Ghost Busters

If you're Tom Osborne looking to win your first national title, who you gonna call? Tommie Frazier
January 09, 1995

All the ghosts were there. It was strange how they kept popping into view on New Year's night, so many reminders of how Nebraska's legacy of failure began. There was Turner Gill, a Cornhusker assistant coach now but looking very much as he did in 1984 when he threw Nebraska's final, futile pass in the Orange Bowl. There was Howard Schnellenberger, Miami's coach then, back at the game for the first time—and Bernie Kosar and Alonzo Highsmith were there too. So, of course, was Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, whose best chance for a national title evaporated 11 years ago when the two-point conversion toss from Gill failed. Thus the Hurricanes' dynasty began, and the Cornhuskers started their pitiful tendency to gag whenever they set foot in Miami's venerable snake pit. "Boy," said Highsmith, a former Hurricane running back, "that wasn't long ago." But what do ghosts know about time?

Osborne knows: Losing can stretch minutes into hours, make years feel like decades and make nights go on forever. How many times after a bad game did he roll over and punch the pillow as sleep eluded him? How many times—a thousand, two?—did an interview crawl as he spoke yet again about losing the big one? "You want to know if I suffer?" Osborne said last week, softly. "Yeah, I suffer."

Not anymore. Under a perfect Miami sky, against the once unbeatable Hurricanes, in a stadium where he'd lost his last five Orange Bowls, Osborne finally overtook history. Because in what will surely be the final championship at the Orange Bowl stadium, a most unlikely ghost of New Year's Past lifted Osborne to a perfect 13-0 record and his first national title. A year ago Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier outplayed Florida State's Charlie Ward in the Orange Bowl but fell short as Bobby Bowden won his first national title. This time the imperturbable Frazier, playing in his first game since a blood clot was found in his right leg on Sept. 25, piloted the Huskers to two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a sloppy, wonderful, frenetic 24-17 win.

Afterward Osborne was his usual vanilla self, taking the title, the cleansing win over Miami and a congratulatory call from President Clinton in stride. Those begging for a show of emotion got a smile, nothing more. Osborne said he was "gratified" to have his 22-year Nebraska career capped by a championship. "I'm pleased," he said, "but I'm not usually overwrought." But those who know him understood what this game meant. "You could see it in his eyes," said Nebraska guard Brenden Stai. "I've never seen brighter eyes in my life."

Frazier lit that fire. Even though he shared time with backup Brook Berringer, there was little doubt whom Osborne trusted more with his team. "I want the ball in Tommie's hands," he kept repeating into his headset to Gill, now the Husker quarterbacks coach. Afterward Osborne said of Frazier, "He's a special athlete. He can create so many things. You don't have to rely on structure. He'll make the play." Nothing said more about Frazier's impact than the moment when, with Nebraska behind 17-9 midway through the fourth quarter, he stepped into the huddle, looked every player in the eye and said, "We're getting it done. We're scoring now." Two plays later fullback Corey Schlesinger bulled 15 yards for a touchdown. Then, in a nice bit of exorcism, Frazier completed—in the same end zone in which Gill's pass had dropped to end the 31-30 loss to Miami in 1984—a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.

"I'm a very confident person," said Frazier. "Once we tied, I knew that would take it out of them. This is what I told a lot of people: When I come back, it's going to be the national championship game, and I'm going to lead my team to victory."

That may be the most astounding thing. Frazier, a junior from Bradenton, Fla., hadn't played in more than three months, had missed the final eight games of the regular season—and yet, except for one botched pass that Osborne should never have called in the first place, he played as if he'd never been away. Frazier had been taken off blood-thinning medication five days before the Orange Bowl, and no one had a clue how he would perform. "If he can come in and beat our defense after being out nine weeks." Miami safety Malcolm Pearson said, "I'll be his biggest fan. I'll be his groupie."

Such was Osborne's faith in Frazier that Berringer was the only person who was surprised when Frazier was named the starter three days before the game. "He's very strong in his belief in what he can do," Gill said of Frazier. "Just his presence lifts everybody."

On Sunday night Frazier played just six series, threw three completions, no touchdowns and one interception. He rushed for only 31 yards. But Nebraska scored twice under his guidance. Not an eyebrow was raised when he was named the game's most valuable player.

Frazier, of course, didn't work alone. This Nebraska team, after all, carried itself just fine without him for those eight games, as Berringer and sophomore I-back Lawrence Phillips and the best Cornhusker offensive line ever rolled unscathed through the Big Eight and manhandled No. 2 Colorado 24-7 on Oct. 29 in Lincoln. Nothing, not the two frightening occasions when Berringer's lung collapsed, not walk-on Matt Turman's starting at quarterback against Kansas State, not the idea of playing a Miami team that had won 62 out of its last 63 games at the Orange Bowl, seemed to ruffle Nebraska. Haunted by a championship they felt should have been won in last year's Orange Bowl, the Huskers dubbed this season Unfinished Business immediately after the loss last January to Florida State. During summer conditioning drills the scoreboard at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium constantly flashed "1:16"—the last time Nebraska scored against the Seminoles. "We looked at it every day to remind ourselves where we were and where we wanted to be," Stai said.

But the landscape of college football is littered with teams that have resolved to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl only to find themselves outworked, outrun, outplayed and simply intimidated by a collection of players who backed up every cocky utterance with supreme effort. The Hurricanes had won all three bowl games they had played against the lead-footed, option-happy Cornhuskers. "No team had more to prove in here than Nebraska," said Highsmith after the Miami loss.

The Hurricane dynasty that began when Gill's pass was batted away was built on speed, especially on defense, where high school safeties become linebackers and linebackers become defensive ends. So after Miami blew out the Cornhuskers 23-3 in the 1989 Orange Bowl, the Big Red coaching staff knew it had to forever forgo recruiting those earnest but slow instate boys for the secondary. "But then we had to go out and get the personnel," says Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, "which wasn't something that happened overnight."

Shortly after a 22-0 loss to Miami in the 1992 Orange Bowl, Osborne and his staff began landing quicker, more athletic types from California, Florida and Texas—the breeding grounds for Miami's success. "I grew up following Nebraska, and it wasn't clear to me why Miami and Florida State had so much success against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl," said Cornhusker senior linebacker Troy Dumas. "But when we played Miami my first year here, I knew why. I was just in awe of their speed. And I said to myself, We need some of that."

They got it. Nebraska's defense, led by All-America linebacker Ed Stewart, came into Sunday's game ranked fourth in the nation (Miami's was No. 1) and boasted a 4.7 average in the 40 to the Hurricanes' 4.64. Though unmasked as vulnerable to the big play, Nebraska's defensive line sliced through Miami's porous blocking, causing havoc and one safety, sacking Miami quarterback Frank Costa five times and leaving his helmet covered with divots and dings.

In the most crucial stretch Nebraska forced four straight Miami punts in the fourth quarter. On Miami's fifth series Costa fired an interception with one min-ate left. "That's what we dreamed about all year," said senior outside linebacker Donta Jones. "We came out and proved to the whole world that we could stop a team like Miami in the fourth quarter."

The Hurricanes have now lost their last three bowl games, and if their mystique was battered in back-to-back postseason pastings (by Alabama in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, then Arizona in the Fiesta), it was shattered by Nebraska—the program mocked by Miami rooters as the anti-Hurricanes: too big and slow, too fainthearted, too Osborne-like to win on the big stage. Yet this season it was Miami that lost twice at home, and if there was anything nearly as cherished as that 58-game win streak in the Orange Bowl that was broken by Washington this season, it was the 24-game night streak there that Nebraska snapped on New Year's. Most telling, perhaps, was the fact that in the fourth quarter, at home, the Hurricanes visibly sagged. "They had a lot of vacation," Jones said. "We didn't come here for vacation; we came for business."

Only Miami receiver Chris T. Jones and All-World defensive tackle Warren Sapp seemed like-minded. Even though Nebraska tinkered with its line—moving Stai, an All-America guard, for the first time all season to Sapp's side—Sapp still dominated, picking up two sacks and, just before halftime, pulling down Phillips from behind with one hand. Stai called him the best lineman he has ever tangled with. But Sapp predicted that Miami's defense would contain Nebraska, and as Miami knows better than anyone, the winner gets the final word. "If you ask me, he's overrated," said Dumas. "He's got that Miami attitude. They think they can just walk all over anybody that steps in here. They take people too lightly."

Maybe Miami coach Dennis Erickson sensed that too. Constant speculation over his interest in coaching in the NFL—and the Pell Grant and pay-for-play scandals now under in-house investigation by Miami—have worn Erickson's skin paper-thin. He spent bowl week sniping at reporters and then, red-faced and screaming, punctuated the loss by challenging a heckling fan to come down and fight when Sunday night's game was over. Defensive coordinator Greg McMackin followed suit and had to be pulled from the area. Not exactly a class exit, but maybe that's what happens when renegade programs hit the wall.

The contrast between coaches couldn't have been more stark. After the game Osborne walked around the stadium, thanking his players, thanking Orange Bowl officials (who this season had privately joked about his futility against Florida teams), saying goodbye to faces he wouldn't see again because with this game the Big Eight's affiliation with the Orange Bowl ended. Osborne had a clipboard under his arm and a bag lunch dangling from his hand. The biggest of his 219 wins was just over, and he looked like a guy who had stopped at the deli on his way to the train. "It feels awful good," he said. Then he tried again as the lights of the Orange Bowl went black all around him. "I feel great," Osborne said. "But I felt good last year. We played well last year, well enough to win. I don't get as hung up on the trophies as some people think."

Then he gave up. "I know everybody wants me to say, 'Gee, everything's different,' " he said. "But I feel about the same as after any game we won."

Still, he knew how close he had come to disaster. Of course, he was right to start and finish with Frazier, but Osborne made two atrocious calls that nearly cost Nebraska the game. The first came in the first quarter, when after 10 plays that established the Cornhusker running attack for the first time, Osborne called for a deep pass route. Frazier forced the pass into double coverage, Carlos Jones intercepted, and five plays later Costa fired the first of his two touchdown passes, to put Miami ahead 10-0. The second came in the first minute of the fourth quarter, when, with Nebraska trailing 17-9, Miami's ineptitude with deep snapping handed the Huskers their best field position of the night: first-and-goal at the four-yard line. But instead of relying on the best rushing attack in the nation, Osborne called for a pass. With all his options covered, Berringer tried to throw out of the end zone; instead, the ball went into the corner, where safety Earl Little made an astonishing, falling interception. "We ran off that field pretty much saying 'Ball game,' " Sapp said.

Why not? This was the precise place and moment—in the fourth quarter, in the Orange Bowl—at which Miami had cemented its place as the supreme program of recent years. But these Hurricanes ran out of gas. Trying to determine which of his quarterbacks could move the ball most effectively, Osborne had replaced Frazier with Berringer in the first half at a time ordained before kickoff. But now he was operating purely by feel. Berringer, 7-0 as a starter, had already thrown one touchdown while Frazier had none. But he's a special athlete. Osborne yanked Berringer, and at that moment it looked like panic: Coach pulls his second quarterback of the night after passes that should never have been thrown.

Instead, Osborne won his championship Nebraska-style. Sapp sacked Frazier on his first snap back at the helm, but in Frazier's second series the offensive line began knocking the Hurricanes back. Frazier walked into the huddle with a first-and-10 on the Miami 40 and calmly told everyone it was time to score. Phillips, whose 96 rushing yards were key to this win, opened with a 25-yard romp. Then Outland Trophy winner Zach Wiegert blasted open a hole large enough to accommodate a steamship, and Schlesinger stepped through for a 15-yard score.

Osborne called for the two-point conversion—no flashback to 1984, he insisted. "Different situation," he said. Different ending, too. Frazier stepped back and nailed Eric Alford with a quick strike. Frazier engineered one more drive, for 58 yards, and Schlesinger rolled in for the final 14-yard score. Ball game, Nebraska.

Now he has it, Osborne does, a national title—what he calls "the whole banana." There was a moment, after Osborne had finally finished with the reporters, after he had finally met up with his wife, Nancy, and their son, Mike, and daughters Ann and Suzi and son-in-law Kevin and grandson Will. He began walking down the tunnel, and outside were hundreds of people wearing Big Red, bellowing. "The pressure coming into this game was how many people were going to be devastated if we didn't win it," Osborne had said earlier. "Everybody was saying, 'It's our turn,' but in athletics you don't take turns." Now he was walking out, but he had gone too far ahead. So when he heard the noise, he turned back, looking for support, but no one was there. For the first time all night Osborne had no idea what to do. He called out, then his family caught up. They walked into the night together.

"Nebraska! Tom! Hey, Tom!" the fans yelled, and Osborne grinned and waved and bore it all, lunch bag in hand. Then, blinking furiously, he stepped onto bus No. 5903, trying to get away from the crush. Wrong bus: no room. He stepped down, went to bus No. 5905, and as he stood in the doorway, a man screamed, "You're Number 1, Tom!" Osborne stared at him as if the man had accused him of a crime. Then he sat down behind the driver. It was 1:15 a.m. He pulled out his sandwich, unwrapped it and took a polite bite. The bus hummed. Frazier stepped aboard. Osborne's eyes flickered, but he didn't speak. Frazier passed by.

And looming there, through the windshield, it sat: The place where he'd been mocked, MIAMI ORANGE BOWL, blared the sign on the stadium, and it was painted green and orange, Hurricane colors. He glanced at it, in between chews, but it wasn't until the driver turned off the inside lights that Osborne could get a clear view. All the ghosts were gone.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANS TWO PHOTOSAL TIELEMANSBy air or land Frazier had Miami's number, and the fans had Nebraska's number. PHOTOROBERT ROGERS[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL FRAKESSchlesinger was double trouble, bursting for the tying (left) and winning TDs. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.] PHOTOAL TIELEMANSOne sack of Costa brought a safety (left), another a salute from Terry Connealy. TWO PHOTOSJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOROBERT ROGERS[See caption above.] PHOTOAL TIELEMANSBy the time they left the field, the Huskers had a leg up on their celebration.