HE STOOD at the back corner of the end zone, a statue in
brilliant red, with number 15 on his uniform and adulation
rolling down from the stands. One second remained in the third
quarter as Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier put his hands on
his hips and waited for his teammates to reach him, to celebrate
a 75-yard touchdown run that crowned a remarkable evening. The
Nebraska players gathered around him and scrummed in the night,
drinking in their triumph and his brilliance.
Frazier didn't win the Heisman Trophy this fall, a failure that
he could not control but one that bruised him and compelled him
to chase larger goals. "It's O.K.," he said before the Fiesta
Bowl. "I can still win the championship." And when the Sun Devil
Stadium scoreboard froze Nebraska's 62-24 dismantling of
Florida, it was as if the college football world awakened and
recognized the on-field excellence, which it had largely ignored
while studying Cornhusker scandals.
Its season unspooled in a hail of public outrage, and for an
entire fall Nebraska was not a football team, not the undefeated
national champion, but an issue. The Cornhuskers were the
starting point for any indignant sort who chose to rail against
the atrocities in major-college football. They were never just
players, they were examples.
Six players on this Cornhusker team have been arrested, most
notoriously junior tailback Lawrence Phillips, who was suspended
for six games this fall after assaulting his former girlfriend
Kate McEwen, a Nebraska basketball player. He returned to the
team in late October, and as a starter in the Fiesta Bowl,
Phillips rushed for 165 yards and scored three touchdowns.
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's decision to reinstate him was
debated endlessly. "People wouldn't let it go," Frazier said
before the game. "We just wanted to move on." Defensive
coordinator Charlie McBride put it best: "Things happened, and
this school will take a long time to heal. What could the
players do right now? All they could do was win games. That was
January 8, 1996
Through an unbeaten regular season, even through the last three
seasons, during which they won 36 games (more than any team in
NCAA history over a three-year period) and became the first team
to win consecutive national titles since Alabama in 1978-79,
Nebraska never spoke more eloquently than it did in the Fiesta
Bowl. For slightly more than a quarter, a riveting game seemed
to be unfolding, as Florida led 10-6 after two lead changes. But
when Nebraska scored 29 unanswered points and held Florida to
zero yards in offense in the second quarter, the Fiesta Bowl was
like one of the many Super Bowl mismatches. And it did not
surprise the Cornhuskers in the least. "The truth is, we
expected this to happen," said Nebraska junior strong safety
Mike Minter. "All week in public we said the right things. But
when we went to our hotel rooms it was like, 'We're going to
blow them out.'"
And Frazier was squarely at the center of that blowout. He
rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 105 yards
and another score. More telling, he brought to the game the same
relentless leadership and toughness that has defined his career.
On that memorable 75-yard touchdown run, Frazier broke seven
tackles and dragged two Florida defenders several yards before
shaking free and rolling down the sideline alone. And after
playing brilliantly in both Nebraska's 18-16 Orange Bowl loss to
Florida State in 1994 and the Cornhuskers' 24-17 national-title
victory over Miami last season, he must now be considered one of
the best big-game quarterbacks in college football history--its
Nebraska's defense, too, was arresting in its speed and
efficiency against Florida. The Cornhuskers sacked Gator
quarterback Danny Wuerffel seven times for 40 yards, limited
Florida to a must-be-a-misprint minus-28-yards rushing and so
thoroughly hurt and intimidated the Gators that it was obvious a
metamorphosis had taken place. This was no longer the same
Nebraska program that couldn't withstand the speed and
aggressiveness of the Miami and Florida State defenses of the
late 1980s and early '90s. On Jan. 2 Nebraska was the Miami of
1987 or 1989. Fast, mean, immovable.
The meeting that would define Nebraska's autumn took place on
Sept. 11 in the Cornhuskers' spacious team room beyond the south
end zone of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. Monday meetings are
customarily as exciting as ankle taping. Position coaches
applaud exemplary performances from the previous Saturday's
game, and players watch film in preparation for the next
But that Monday was dramatically different, and the meeting
would serve a purpose more important than that of getting
Nebraska ready for overmatched Arizona State on Sept. 16. It
would save the Huskers' season. Thirty-six hours earlier, in the
small hours of Sunday morning, Phillips had been arrested for
assault. The day before, junior running back Damon Benning had
been arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend (the charges were
subsequently dropped). As a result, the Cornhuskers would come
to represent, at least in the eyes of much of the public, all
that ails major-college sports.
Nebraska, which had lost only one game in its last 27, was on
the verge of implosion. In that meeting Osborne addressed the
issue of off-field behavior. The mood in the room was cold and
hollow. "Coach Osborne had stood up in front of the team before
and said, 'Hey, guys, this is it, we cannot have this anymore,'"
says senior center Aaron Graham. "Then that week we got two more
guys in trouble." When Osborne had finished, the Huskers' five
senior captains--Graham, linebacker Phil Ellis, tight end Mark
Gilman, defensive tackle Christian Peter and safety Tony
Veland--asked him and his assistants to leave the room.
For about an hour the Cornhuskers talked, beginning with the
captains and ending with the youngest members of the team. Soon
the room was filled with anger and embarrassment--"It got ugly
in there," says Peter. Public perception to the contrary,
Nebraska players accepted blame for their problems. Says Gilman,
"We just said, 'Enough is enough. It's time.'" Says Graham, "I
said, 'We've got 150 people in this room. I don't care if you're
the fifth-team punter, you stay out of trouble.'"
A list of rules was drafted and written on a chalkboard at the
front of the room. One edict stood above the rest: Underage
Cornhuskers were forbidden to drink alcohol, and the rest of the
team would be more responsible about its drinking too. "You take
away alcohol, and you eliminate 90 percent of the problems,"
says senior cornerback Tyrone Williams, who was charged in March
1994 with two felonies in connection with a Jan. 30, 1994,
shooting in Lincoln (he pleaded not guilty and his case is still
It will take years before Nebraska's reputation recovers from
all that has happened, but after the arrests of Phillips and
Benning, the Cornhuskers stayed clean. This should not be
construed as damning with faint praise--oh, wonderful, no
arrests since September--but rather as evidence that Nebraska
players policed themselves. "The coaches can't watch all of us,
it's impossible," says senior fullback Jeff Makovicka.
On one level the players' motivation was simple: to win games.
It's difficult to practice efficiently when players are tied up
at arraignments. But there were other forces at work here as
well. Nebraska's five captains were all fifth-year seniors who
came to Lincoln in the summer of 1991 as one of the most lightly
regarded classes in Osborne's 23-year tenure. Recruiting experts
Allen Wallace and Tom Lemming, who run separate scouting
services, ranked the Cornhusker class 28th and 30th,
respectively, in the country. "I remember seeing Coach Osborne
at a press conference back then," says Gilman. "He said
something like, 'Well, this was the best we could do.'"
When the class of 1991 arrived in Lincoln, it joined a team that
had won 40 games the previous four years but hadn't won a bowl
game during that period. The line on Nebraska was that it was
good against Iowa State in October but lousy against Florida
State in January. The class of '91 not only fooled Lemming and
Wallace but also helped to revitalize the Cornhusker program.
"We didn't get a lot of respect," says Graham. "But that created
a bond among us. It was a little bit of us-against-the-world.
People might be surprised at how successful we've been, but
we're not. We set high goals when we came here, and it has gone
according to plan, wouldn't you say?" And with such a legacy at
stake, Nebraska's seniors were disinclined to let their final
season be remembered more for allegations and arrests than
There was another factor in the Cornhuskers' resolve to
straighten out the mess: Most of them love Osborne, and while
much of the country queued up to pillory him--first, for running
an outlaw program and second, for restoring Phillips to the
team--his players encircled him. The Huskers' feeling for
Osborne is a combination of the conventional fear/respect that
old-fashioned, larger-than-life football coaches engender, and
real affection for a warmth that is seldom seen by the public.
"The worst thing is to hear people talk about Coach Osborne in
the wrong light," says Graham. "I don't care who you are or what
kind of media you represent, you do not know Coach Osborne, and
you do not know his program. He's doing everything he can to
keep his players out of trouble. That's coming from somebody who
has been here for five years. There's not one player on this
team who does not respect Coach Osborne."
Says Gilman, "If anybody has proper judgment, it's that man. It
blows my mind when people criticize him."
It's the third week of December, and Osborne is standing inside
Cook Pavilion, Nebraska's cavernous indoor practice facility.
He's wearing gray sweats, and a whistle dangles from his neck as
players shuffle past en route to the locker room. Graham's and
Gilman's words are repeated to him, as are the affectionate
statements of several other players. The 58-year-old Osborne
takes a long, uncharacteristic pause, genuinely moved by the
suggestion that his team gathered itself not just in pursuit of
victory but also to somehow lighten the load on him. "It's nice
to know that they care so much for the program," Osborne says.
No, he is corrected, they care for you. "Well, that's nice to
know too," says Osborne. A tight smile creases his thin,
Osborne has been at the center of a seasonlong controversy. In
September, SI reported accusations by Nebraska law-enforcement
officials that Osborne had circumvented the legal system to
benefit his athletes. Reporters from 48 Hours, a CBS news
program, spent more than two months in Lincoln before airing a
critical piece on the Cornhusker program in late November. If
loyal Nebraska fans still lionized Osborne, other people accused
him of being the latest example of the win-at-all-costs college
"This has probably been the most difficult season I've ever
had," said Osborne, who has been the Cornhusker coach since
1973. "There seems to be this feeling now that we've just
rounded up a bunch of derelicts to play football for us, and
that's not the case at all. The overall integrity of this team
is as high as any we've had here."
It is logical to suggest that Osborne will step down after this
season because of his program's difficulties, but that thinking
is as foolish as the October presumption that he would never
restore Phillips to the roster. Osborne's decisions are neither
always correct nor always popular, but in his mind, they are
always complex and considered. He will return to coach next
year's Cornhuskers because he stubbornly views himself as a last
resort for many of his players. "I find a fair amount of meaning
to coaching," he said. "I feel a certain sense of mission.
I see young people in trouble today, and there's a chance to
make a difference here. Not a whole lot, but a little. I can
probably do more here than I can in most places."
Certainly if coach Joe Paterno of Penn State--the revered St.
Joe--spoke those words they would be seen as noble. But Osborne
is forever opening himself up to suspicion. Example: Three days
after arriving in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, when he announced
that Phillips would start at I-back. What many people believed
would happen when Phillips was reinstated for Nebraska's home
game against Iowa State on Nov. 4 was that Osborne might not
need Phillips--an exceptionally gifted and powerful running
back--to go 11-0, but that he might need him in January, to win
a second national title.
Osborne's argument is: "If it's true that I only wanted Lawrence
to win games, I would have brought him back for the Colorado
game [a 44-21 Nebraska win on Oct. 28 in Boulder]. The truth is
we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by throwing
Lawrence off the team, but I didn't see that as the answer." In
explaining the public reaction to Phillips's reinstatement,
Osborne said, "We just happened to have had a highly visible
player do something wrong in the middle of the O.J. Simpson
trial. And that incident grabbed the imagination of the public."
The explanation is either valid or vulgar, depending on your
point of view. And Osborne also said, "Maybe he will be the key
player in Arizona."
Surely Phillips was the key personality. In a bowl week so quiet
that media folk were left pining for the trash-talking Miami
teams of the 1980s and early '90s--Florida defensive tackle Mark
Campbell, for example, assessed Nebraska thus: "The offensive
line is real good, wide receivers are real good, running backs
are real good." Quarterback? "Real good."--Phillips's hourlong
interview five days before the game was the only must-see event.
The theme was simple. "I have to learn to control myself,"
Phillips said, referring to his violent temper, which, he says,
led to his assault on McEwen (although he would not specifically
address the incident). He repeatedly thanked Osborne for giving
him a second chance, and he said that his decision about
entering the NFL draft would come after the Fiesta Bowl.
Nebraska went to Arizona stoked by its recent success and with
the knowledge that its one defeat in the last three years--an
18-16 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl at the end of the
1993 season--might easily have been a win. "Without a doubt, we
were the best team on the field that night," says Graham. "We
knew it, and the Florida State players knew it. You could see it
on their faces. They knew they were lucky."
It was that game that pushed the Cornhuskers through the
unbeaten 1994 season, even when Frazier missed eight games with
a blood clot in his right leg. And it was that game Nebraska's
veteran players recalled when they went to Phoenix. "The Florida
players don't know what it's like to lose a game like this, with
everything on the line," said Frazier. "And they won't
understand it until they get out on the field. You try to tell
yourself it's just another game, and then everything moves three
or four times faster than a regular-season game."
In the weeks and days leading up to the game, the Cornhuskers
spoke not with bravado but with confidence. When Minter talked
about Florida's explosive wideouts, he said, "I don't see how
they've been getting so open all the time. They throw so many
passes, sooner or later they make a play. But you just have to
keep your composure out there." Said another Cornhusker player,
"Florida is probably more talented [than we are], top to bottom,
but it doesn't seem to have that meanness, that
I'm-going-to-kick-your-ass attitude of Miami or even just the
sheer talent of the Florida State team in 1993."
And then there is Graham. When an SI writer told him in late
December that the magazine was picking Florida to win the game,
Graham said, "Give me five minutes to change your mind, O.K.?"
Upon seeing the same writer in Arizona, Graham said, "So, have
you changed your mind yet?" Graham's thinking was rooted both in
the technical and in the ethereal. He explained that Florida's
linebackers wouldn't be able to stop the option and that the
Gators were unprepared for the environment that awaited them in
Sun Devil Stadium. "If we beat Florida by less than seven
points, I would vote them Number 1," said Graham. "Never before
have I felt so much confidence on this team. It's something I
can't even describe."
Ask any college football coach and he will tell you that
dominance is impossible to achieve in the mid-1990s. Scholarship
limitations and intensive nationwide recruiting have brought the
Northwesterns of the world to a level with the Michigans. But
Nebraska continues its success. The Cornhuskers bring in some of
the best talent in the country, and yet 32 of the 81 players on
their depth chart for the Fiesta Bowl came to the school as
walk-ons, including Makovicka and star defensive end Jared
Tomich. One year ago, flush with their first national
championship, Nebraska's coaches pursued one player more than
any other--running back Ahman Green from Omaha's Central High.
"When he signed, Tom got more excited than when we won the
national championship," says Steve Pederson, Nebraska's
associate athletic director for football operations.
The offensive line continues to be a source of stars, largely
because young linemen, upon arriving in Lincoln, are redshirted
and simultaneously tossed into a weight program with upperclass
teammates and into daily scrimmages against the first-team
"The first week I got here I was doing pretty well," says
third-year sophomore offensive guard Aaron Taylor. "Then the
veterans came in, and it was a totally different deal." One year
later, as a redshirt freshman, Taylor was inserted into a game
at Missouri with the Cornhuskers leading 7-0. "Everything seemed
like it was going 100 miles an hour, and I was going one mile an
hour," says Taylor. "There was this defensive end talking trash,
and I was just thinking, Oh, my lord." On third-and-one,
Nebraska ran to Taylor's side, was stuffed and forced to punt.
Osborne approached Taylor on the sidelines and said, "This game
is still in doubt. I put you in to give those other guys a rest,
and I expect you to do your job." End of sermon. "I'll never
forget it," Taylor says. "I knew that every time I stepped on
the field, I would have to perform."
This type of sustained excellence is rare. Osborne reaches for
sweeping explanations and delivers only small platitudes. "I
wish I could say something quotable or interesting about it, but
I can't," he says. "We have a really good work ethic, very
goal-oriented players...." His voice trails off into a shrug. "I
haven't coached any differently."
Graham proposes a simpler explanation. "You put on that red
uniform," says Graham. "You know it's supposed to be something
It was a long, difficult season that was marred by controversy
but ended in victory. "Good and bad," is how Osborne says he
will remember it. Outside the red uniform, the Cornhuskers were
often bad. Inside the uniform, they were not only good, they
were the best.