong as any he witnessed during his 25 years as the team's head coach.
"We had very strong team leaders, guys who were willing to sacrifice their personal goals for the team, and the rest of the players followed their lead," said Osborne, who retired as head coach after the '97 season and currently is the Nebraska athletic director. "The level of team unity that we had was really exceptional during that stretch. It was probably the best of all the teams I had."
Osborne helped foster that sense of solidarity by creating a group he called the Unity Council. Each segment of the team (offensive line, running backs, linebackers, etc.) elected two players to represent it on the council. Those 16 players were responsible for a considerable amount of the day-to-day handling of team issues. This amplified the feeling among the players that they were personally accountable for the success or failure of the team.
"Guys took ownership of the program, because Coach Osborne made us feel like it was ours," said defensive end Grant Wistrom, who won the 1997 Lombardi Award and played in the NFL for nine years. "When you feel like you have a stake in something, you're going to work a little bit harder for it.
"I fully believe that's why we had the success that we had, because we felt like it was our team. There's a whole different level of commitment when you feel like it's your blood on the line. You're not just a cog in the wheel. You're the engine that drives it."
Even one of the most controversial periods of this four-year stretch could not fracture the Cornhuskers' feeling of unity. If anything, it might have strengthened it. Early in the 1995 season following a 50-10 thrashing of Michigan State -- which, ironically, was led by current Alabama head coach Nick Saban -- star running back Lawrence Phillips was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Phillips was suspended from the team but Osborne eventually reinstated him, a move that was met with widespread criticism. None of that slowed down the Cornhuskers, who throttled their opponents that season by an average score of 53-15.
"I think the intense scrutiny actually brought the team together more," Anderson said. "We rallied around that and had an us-against-the-world mentality."
Of course, being unified doesn't accomplish much if everybody is doing the same thing incorrectly. The Cornhuskers of the mid 1990s had an almost obsessive desire to work on every minute detail of their game in a never-ending quest for perfection.
"We had over 100 scripted plays that we ran during practice," offensive guard Jon Zatechka said. "The repetition made it almost second-nature when you were out there during the game. And if you didn't take a proper step, if you were just 6 inches off, you'd get yelled at. It's amazing how specific our coaching staff was on how we had to do things and how perfect they wanted us to be. But that paid off during games."
That sounds a lot like the current coaching staff in Tuscaloosa. Saban is known for being a strict taskmaster who likes to talk about the "process" of building a team. More than once he has screamed at a backup player during the final minutes of a blowout victory, expecting nothing less than the best regardless of the situation on the field. Peter said the Cornhuskers of the mid-'90s had a similar mindset.
"It's easy to focus on the big things; that will get you eight or nine wins a year," Peter said. "But to get 13 or 14 of them and win a championship, you have to do the little things right. That's why Saban has been so successful. He's a master of the attention to detail. It's fun to watch those guys. They're a lot like we were."
Sure, there was some good fortune along the way. Nebraska did not have many major injuries during those years (though quarterback Tommie Frazier missed much of the 1994 season with a blood clot in his leg). And then there was the famous "kicked ball" game in 1997, in which the Cornhuskers drove 67 yards in the final minute for a tying touchdown that was scored when what appeared to be a game-ending incompletion bounced off the foot of Nebraska's Shevin Wiggins and was caught in the end zone by Matt Davison. The Cornhuskers won in overtime and went on to beat Tennessee and Peyton Manning for their third championship in four years.
"Good luck plays a role in any championship run, much less three out of four," Wistrom said. "But there was also something special about those teams. We felt like we had the tools and the determination and the commitment that it didn't matter what happened, we were going to win.
"Nobody put themselves above the team. Nobody worried about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. The only thing that mattered was what you're doing today. If you can get guys to buy into that, then you have something special."