Note: This column on Lawrence Phillips written by Jim Murray ran in the Nov. 9, 1995 Los Angeles Times.
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne has reinstated his football player, Lawrence Phillips, to full status as his team’s star running back.
And the sky is blue and grass is green and a pie is round and the Pope is Catholic. And water’s wet, blood is red and the sun rises in the East.
He runs the 40 in 4.3, doesn’t he? What else do you need to know?
Oh, he burst into an apartment, not his own, on the night of Sept. 10, found his former girlfriend, Kate McEwen, there, pushed her into a bathroom, knocked her down and dragged her down three flights of stairs by her hair.
But, hey! Boys will be boys! Right?
“I wouldn’t call it a beating,” Coach Osborne was quoted as protesting in the Lincoln papers that week.
Oh? What would you call it, coach? A sock hop? A new dance, maybe?
At first, Osborne announced he had kicked the fellow off the team.
A lot of us who have been through this before sat back and waited.
It wasn’t a long wait. The ink was hardly dry on the coach’s first pronouncement before a second was forthcoming. Now, Phillips would not be suspended permanently, he would be “suspended indefinitely.”
A lot of us wondered whether “indefinitely” meant a lot of indefinite days or indefinite hours.
Osborne didn’t leave us hanging very long. He suggested to the press that Phillips might return in a month. “It’s not as though Lawrence is an angry young man all the time,” he said.
What Lawrence was -- all the time -- was one hell of a football player. He had rushed for 359 yards and seven touchdowns in the team’s first two games this season.
Why, we might have voted him the Heisman Trophy, for cryin’ out loud! We voted one to a Nebraska player once who turned out to have been holding up gas stations.
What’s really amusing is that Osborne pretended he had an agonizing decision to make. “It’s like going for two points against Miami in ’83,” he sighed.
Huh? How’s that again?
“But I realized it would be a no-win deal,” the coach said after he made up his mind to reinstate Phillips. “Either way there would be detractors.”
Detractors?! Either way?! Did he mean some groups would deplore not reinstating Phillips? Who? Not the faculty women’s caucus at the university. Not the women’s rights groups, not the anti-female-abuse advocates. Not the people who think that football players should be held to the same standards of behavior as the rest of the student body -- no matter how fast they run the 40.
The only possible group of “detractors” to permanent suspension would be a bunch of guys with their faces painted red and “Go Big Red!” or “Win Huskers!” stenciled on their bare chests. The rest of society could live without Phillips’ 3 1/2 touchdowns a game. Oh, and one coach.
“I don’t think that what the university or the football program has done is the easy thing,” Osborne said at the reinstatement news conference. “The easy thing would have been to dismiss him, probably permanently. But, basically, after examining all the factors involved . . . we simply didn’t feel it was the right thing to do.”
I think I may get sick to my stomach.
Look! The “factors involved” just might include Nebraska’s possibility -- no, probability -- of appearing in the Fiesta Bowl this January, the postseason game that could decide the national championship and bring breathtaking millions to the participants. Nebraska took home $4 million from last year’s Orange Bowl game.
There are other “factors” involved here. Tom Osborne makes his living by going out and finding players like Lawrence Phillips. When he gets enough of them, he succeeds in business. He makes a good living. When he wins a national championship, it gets better. There are additional perks: TV shows, football camps, shoe and equipment contracts, speaking engagements. And when he goes out after the raw material for his football factory, i.e., the players, it’s nice to have a reputation of sticking by them even in night court.
Getting a 4 a.m. call that one of your star players has just dragged a woman down three flights of stairs by the hair is like the head of Ford Motor Co. being awakened to be told the assembly line has just broken down.
There is nothing wrong with giving an underprivileged kid a shot at a college education because he is a superb athlete. Although, you may wonder about the kid who would love a college education but can’t get one because he is not quite able to pass the scholarship requirements and can’t run fast enough to get in any other way.
What other employee of the university -- which is effectively what Phillips is -- could get away with assaulting a young woman and dragging her downstairs like a caveman and get restored to his full job six weeks later?
“He has a lot of anger in him,” explained Osborne. So did Jack the Ripper.
Just once you wish the coach would say: “Look! I had to fight 50 other colleges to recruit this guy. I’m trying to win the national championship here. I’ll probably be going to the Fiesta Bowl, where I’ll have to face a team that probably has a backfield full of Lawrence Phillipses. You’re going to ask me to sit down three or four touchdowns and 200 yards?! Get real!”
Go, Big Red!