THE VISION was clear in his mind. "Look at this stadium right
now," said Colorado football coach Rick Neuheisel as he pointed
out his office window at Folsom Field, six long days before his
Buffaloes' game against Nebraska. Oversized snowflakes fell on
empty bleachers. In an adjacent room, Neuheisel's assistant
coaches watched videotape of the unbeaten Cornhuskers and
scribbled the beginnings of a game plan in grease pencil on
shiny white boards.
"Come Saturday, this place is going to be bedlam," Neuheisel
continued. "We're going to come into the stadium right through
the middle of the student section, and the kids are going to go
nuts." Of course. Stack the emotion impossibly high and then
wait for the Huskers, winners of 20 consecutive games, to yield
to fate. "Shoot, yes, they're ripe," said Neuheisel. "We'll play
hard, then we'll get a couple of breaks. They've done an
unbelievable job there despite all the distractions, but this
thing ain't going on forever. The ball is going to bounce our
way. I believe that." He nodded for emphasis, certain and
It was a good plan, don't you think? Since coach Tom Osborne won
his first national championship last January, Nebraska has not
only replaced 14 starters but run a gantlet of off-the-field
problems, most notably the suspension from the Cornhuskers--and
last week, the controversial reinstatement--of junior running
back Lawrence Phillips, who pleaded no contest to assaulting his
former girlfriend in the early morning hours of Sept. 10. Ripe?
Like the man said: Shoot, yes.
Except that Nebraska conducts its football program with the same
singlemindedness with which a shark conducts lunch. The winning
streak reached 21 games last Saturday afternoon with a 44-21
victory over Colorado. The chase for a second consecutive
national title hit full stride as the Huskers vaulted past idle
Florida State to the top of the polls. Neuheisel was right:
Folsom Field was electric. But that didn't matter in the least
to Nebraska. That's because the Cornhuskers push aside, with
equal aplomb, roster changes and national scrutiny resulting
from the criminal behavior of players. Some would say that is
not an altogether endearing quality. But it serves Nebraska well.
"I wish I could give you an answer as to how we've done this,"
said Osborne, days before the Colorado game, as he stood at the
edge of the Huskers' practice field in Lincoln. Then he found
his answer. "I really believe the core of this team is very
good," he said. "I believe it's good, in terms of attitude and
character. This fall we've been smeared as a renegade team. I
don't see that. I see disciplined, unselfish people who know
what it takes to win."
Nebraska was never more tested than by Colorado. Not only were
the Buffaloes the Cornhuskers' toughest opponents so far this
season, but on the Tuesday before the game, Osborne announced
that Phillips was back on the team. (He will dress for
Saturday's home game against Iowa State and could start the
following week at Kansas.) The Phillips decision divided not
only the Nebraska campus, but also the state that so worships
its Big Red. A poll conducted by an Omaha TV station showed
viewers split almost 50-50 on whether to support or decry
Osborne's decision. On the day of Phillips's reinstatement
Cornhusker women's basketball coach Angela Beck, whose players
include sophomore Kate McEwen, the victim of Phillips's assault,
conducted a brief press conference that was a study in
constrained emotion. "I will respect the decision of the
school," Beck said. "I'm sure there are some things that need to
change in the future." Mary McGarvey, chair of the university's
Faculty Women's Caucus, questioned the right of a coach to make
such a decision alone and said, "This sends a very bad message
to women students. But we all expected that the coach would do
what he felt was best for his team."
Osborne's action seemed driven as much by his desire to rescue
lost souls among his flock as by a need to strengthen the
Cornhuskers. Nebraska is 6-0 without Phillips and sinfully deep
in I-backs. Phillips is a 20-year-old who lived in a West
Covina, Calif., group home from the age of 13 and endured an
extraordinarily difficult youth. Yet, Phillips also had been
welcomed back to Osborne's team after at least two other
transgressions (both for fighting), and Osborne acknowledges
that Phillips had been warned before the attack to stay away
from McEwen. But Osborne persists in his mission with Phillips,
at the same time disregarding McEwen, the victim of a serious
assault. "What else could be done for her, really?" he asked in
the week preceding the Colorado game. This response came several
minutes after he called the Phillips decision, "a minor issue,
really," which he likened to choosing to go for a two-point
conversion against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
Phillips's return might have splintered the Cornhuskers. "It's
so wrong to do something like that to your girl, to any girl,"
said senior tight end Mark Gilman, one of Nebraska's
co-captains. But as quickly as the players condemned the act,
they rallied in the lockstep manner central to the mentality of
football. "We're a family here," Gilman said. "We take pride in
our unity." Said running back Clinton Childs, "Lawrence is a
Husker, simple as that."
At Nebraska's core is senior quarterback Tommie Frazier, the
Cornhuskers' leader and conscience. As a citizen Frazier is the
kind who isn't likely to cross against a red light; as a quiet,
intense leader Frazier finds the legal travails of his teammates
tiresome and inexcusable. "Most of it is foolish stuff that
could have been avoided," said Frazier. "And I'm pretty sure
quite a few players are upset about it."
However, even Frazier adds, "What happens off the field stays
off the field. Incidents happen, and it's bad that they did. But
we go forward."
Last Saturday afternoon Frazier and the Cornhuskers again went
forward together. He threw for a career-high 241 yards and two
touchdowns, ran for 40 yards, absorbed hit after hellacious hit
and generally shouldered the responsibility of steering Nebraska
through an environment made terrifically hostile by the crowd,
the opposing team and the circumstances. All of this came one
year after Frazier missed the Colorado-Nebraska game (and seven
others) with a blood clot in his leg.
"When you consider everything, the adversity he's had, the time
he's missed, the style Nebraska plays, he's one gifted player,"
said Neuheisel, himself a former quarterback and a connoisseur
of the position, after Saturday's loss. "He made big play after
big play, time and time again." Said Osborne, "He was the
In winning their first seven games, the Huskers kept most of
their offense quietly in the bag. "We had been using maybe
one-third of the possibilities," said fullback Jeff Makovicka.
But last Saturday the shackles were removed. And while Nebraska
owned Colorado in many ways--the Buffaloes got just 106 net
rushing yards, quarterback John Hessler was intercepted twice
and Colorado was penalized 12 times for 92 yards--most of the
Husker offensive success sprang from Frazier's well of
creativity and growing versatility.
It started on Nebraska's first offensive play of the game.
Against the din of the still-juiced Colorado crowd, Frazier
pitched to freshman Ahman Green, who went 57 yards for a
touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Then, with 1:47 left in the first
quarter, Frazier froze Colorado free safety Steve Rosga with a
play fake and threw over Rosga's head to Clester Johnson for a
52-yard touchdown pass and a 21-7 lead.
And then came perhaps the most impressive moment of all. Midway
through the second period, as the 6'2", 205-pound Frazier stood
in the pocket to throw, he was hit from the blind side by
240-pound Greg Jones at the instant he raised the ball. Frazier
kept his feet, pumped once and then, as he was falling forward,
rifled the ball to Green for a 35-yard completion on the left
sideline. The play was a remarkable display of strength,
patience and improvisation from an athlete who is still presumed
by many to be an option quarterback with limited passing ability.
But Frazier is not only the soul of a team that seems certain to
play for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl--"When I
get in the huddle and see that fire in his eyes, it gets me
rolling, too," says senior center Aaron Graham--he is also a
serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy. "No question in my
mind, he's the front-runner," said Neuheisel.
Frazier walked Saturday evening from the visitors' locker room
up a steep incline to the Huskers' team bus balancing a can of
soda on top of a pizza box. "Last year at this time I didn't
even want to be around football," Frazier said. "But today...."
And then he laughed at the joy of it. "Today was fun." He was
the last to board, trundling up the steps as the door closed
It has been a dark, uncertain autumn for Osborne and his giant
program in the plains. Questions remain unanswered, criticism
will still be heard. But this also seems certain: With Frazier
taking snaps, the football end is blissfully secure.