The coach has been a font of second chances for his players.
Last Saturday morning in Lincoln, Neb., a pair of Nebraska
boosters greeted two friends who were about to be swept up in
the sea of Cornhusker red roiling its way toward Memorial
Stadium for the Huskers' first home game of the season.
"Game's been called off," one booster said. "Nobody can make
The Nebraska faithful have long been accustomed to laughers, but
rarely has the humor been of the gallows variety. The Huskers
were last year's national champions and are expected to extend
their NCAA record of 33 straight winning seasons. Last Saturday
the crowd of 75,418, the 202nd consecutive sellout at Memorial
Stadium, watched as the Cornhuskers thrashed Arizona State 77-28
behind two I-backs who each rushed for more than 100 yards. That
those backs were named Clinton Childs and Ahman Green--not
Lawrence Phillips and Damon Benning--was the only cloud over this
picture-perfect day, and the only obvious indication that all is
not well with Nebraska football.
On Sept. 12, Phillips, who had been regarded as a Heisman Trophy
candidate, pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor counts of
third-degree assault, trespassing and destruction of property,
all stemming from an alleged assault two days before on Nebraska
sophomore Kate McEwen, a former girlfriend who plays for the
Cornhusker women's basketball team. The evening after the
alleged incident, coach Tom Osborne announced that he had thrown
Phillips off the team, but he later amended that to say that
Phillips would be suspended indefinitely.
On Monday, Osborne said, "It's not as though Lawrence is an
angry young man all the time and a threat to society. But there
are occasions every four to five months where he becomes a
little explosive." Osborne added that Phillips might return in a
month--in time for the Oct. 28 game at Colorado, the most
daunting on the Husker schedule--if "medical people say some
significant changes have taken place."
Benning, Phillips's backup, was also sidelined last Saturday,
but only by a strained hamstring and not by the third-degree
assault citation against him for allegedly beating his
ex-girlfriend on the night of Sept. 9. Benning says he is not
guilty, and Osborne says he is convinced of Benning's innocence.
Prosecutors are weighing whether or not to press charges.
During Osborne's 23 years in Lincoln his program has escaped the
rampant lawlessness that has at times beset programs at Miami
and at Big Eight rivals Oklahoma and Colorado. But Osborne's
reactions to the Phillips and Benning arrests, and to other
recent criminal cases involving his players, raise the question
of whether he has gone so far in giving his players the benefit
of the doubt--and keeping them available to play--that he has
hampered the work of police and prosecutors.
"I don't tell Tom Osborne how to run the football department,"
Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey says, "and he should stay
out of the criminal justice system. He hasn't done that at all."
According to Lacey, Osborne has taken it upon himself to
interview witnesses in criminal cases, offered very public
opinions on the probable innocence of players who have yet to
stand trial and attacked the credibility of witnesses testifying
against his players. In January 1994 he and an assistant even
locked away a gun that had allegedly been used by one of his
players in the commission of a felony.
"That's Osborne using his influence to disrupt the criminal
justice system," Lacey says. "Osborne talks to witnesses.
Whether he tried to influence them or not ... someone with his
reputation would have an effect."
In four recent cases involving criminal charges against his
players, Osborne has aggressively rushed to their defense:
Riley Washington, a junior wingback, continues to practice with
the Cornhuskers despite having been charged with attempted
second-degree murder and use of a weapon to commit a felony in
connection with the Aug. 2 shooting of 22-year-old Jermaine Cole
at a Lincoln convenience store. Cole told Lincoln police that he
and Nebraska undergraduate assistant football coach Abdul
Muhammad were fighting when Washington pulled his gun and fired,
saying, "Your life is gone." On Sept. 11, two days before
Washington pleaded not guilty to both counts, Osborne said, "I
think there is a very, very good chance that Riley didn't do
what he's accused of. I've talked to a lot of people.... I feel
pretty comfortable about Riley's case."
On Sept. 13, Osborne told reporters, "At the preliminary
hearing, the primary witness against Riley, the individual who
was shot, indicated that Riley was wearing a polo shirt with
three buttons and a hat. Riley was wearing a T-shirt, entirely a
different color, and did not have a hat on. Another witness ...
could not identify Riley as the shooter."
Lacey told SI, "I didn't see Osborne at the preliminary hearing.
We had two witnesses say, 'Riley Washington shot Jermaine Cole.
I saw the gun. I saw him do it.'"
Why has Osborne involved himself so deeply in the Washington
affair? "Because I'm going to have to make a call on Riley, and
I can't wait until the case goes to trial in February," he says.
"If I keep him out, and it turns out he's innocent, he will have
lost a whole year. On the other hand, if I let him play, and
later he's found guilty, that wouldn't be good either. What was
I supposed to do?"
Tyrone Williams, a senior cornerback, was charged in March 1994
with two felonies--unlawful discharge of a firearm and use of a
weapon to commit a felony--in connection with a Jan. 30, 1994,
shooting. Police say that Williams fired two shots into a car
occupied by former New York Jet safety Kevin Porter, who was in
town visiting friends. Porter was not hit. After the shooting,
but before Williams was charged, then-Nebraska assistant Kevin
Steele was given Williams's .22 caliber revolver. Then Steele
and Osborne locked the gun in a cabinet.
"When the chief of police and I learned that a gun wanted in
connection with a felony shooting was in Osborne's possession
when it should have been immediately turned over to the police,
then you have evidence that is being withheld," Lacey says.
When his actions came to light, Osborne said, "Frankly, if
anybody had asked, we would have given it to them sooner. No
charges had been filed, so we didn't think anybody was anxious
about it." Osborne has said all along that he notified campus
police about the gun. Last week Osborne conceded in an interview
with SI that prosecutors were probably looking for the gun at
the time he filed it away. "The weapon was missing when we asked
[Williams] to get it. If we hadn't made him give us the gun, the
police might never have gotten it."
Williams pleaded not guilty. His lawyer is awaiting a ruling on
a motion to drop one of the charges. Meanwhile, he is playing, a
fact Osborne defends by noting that since Williams was raised by
his grandmother, the athletic department has taken a parental
role in supporting him.
Christian Peter, a senior defensive tackle, was sentenced to 18
months probation in May 1994 after he pleaded no contest to a
charge of third-degree sexual assault brought by a former Miss
Nebraska, Natalie Kuijvenhoven, who was then a Nebraska student.
According to Osborne, Kuijvenhoven's lawyer contacted him about
Peter, and Osborne says he suggested that all the
parties--including Peter--meet in his office at the athletic
department. But Kuijvenhoven would have none of it. "It's clear
Osborne was trying to intimidate me in order to get rid of me
before a trial would ever happen," Kuijvenhoven told SI. Osborne
says he has never pressured a witness.
Osborne says that Peter, a Cornhusker captain, has been "a model
guy" since completing a private program that no one at Nebraska
can discuss in any detail.
Senior wide receiver Reggie Baul was charged last Nov. 20 with
stealing a wallet from a woman in a Lincoln restaurant. Hal
Anderson, the lawyer who represented him, hired a retired
policeman to administer a lie detector test to Baul. According
to Osborne, Baul passed the test. Osborne then permitted him to
play in the Orange Bowl victory over Miami that clinched
Nebraska's national title. On March 6, Baul pleaded guilty to a
misdemeanor charge of possession of stolen property. He was
fined $100 and placed on six months probation. He remains a
member of the team.
According to police, sometime after 4 a.m. on Sept. 10, the
night the Huskers returned from a rout of Michigan State in East
Lansing, Phillips entered the third-floor apartment of Scott
Frost, a quarterback from Wood River, Neb., who had transferred
to Nebraska this fall from Stanford. When Phillips found McEwen
in the apartment, police say, he pushed her into the bathroom,
knocked her down and dragged her by the hair down a flight of
At 11 a.m. last Thursday, McEwen walked into Lacey's office
after returning from her home in Topeka, Kans. That day Lacey
interviewed her for the first time, three days after Osborne had
spoken with her. Early in the week Osborne had said, "I wouldn't
call it a beating. But [Phillips] certainly did inflict some
damage to a young lady."
It is clear that Osborne had been aware for some time that
Phillips might be trouble. In March 1994 he was alleged to have
grabbed a student from another college around the neck.
Misdemeanor charges were dropped after he agreed to pay $400 to
repair a necklace that was broken, though he failed to complete
a mandated diversion program.
On Sunday the Omaha World-Herald reported that what had
allegedly taken place in Frost's apartment apparently resulted
from a long, troubled relationship between McEwen and Phillips,
and that friends of McEwen's had seen signs of physical abuse.
The paper also reported that according to one of those friends,
Osborne was aware of violence in the relationship and had urged
Phillips and McEwen to stop seeing each other. This summer, the
World-Herald asserted, Osborne had warned Phillips, "If you ever
touch her again, you will be kicked off the team."
Osborne does not recall using those exact words, but he had no
choice but to suspend Phillips. "He tends to believe anything
these kids tell him," says Joe Nigro, of the Lancaster County
public defender's office. "The problem with Phillips is that it
happened at Scott Frost's apartment, and Scott talked to
[Osborne] before Lawrence talked to him. He has to believe
For discipline, Osborne assigns players five points each, and
they keep playing until they lose their points. Cutting class
costs one point on the Osborne scale; a felony conviction costs
five. Skipping a practice is three points, and committing a
criminal misdemeanor is four. And he has been a font of second
chances for players and ex-players, including Muhammad, whose
eligibility is up but who has retained his scholarship and works
as an undergraduate coach. Muhammad was involved in a fight at a
Lincoln hotel last year in which Nebraska defensive back Ramone
Worthy was stabbed. "My feeling is Abdul can do more good on the
field than he can simply drifting around the community," Osborne
Osborne says he is also inclined to grant a second chance to
Phillips: "If Lawrence is in a structured program, he's more apt
to get treatment than if we cut him loose."
Say this for Osborne: He knows his student-athletes aren't all
choirboys. As the Husker plane landed in Lincoln on the night
Phillips allegedly beat McEwen, Osborne told his players over
the intercom, "Have a nice night, but stay out of trouble."