Osborne Is Trying to Put Out Flames


The headlines have faded. The protests have quieted. Life has returned to normal here at the University of Nebraska, which means the town and its beloved team are getting geared up for another national championship football game.

But going into the Fiesta Bowl against Florida Jan. 2 in Tempe, Ariz., there is an invisible residue left from the regular season, the third in a row in which the top-ranked Cornhuskers finished unbeaten.

Its odor has lessened, though not quite disappeared.

The image of Tom Osborne and his players has barely changed within state lines, but in recent months Nebraska football has taken the kind of hit that few of its opponents could dream of giving. And it makes those looking on from the outside wonder whether Osborne has lost control of a program once considered a model for others to copy.

“With some people it has [changed],” Osborne said after a recent practice. “It bothers me, because I’ve always tried to do things right.

“I’ve been here 33 years [22 as the head coach] and we’ve never had an NCAA violation, we’ve gone to bowl games every year, we’ve had a pretty good number of Academic All-Americans, our graduation rate is the best by far in the Big Eight and we’ve been in the NCAA’s Top Six [for graduation] the las t couple of years. We’ve had six guys get in trouble in 4 1/2 years. I’m sure th at other schools have had more. But the problem was that we had a very visible athlete involved in something he shouldn’t have done.”


It wasn’t solely the Sept. 10 arrest of star running back Lawrence Phillips, who was charged with assaulting former girlfriend and Nebraska women’s basketball player Kate McEwen, that prompted this firestorm. It was the manner in which Osborne, a coach known for giving players second chances, handled the punishment.

After immediately announcing that Phillips, a Heisman Trophy candidate, would be dismissed from the team, Osborne backed off. Phillips went for psychiatric evaluation at the renowned Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan.--McEwen’s hometown--and was in the midst of receiving anger-control counseling at a clinic here when he was reinstated. He missed six games.

(Police said Phillips broke into the apartment of transfer quarterback Scott Frost and attacked McEwen with his hands. Frost and another man managed to get Phillips away from McEwen after she had been dragged down a flight of stairs. McEwen was treated at a hospital, and later requested and received 24-hour protection, paid for by the university. Earlier this month, Phillips was sentenced to one year of probation for beating McEwen.)

The return of Phillips, who has played a reserve role since coming back but likely will make his first start in the Fiesta Bowl, became the focal point of a CBS report on athletes and violence on its show, “48 Hours.” Osborne said he based his decision in part on the player’s background, which included living as a ward of the state of California after being abandoned at age 11.

“I came to the point where I felt I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t give him another chance,” Osborne said. “People say that he wasn’t punished enough, but Lawrence lost a tremendous amount. He lost a chance at the Heisman. It has probably cost him millions of dollars in the pros. I have seen some genuine changes in him. If I hadn’t, I would never have let him back.”

Osborne’s detractors also point out that two other Nebraska players, Riley Washington and Tyrone Williams, remain on the team despite having felony charges still pending against them. Washington, a reserve junior wingback, was charged with attempted second-degree murder after an altercation with a Lincoln man last summer.

Based on interviews he personally conducted with those involved, Osborne has publicly stated his belief that Washington is innocent. Williams, a senior who is a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back, was charged with firing a gun into a moving car two years ago. (Osborne was accused of having an assistant coach lock the gun in a safe for two days, but another of Osborne’s assistants said they were doing that on the advice of the campus police chief.)

Osborne and his supporters believe that he has acted in accordance with team and university rules. They mention his patience and compassion in working with players from troubled backgrounds, such as Phillips, and in helping turn their lives around. “I think that he goes by the rule that if you’re a better person when you leave here than when you came here, we’ve done a good job,” said defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, who’s been a member of Osborne’s staff for 19 years.

There was a time when Osborne was weary of the spotlight that has followed the Cornhuskers since they won last season’s national championship with a victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl. At one of his weekly luncheons this season, Osborne said, “If I knew what winning that trophy would have meant, I would have given it back.”

Now Nebraska will try to become the first team since Alabama in 1978-79 to win back-to-back championships. While some outsiders might view their second consecutive title as morally tainted, the support Osborne and his players are receiving at home is strong, if not quite unwavering.

As he prepared for a final exam while eating lunch in the student union, Matt Epp compared this season’s controversy to a disagreement with the U.S. government. “You might not be happy with what one person does, but you’re behind the government,” said Epp, a freshman pre-med student from Henderson, Neb. “People say it’s bad for Nebraska, but we’re proud of the football team.”

And the reaction from university officials has been overwhelming only by its silence. Aside from a few perfunctory statements when it first happened, little has been said and nothing has yet been done to institute new policy. Interim chancellor Joan Leitzel put together a task force a few weeks after the Phillips incident, but many question what, if any, solution will be reached.

Part of the problem could be that the university has allowed the athletic department and its coaches to police its own. “I think they [the administration] think they’ve imposed sanctions,” said Mary McGarvey, a professor of economics who heads the faculty women’s caucus. “When you look into the way they’ve handled violent acts in the past, historically their role has been more rehabilitative.”

McGarvey said that the women’s caucus made several proposals aimed at preventing students charged with violent crimes from taking part in extracurricular activities, as well as taking decisions regarding their penalties out of the hands of coaches or administrators and putting them under review by a campus judicial board.

The proposals ultimately will go to the school’s board of regents, but the fact that none of its members have spoken out is not a positive sign to McGarvey and others concerned for the safety of women like McEwen. (For her part, McEwen has returned to the team but has not spoken about the incident.)

“I cannot understand why nothing has been done,” said McGarvey.

“But I’ m not ready to give up.”

McGarvey and others realize there could be one major obstacle to change: Osborne’s reign of influence. The 58-year-old coach is one of the most powerful and most recognized people in the state. So powerful that few will go on record to challenge him. So identifiable that even those who have never met college football’s winningest coach refer to him by his nickname: “T.O.”

Osborne said he is only going by the rules--his team’s rules that allow players to accumulate five penalty points before being suspended for a game. According to those rules, a misdemeanor offense is worth the same amount of points (four) as academic dishonesty. “It isn’t like we have no limits,” said Osborne.

In his own defense, Osborne points out that four players were “eliminated since last May” for breaking team rules. But some familiar with Osborne believe that he often acts with his heart rather than his head, that as a surrogate father to some of his players he finds it difficult to disown the m.

“I’m not minimizing or trivializing what has happened,” said Osborne. “But if I had thrown Phillips off the team, I think there would have been some people who’d been offended. Unfortunately, this thing became politicized.”