Been there, done that
Ex-Huskers coach pushes baseball for steroids testingPosted: Tuesday July 23, 2002 11:50 AM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
From the early 1970s through most of the '90s, when Tom Osborne ruled the mighty Nebraska football program, the school had a certain whispered reputation.
Those hearty Midwestern farm boys, those corn-fed youths, those larger-than-life linemen?
They were on steroids, it was said.
At least one book on the Nebraska football program has alleged the use of the illegal performance-enhancing drugs. A shifty ex-weightlifter bound for prison back in the '80s said he sold the drugs to many of the Cornhuskers. An All-American guard and Outland Trophy winner later admitted he used steroids at Nebraska.
So when Osborne joined a group of congressmen recently in urging Major League Baseball to implement a testing program for steroids, heads turned.
"I saw the devastation steroids can cause," explained Osborne, now a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska's Third District.
It has been more than two decades since those rumors about Nebraska and steroids began. It's been four years since Osborne retired after a 25-year run as Nebraska's head coach, a stretch that included three national championships, the last in '97. He's been on Capitol Hill just over a year now.
But Osborne remembers those early years at Nebraska, when he and his coaches saw players leap in size and strength and speed over the course of a few months. At the time, coaches and administrators suspected something might be going on. But they had no way of really knowing.
No way, that is, until Nebraska became the first program in the Big Eight to implement steroids testing in 1984.
"We'd take them aside and do everything we could to find out," Osborne said last week in a phone interview. "We wanted to start earlier than ['84], but the technology wasn't there."
Osborne maintains that any problems that Nebraska may have had were not as widespread as many believed. And once the Cornhuskers started testing, the use of steroids was nearly wiped out, according to Osborne. A handful of players tested positive in the first few years. As the years went by and the testing continued, even those modest numbers dropped, he said.
Testing worked so well at Nebraska, Osborne says now, that he's sure it can be used to help clean up baseball. The major leagues have been rocked in recent months with accusations from former players that a huge percentage of players are using steroids.
"I'm not condemning baseball. I don't know the percentage of players who use steroids," Osborne said. "I do know that this is affecting our kids."
Osborne and other congressmen, including Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), the former big-league pitcher, recently signed a letter being circulated by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) that urges Major League Baseball to begin testing for steroids.
On Monday night on the floor of the House, Johnson introduced House Resolution 496 that asks baseball to implement a mandatory steroids testing program.
Educating young people to the dangers of steroids use is of primary concern for Osborne.
"I'm an old football coach. It's not my business to tell Major League Baseball what to do," Osborne said. "[But] kids look up to athletes as heroes. When they hear about them being on steroids, there's a tendency for them to think 'If they're doing them, they must be OK.'"
Osborne declined to get too specific about his early experiences dealing with steroid users at Nebraska, but the use of the drugs was said to be so prevalent that, in 1988, former UCLA head coach Terry Donahue pointed a finger squarely at Nebraska.
"In my opinion, in 1983 and 1984, Nebraska was not a normal college football team," Donahue told an Omaha newspaper. "You can take that for what it's worth and you can interpret that any way you want. Their players were not typical college football players."
Later, Donahue said: "Some of that's recruiting, some of it's weight programs, some of it's training table. Some of it might be steroid use, if that's what somebody wants to say. I didn't say that."
Osborne denied any major problem and now says it was all overblown. He won't divulge names or circumstances of any players who may have tested positive, though Dean Steinkuhler, the Outland Trophy winner in 1983, has admitted using steroids while at Nebraska.
Still, Osborne recalls stories of Nebraska high school athletes who were involved with steroids. He remembers being in the locker room as a pro in the early '60s and seeing a teammate nearly overdose on a drug (not steroids). He knows the story of former pro football player Lyle Alzado, whose death in 1992 was attributed in part to taking steroids.
All of it is why he's so strongly in favor of drug testing for baseball.
"I know steroid testing will work," Osborne said. "But it's gotta be random and it's gotta be unannounced."
Osborne says strict sanctions, including fines, suspension and possible expulsion must be part of any testing program. He is aware of the objections to testing, objections he did not have to deal with at Nebraska.
"The unions often don't think much of it. It is demeaning. It is an invasion of privacy," he said. "On the other hand, when you make that kind of money, you play on TV in front of millions of people, maybe you give up some rights.
"The bottom line is, most players would like to know that the other players are playing by the same rules as they are."
Testing brings one other major benefit, according to Osborne.
With all the rumors in baseball about the prevalence of steroid use, a comprehensive testing program might finally stop all the whispering.
"If nothing else, if they do institute testing, if there's not widespread use, the perception goes away," Osborne said. "It restores a certain confidence."