Commentary

Lawrence Phillips tragedy continues to haunt former Nebraska coach

Tom Osborne's decision to reinstate Lawrence Phillips continues to haunt the former Nebraska coach

Nebraska football might have hoped the tragedy of Lawrence Phillips could have been slammed shut behind a lengthy 2005 jail sentence.

Silence and confinement, it seemed, would keep the university from getting dragged out, next to his name, in the public tribunal.

No such luck.

Every bad thing we believed in 1995 about Phillips, the former Nebraska star tailback, was reinforced when news broke that Phillips was a suspect in the murder of his cellmate at Kern Valley State Prison.

My effort here is not to dredge up another "we were right" campaign about Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne's ill-fated decision in 1995 to reinstate Phillips after a serious domestic abuse assault allegation.

The point here is to reiterate that what Osborne did 20 years ago was as unnecessary as it was unfortunate.

He was defiant then in defending his decision to reinstate Phillips to the 1995 squad.

"I've been criticized for the manner in which we handed the situation," Osborne said the week of the Fiesta Bowl game against Florida. "Special interest groups took up the cause, but I suspect they were mainly looking for publicity. I tried to determine what was best for the team, for society and the individual."

Osborne, a Hall of Fame coach and a genuinely decent person, simply got it wrong on all three counts.

His fault, like basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was thinking he was Father Flanagan.

Some causes, it turns out, are lost for a reason.

Tarkanian's reputation was forever tainted by the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels.

Osborne was, and continues to be, haunted by Phillips.

It wasn't just that Osborne reinstated Phillips in the same season the star dragged his girlfriend by the hair down a staircase.

The huge mistake Osborne made was starting Phillips in the national title game against Florida. The coach was rewarding abhorrent behavior.

The player he benched in favor of Phillips? It was Ahman Green, a future superstar.

Osborne didn't need Phillips to beat Florida. That 1995 team, led by quarterback Tommie Frazier, remains on the short-list of greatest in collegiate teams ever. 

Nebraska defeated Florida, 62-24.

Some of the cynical surmised that the one way Osborne could rid himself of Phillips was to hope he played so well in the title game that he would declare early for the NFL draft.

Lo and behold, Phillips ran for 165 yards against Florida, left early and was drafted sixth overall by the Rams.

Phillips was St. Louis' problem now, and boy was he ever.

Osborne made Phillips an instant millionaire, the last thing he, or society, needed.

Phillips soon got drummed out of the league and was sent behind bars in 2005 for a litany of offenses.

I asked Osborne, when he was running for Congress in 2000, about the fallout from Phillips.

"You take hits," Osborne said. "If you're going to be in the public eye, you're not always going to be perceived as good. I try the best I can."

It's too bad Osborne has to be reminded about a bad judgment call he made 20 years ago.

The problem is that Phillips, much more than the media, keeps reminding him.

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