The big news—huge news—around Lincoln, Neb., this spring is that Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, whose stubborn nature is as much a part of him as his red hair, has decided to open up the offense. This is a monumental step for the Cornhuskers, who over the past six years have ranked 102nd, 91st, 98th, 89th, 99th and 99th in passing among the NCAA's 106 Division I-A schools. Husker fans—and that's just about everyone in the state-are excited about the move. And yet, when Osborne was asked about it last week, the 54-year-old coach fixed his gray-blue eyes on his questioner and said, "I'm kind of concerned that the fans think they'll see a whole new concept out there, and it just won't be that way. We're not making any drastic changes here."
That's Coach Unbending for you. Even now, heading into what could be the most important season of his bittersweet career in Lincoln, Osborne acknowledges that his team will be throwing more but denies that this amounts to abandonment of his ultraconservative offensive philosophy. In fact, he claims not to understand why the subject should even be raised.
Osborne does have some cause to be exasperated by this line of questioning. After all, his 177-41-2 record gives him the best winning percentage of any active coach. The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in each of his 18 seasons, have gone to a bowl every year and have always ranked high in the national scoring, total offense and team rushing stats. So, what's the big deal?
Well, Nebraska has lost four consecutive bowl games for the first time in the school's 101-year football history. The Huskers have become a classic bully, beating up on weaklings but falling short against teams their own size. Check the record. The 1987 Nebraska team won its first nine games, then lost to Oklahoma 17-7 and to Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-28. The 1988 team took an 11-1 record into the Orange Bowl only to get clobbered by Miami 23-3. In the regular season the 1989 team lost only to Colorado, 27-21, but was ripped by Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, 41-17.
May 5, 1991
Then came last season, the most bitter pill yet. Largely because of an early, non-conference schedule so weak that athletic director Bob Devaney eventually apologized for it, the Huskers blew out to an 8-0 start. There was serious talk of Osborne winning his first national title—"my albatross," he called it—until Nebraska played host to Colorado on Nov. 3, a day that will live in Husker infamy.
Ahead 6-0 early in the third quarter, Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph dashed 45 yards for a touchdown. But after the score was nullified because an official saw Joseph step out of bounds, the fragile Husker psyche came unglued. In the final quarter, the Nebraska defense—a unit that would have six pro draft choices, including two of the first four picks in cornerback Bruce Pickens and linebacker Mike Croel—surrendered an embarrassing 27 points.
As it turned out, that was the season for Nebraska. After a 41-9 win over (ho-hum) Kansas, the Huskers got clobbered 45-10 by Oklahoma in Norman, dropping Osborne's record against the Sooners to a dismal 6-13. In the Florida Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day, Nebraska was routed by Georgia Tech 45-21, and the Huskers wound up tied for 17th in the UPI poll and 24th in the AP poll.
"I really don't know what happened," says Osborne, looking back on that flameout. "Consciously or subconsciously, a lot of players had bought into the idea that we had played a weak schedule, that Colorado was our first big test and that we could win the national championship if we beat them. After we lost, I couldn't find the key to getting back on track."
Osborne may be at a loss to explain his team's collapse, but there is no shortage of theories from his critics: the Huskers' lack of a passing threat; sluggishness in the defensive secondary; Osborne's questionable motivational skills; poor work by some of his veteran assistant coaches.
One persistent theory has to do with anabolic steroids. During the early and mid-'80s, Nebraska was regarded as a hotbed of steroid use. In a 1987 article in SI, Dean Steinkuhler, the 1983 Outland Trophy winner, admitted that he used steroids while a guard at Nebraska, and the 1989 book Big Red Confidential: Inside Nebraska Football, written by former SI staffer Armen Keteyian, stated that steroid use was widespread among the Huskers. However, in 1984 Osborne began random drug testing. Although no cause and effect can be proved, in recent years Nebraska's offensive linemen—the key to his push-'em-back, grind-it-out attack-have grown notably weaker.
For example, in 1983 the best bench press among Husker offensive linemen was 445 pounds. Last year the best performance by a Husker offensive lineman on the bench was guard Dave Jensen's 364 pounds. In 1990 the best squat on the team was achieved not by a lineman but by a 6'1", 210-pound strong safety, Curtis Cotton.
Against good teams, the Huskers can no longer blow people off the ball the way they did for so many years. Yet Osborne refuses to make any connection between the drug testing and his linemen's declining numbers in the weight room.
"In the late '70s and early '80s, steroids were a problem in all of college athletics," Osborne says. "Some places actively encouraged the use of steroids. Some places turned their heads. Some places actively discouraged it. We were one of those who actively discouraged it and always have. I don't buy the argument that we're weaker than other teams because all of a sudden we don't use steroids. We had pretty strong people in 1984, '85, '86 and '87. I just think we went through a couple of years in which a combination of things worked against us."
That's typical of Osborne. Rather than look for causes within the program, he has tended to blame bad luck and outside forces. He thinks, for example, that the media and some fans harbor unrealistic expectations in this age of parity. He has a point, of course, but that hasn't stopped the Big Red faithful from voicing its discontent—and some of that grumbling is awfully close to home. Says Joseph, the leading candidate for starting quarterback this fall, "We haven't won any big games since I've been here. I'm tired of losing the big ones and winning only the ones we're supposed to win."
There is no doubt that Nebraska is having a more difficult time recruiting top players, and this spring's harvest was only so-so. "Kids don't care if you lose a bowl game by a touchdown," says an assistant at a rival Big Eight school. "But if you get beat by two or three touchdowns a couple of years in a row, they remember that. And they don't like it."
Osborne's long-standing policy of having incoming freshmen play on the junior varsity, then having many of them red-shirted as sophomores—particularly linemen—might also be hurting the Huskers' ability to sign blue-chippers. High school hotshots usually want to play right away, especially now that more and more players are migrating early to the pros, and some of Nebraska's rivals are enticing recruits with the promise of their stepping right into the lineup. At least recruits don't have to worry about playing on the Husker junior varsity; Osborne has junked the program, because with three fewer coaches allowed under new NCAA rules, he doesn't have enough staff.
Osborne suffered another setback in January, this time at the hands of his own boss. At the annual NCAA convention in Nashville, Osborne spoke out against many of the cost-cutting reforms that were being pushed—successfully, as it turned out—by the powerful Presidents Commission. The chairman of the commission was Martin A. Massengale, the chancellor at Nebraska. When it came time to vote, Massengale voted in favor of all the reforms, a slap in Osborne's face.
Last week Massengale said that he supports Osborne completely, but the coach made it clear that he's still unhappy with the reforms. He's especially ticked off about the new NCAA rule that restricts the number of contacts a recruiter can have with a prospect. Osborne thinks the rule unfairly penalizes Nebraska and other schools that are located away from population centers.
"During a period of 12 or 13 weeks, we might see a player 11 or 12 or 13 times under the old rules," says Osborne. "If we were recruiting a player from California or Texas, we could see him enough to form a good relationship. But now we can see him only three times. The idea was to save money, but the new rule certainly enhances the opportunity for schools that have lots of players close by to keep those players around."
Osborne, who is notoriously thin-skinned, admits that he doesn't enjoy his job as much as he did at the beginning of his career, when, in 1972, at the age of 34, he was Devaney's handpicked successor. Criticism from fans both hurts and puzzles him. His secretary, who screens all his mail, is under instructions to toss the hate letters into the garbage can. One reason Osborne gave up golf is that it inevitably trapped him for at least four hours with people who wanted to talk football. Now, whenever he has the chance, Osborne likes to go fishing, usually by himself.
Unlike the gregarious Devaney, Osborne is a private person, so withdrawn and introspective that even people who have been around the coach for years say they don't really know him. But everybody knows he's stubborn and inflexible.
Osborne is also intelligent and committed to success, and he wants to do the right thing. He remembers that back in the late 1960s, Devaney, after back-to-back 6-4 records, decided to open up the Nebraska offense. He did it not because petitions calling for his head were circulating in Omaha and Lincoln, but because it was simply the thing to do. In 1970, largely because of a sophisticated offense built around fleet wingback Johnny Rodgers, Nebraska won the first of its back-to-back national titles.
The Huskers could do it again this year. There is so much talent in the skill positions that Osborne has introduced a number of new pass plays, the better to keep defenses from loading up on Nebraska's running attack. In last Saturday's spring game, Husker quarterbacks completed 29 of 55 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, lest anyone begin mistaking Nebraska for Houston, last year's spring game featured 52 passes, while during the season Big Red quarterbacks threw an average of only 14 times a game.
Osborne may deny it, but the 1991 season figures to be more crucial for the Huskers than for just about any other traditional power. The opportunities are there for Nebraska to make a significant impact on the fans and the pollsters—the nonconference schedule is considerably tougher than last year's, highlighted by a game against Rose Bowl champ Washington. But another late-season swoon, and even Osborne's most ardent supporters will begin wondering if a change at the top might not be in the best interests of all concerned, including Tom Osborne's.
"A lot of people assume that I'm just hanging around until we win the national championship," Osborne says. "That's not really true. I was involved in a couple as an assistant, and you know what? It was the pursuit of the thing more than winning it that was meaningful. I know it sounds corny, but I just want to help this team be the best it can be. I still enjoy the relationships with former players, the present players and the coaches. And as long as I feel that way, I find a significance in coaching football."