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Galloping Ghosts The Huskers beat Miami to win the national title and exorcise a decade of demons

Jan. 17, 1995
Jan. 17, 1995

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Jan. 17, 1995

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Galloping Ghosts The Huskers beat Miami to win the national title and exorcise a decade of demons

All the ghosts were there. It was strange how they kept popping
into view on New Year's night, so many reminders of how it had begun.
There was Turner Gill, a Nebraska assistant coach now, but looking
very much as he did in 1984 when he threw the Cornhuskers' final,
futile pass. There was Howard Schnellenberger, Miami's coach back
then, returning to the Orange Bowl, and his former players Bernie
Kosar and Alonzo Highsmith, too. And there, of course, was Nebraska
coach Tom Osborne, whose best chance for a national championship had
seemed to evaporate 11 years before, when Gill's two-point
conversion toss fell incomplete, sealing a 31-30 loss to the
Hurricanes and igniting Miami's dynasty and the Cornhuskers' decade
of futility at the Orange Bowl. ''Boy,'' said Highsmith, the former
Hurricane running back, ''that wasn't long ago.'' But what do ghosts
know of time?
Osborne knows of time. Losing stretches minutes into hours, makes
nights go on forever, turns years into decades. How many times after
a bad game did Osborne roll over and punch the pillow as sleep eluded
him? How many times did an interview crawl along as he was asked
again and again about losing the big one? ''You want to know if I
suffer?'' Osborne said softly before this year's climactic game.
''Yeah, I suffer.''
He suffers no more. Under a perfect South Florida sky, against the
once- unbeatable Hurricanes, in a stadium where he'd lost five
straight bowl games, Osborne finally caught history. Because in what
will be the final championship game played at the original Orange
Bowl stadium, the unlikely ghost of New Year's Past -- one Tommie
Frazier -- lifted Osborne to a perfect 13-0 record and his first
national championship. A year before, Frazier, the quarterback, had
outplayed Florida State's Charlie Ward in the Orange Bowl, but the
Huskers fell short, losing 16-14 as Seminole coach Bobby Bowden won
his first national championship. This year 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, frenetic, wonderful 24-17 victory.
Afterward, Osborne was his usual vanilla self, taking the title,
the cleansing win over Miami and a congratulatory call from President
Clinton all 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 coaching career capped by a title. ''I'm pleased,''
he said, ''but I'm not usually overwrought.'' Only those who know him
understood what this game meant to him. ''You could see it in his
eyes,'' said Cornhusker guard Brenden Stai. ''I've never seen
brighter eyes in my life.''
It was Frazier who had illuminated those eyes. Even though he
shared time during the game with backup Brook Berringer, there was
little doubt whom Osborne trusted more. ''I want the ball in Tommie's
hands,'' Osborne said into his headset to Gill. After the game,
Osborne said of the junior from Bradenton, Fla., ''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 talents than the moment when,
with Nebraska down 17-9 midway through the fourth quarter, he stepped
into the huddle, looked every player squarely in the eye and said,
''We're getting it done. We're scoring now.'' Two plays later,
Nebraska fullback Cory Schlesinger bulled in from 15 yards out. Then,
in a nice bit of exorcism, Frazier completed -- yes, in the same end
zone in which Gill's pass had fallen short -- a two-point conversion
pass to tight end Eric Alford to tie the game. ''I'm a very confident
person,'' Frazier said afterward. ''Once we tied, I knew that would
take it out of them.''
Frazier engineered one more drive, for 58 yards, and Schlesinger
rolled in for the winning 14-yard score. ''Coming back to my home
state and beating the team that had lost just once here in 63 times .
. . you can't ask for anything more,'' Frazier said. ''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.' I feel great.''
Which may have been Frazier's most astounding accomplishment. He
had missed the final eight games of the regular season and was taken
off blood-thinning medication just five days before the Orange Bowl.
Yet with the exception of one botched pass that Osborne should never
have called, Frazier performed as if he'd never been gone. ''If he
can come in here and beat our defense after being out nine weeks,
I'll be his biggest fan,'' Miami safety Malcolm Pearson had said a
few days before the game. ''I'll be his groupie.''
Frazier played just six series in the Orange Bowl, throwing three
completions, no touchdowns and one interception. He rushed for only
31 yards. Yet Nebraska scored twice under his guidance, and not an
eyebrow was raised when Frazier was named the game's most valuable
player. ''When you have a great quarterback like him -- and I
consider him one of the great players in college football -- it's
pretty hard to keep him out of the lineup,'' said Miami coach Dennis
Erickson after the game. ''He's just the best quarterback that I've
seen all year.''
Frazier didn't work alone, of course. This Nebraska team, after
all, carried itself just fine without him for the regular season's
final eight games, as Berringer and sophomore I-back Lawrence
Phillips and the best offensive line ever assembled in Lincoln rolled
unscathed through the Big Eight. Nothing, not | even the two
frightening occasions in early October when Berringer's left lung
partially collapsed, seemed to ruffle the Cornhuskers.
Haunted by a championship they felt they should have won in last
year's Orange Bowl, the team dubbed this season Unfinished Business.
During last summer's conditioning drills, the scoreboard at Lincoln's
Memorial Stadium constantly flashed ''1:16'' -- the last time
Nebraska took the lead in the 1994 Orange Bowl. ''We looked at it
every day to remind ourselves where we were and where we wanted to
be,'' Stai said.
''I've never had a team that had this much resolve,'' Osborne
said. ''We hardly got off the field last year before they said they
were going to be back. They had a tremendous off-season, tremendous
spring ball, tremendous summer. Then they worked their tails off the
last month preparing for this. They're a very unified group, and they
knew what they wanted to do. And nothing was going to stand in their
way.''
But the landscape of college football is littered with teams that
have resolved to beat the Hurricanes 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 were 62-1 in the Orange Bowl over the
last nine years; they had also won all three bowl games they'd played
there during that time -- and it was no coincidence that they'd done
so in each case over lead-footed, option-happy Nebraska teams. ''No
team had more to prove in here than Nebraska,'' said Highsmith.
The Hurricane dynasty was built on speed, especially on defense,
where high school safeties became linebackers and linebackers became
defensive ends. So after Miami blew out the Cornhuskers 23-3 in the
'89 Orange Bowl, the Nebraska coaching staff knew it had to forgo
recruiting those earnest but slow in-state boys for the secondary.
''But then we had to go out and get the personnel,'' says Husker
defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, ''which wasn't something that
happened overnight.''
Three winters later, shortly after the 22-0 loss to Miami in the
'92 Orange Bowl, Osborne and his staff began landing those quicker,
more athletic types from Florida, Texas and California -- the
breeding grounds for Miami's success. ''I grew up following Nebraska
pretty closely, and it wasn't clear to me why Miami and Florida State
had so much success against them in the Orange Bowl,'' said
Cornhusker senior linebacker Troy Dumas. ''But when we played Miami
my first year here, I knew why. I was standing on the sidelines just
in awe of their speed. It was incredible. And I said to myself, We
need some of that.''
They got some. Nebraska's defense, led by All-America linebacker
Ed Stewart, came into the 1995 Orange Bowl ranked second in the
nation in points allowed, behind Miami, and boasted a 4.7 average in
the 40, compared with the Hurricanes' 4.64. Two of Nebraska's front
seven had been moved there from the secondary.
Though unmasked as vulnerable to the big play, the Huskers
nevertheless forced Miami to punt four straight times in the fourth
quarter before intercepting Frank Costa's final pass with one minute
to play. ''That's what we dreamed about all year,'' said Nebraska
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 had visibly sagged while the Huskers got
stronger, clearly dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage.
''They had a lot of vacation,'' Jones said. ''We didn't come here for
vacation; we came for business.''
After the game the always businesslike Osborne walked around the
stadium, thanking his players and Orange Bowl officials (who had been
privately joking about Nebraska's futile efforts against Florida
teams). He wandered about with a clipboard under his arm and a bag
lunch dangling from his hand. The biggest of his 219 career 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, just as
the lights of the Orange Bowl went black all around him, he tried to
come up with a few more bons mots. ''I feel great,'' he 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.'' As his
wife, Nancy, says, ''We're not real demonstrative people.''
Osborne, of course, was fully aware of how close his team had come
to another disappointment, attributable in part to two atrocious
calls he'd made. The first came in the first quarter when, after 10
plays that established the Nebraska running attack, Osborne called
for a deep pass. Frazier forced the ball into double coverage, and
cornerback Carlos Jones intercepted. Five plays later Costa fired his
first touchdown pass, putting the Hurricanes up 10-0. Osborne's
second error came in the first minute of the fourth quarter, when,
trailing 17-9, the Cornhuskers had the ball on first-and-goal at the
Miami four-yard line. But instead of relying, as usual, on the best
rushing team in the nation, Osborne called for a pass. With all his
receivers covered, Berringer tried to fire the ball out of the end
zone; instead, his throw went into the corner, where safety Earl
Little made a leaping interception. It seemed like the game-breaker,
and in any other year, in any other Orange Bowl, it probably would
have been. But not this year.
Osborne has weathered his share of criticism over the years, but
in the wake of this triumph, all was forgiven. After one postgame
interview, a Lincoln television reporter finished by saying, ''God
bless you, Coach.'' Said McBride, who has worked with Osborne since
arriving in Lincoln in 1977, ''Hopefully this will take the monkey
off his back. I don't think people, especially in the state of
Nebraska, know what they really have. He's been here for 22 years,
and he's been beaten down by a lot of things. People have said that
football's passed him by and other garbage. This is something the guy
deserves. He's put more into this football program than anyone could
imagine, so much time and effort.''
And now Osborne had what he calls ''the whole banana.'' There was
a moment late, after he had finally finished with the reporters and
the players, after he had finally met up with Nancy and their son,
Mike, and grandson Will and daughters Ann and Suzi and son-in-law
Kevin, when he began walking down the tunnel to the stadium exit.
Outside waiting for him were hundreds of people wearing red and
bellowing. ''The thing I felt, 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. It's your year,' but in athletics you don't take turns.'' Now
he was walking out, but he had walked too fast; he was steps ahead of
his family. So when he heard all the noise in front of him, he turned
back for a moment, looking for support, but no one was there for him.
For the first time all night, he had no idea what to do. ''What? . .
.'' he said. He called out, and then his family caught up. They
walked out together.
''Nebraska! Tom! Hey, Tom!'' the fans yelled at once, and Osborne
grinned and waved and bore it all, lunch bag still in hand. Then,
blinking furiously, he stepped onto bus num ber 5903, trying to get
away from the crush and the ; exhaust fumes, as motorcycle cops
gunned their engines. Wrong bus; no room for Coach Osborne. He
stepped down, went to bus number 5905, and as he stood in the
doorway, a man screamed at him, ''You're Number 1, Tom!'' A
stone-faced Osborne stared at the man as if he had accused him of a
crime. Then Osborne went and sat down behind the driver. It was 1:15
a.m. He slowly pulled out his sandwich, unwrapped it and, leaning
over, took a polite bite. He chewed awhile. The bus hummed.
And there through the windshield loomed the edifice where Tom
Osborne had been mocked and laughed at for so many years: MIAMI
ORANGE BOWL blared the huge sign on the side of the stadium, and it
was painted Hurricane orange. He glanced at it in between chews, but
it wasn't until the bus driver turned off the inside lights that
Osborne could get a clear view.
All the ghosts were gone.

This is an article from the Jan. 17, 1995 issue