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College Football

College Football Scoreboards Schedules Standings Polls Stats Conferences Teams Players Recruiting` Coach and Jury

Nebraska players charged with crimes have a steadfast ally in the man who runs the program, Tom Osborne

by Michael Farber
Special Reporting by Shelley Smith and Sonja Steptoe

Issue date: September 25, 1995

flashback.gif (1348bytes)The coach has been a font of second chances for his players. Last Saturday morning in Lincoln, Neb., a pair of Nebraska boosters greeted two friends who were about to be swept up in the sea of Cornhusker red roiling its way toward Memorial Stadium for the Huskers' first home game of the season.

"Game's been called off," one booster said. "Nobody can make bail."

The Nebraska faithful have long been accustomed to laughers, but rarely has the humor been of the gallows variety. The Huskers were last year's national champions and are expected to extend their NCAA record of 33 straight winning seasons. Last Saturday the crowd of 75,418, the 202nd consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium, watched as the Cornhuskers thrashed Arizona State 77-28 behind two I-backs who each rushed for more than 100 yards. That those backs were named Clinton Childs and Ahman Green—not Lawrence Phillips and Damon Benning—was the only cloud over this picture-perfect day, and the only obvious indication that all is not well with Nebraska football.

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On Sept. 12, Phillips, who had been regarded as a Heisman Trophy candidate, pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor counts of third-degree assault, trespassing and destruction of property, all stemming from an alleged assault two days before on Nebraska sophomore Kate McEwen, a former girlfriend who plays for the Cornhusker women's basketball team. The evening after the alleged incident, coach Tom Osborne announced that he had thrown Phillips off the team, but he later amended that to say that Phillips would be suspended indefinitely.

On Monday, Osborne said, "It's not as though Lawrence is an angry young man all the time and a threat to society. But there are occasions every four to five months where he becomes a little explosive." Osborne added that Phillips might return in a month—in time for the Oct. 28 game at Colorado, the most daunting on the Husker schedule—if "medical people say some significant changes have taken place."

Benning, Phillips's backup, was also sidelined last Saturday, but only by a strained hamstring and not by the third-degree assault citation against him for allegedly beating his ex-girlfriend on the night of Sept. 9. Benning says he is not guilty, and Osborne says he is convinced of Benning's innocence. Prosecutors are weighing whether or not to press charges.

During Osborne's 23 years in Lincoln his program has escaped the rampant lawlessness that has at times beset programs at Miami and at Big Eight rivals Oklahoma and Colorado. But Osborne's reactions to the Phillips and Benning arrests, and to other recent criminal cases involving his players, raise the question of whether he has gone so far in giving his players the benefit of the doubt—and keeping them available to play—that he has hampered the work of police and prosecutors.

"I don't tell Tom Osborne how to run the football department," Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey says, "and he should stay out of the criminal justice system. He hasn't done that at all." According to Lacey, Osborne has taken it upon himself to interview witnesses in criminal cases, offered very public opinions on the probable innocence of players who have yet to stand trial and attacked the credibility of witnesses testifying against his players. In January 1994 he and an assistant even locked away a gun that had allegedly been used by one of his players in the commission of a felony.

"That's Osborne using his influence to disrupt the criminal justice system," Lacey says. "Osborne talks to witnesses. Whether he tried to influence them or not ... someone with his reputation would have an effect."

In four recent cases involving criminal charges against his players, Osborne has aggressively rushed to their defense:

Riley Washington, a junior wingback, continues to practice with the Cornhuskers despite having been charged with attempted second-degree murder and use of a weapon to commit a felony in connection with the Aug. 2 shooting of 22-year-old Jermaine Cole at a Lincoln convenience store. Cole told Lincoln police that he and Nebraska undergraduate assistant football coach Abdul Muhammad were fighting when Washington pulled his gun and fired, saying, "Your life is gone." On Sept. 11, two days before Washington pleaded not guilty to both counts, Osborne said, "I think there is a very, very good chance that Riley didn't do what he's accused of. I've talked to a lot of people.... I feel pretty comfortable about Riley's case."

On Sept. 13, Osborne told reporters, "At the preliminary hearing, the primary witness against Riley, the individual who was shot, indicated that Riley was wearing a polo shirt with three buttons and a hat. Riley was wearing a T-shirt, entirely a different color, and did not have a hat on. Another witness ... could not identify Riley as the shooter."

Lacey told SI, "I didn't see Osborne at the preliminary hearing. We had two witnesses say, 'Riley Washington shot Jermaine Cole. I saw the gun. I saw him do it.'"

Why has Osborne involved himself so deeply in the Washington affair? "Because I'm going to have to make a call on Riley, and I can't wait until the case goes to trial in February," he says. "If I keep him out, and it turns out he's innocent, he will have lost a whole year. On the other hand, if I let him play, and later he's found guilty, that wouldn't be good either. What was I supposed to do?"

Tyrone Williams, a senior cornerback, was charged in March 1994 with two felonies—unlawful discharge of a firearm and use of a weapon to commit a felony—in connection with a Jan. 30, 1994, shooting. Police say that Williams fired two shots into a car occupied by former New York Jet safety Kevin Porter, who was in town visiting friends. Porter was not hit. After the shooting, but before Williams was charged, then-Nebraska assistant Kevin Steele was given Williams's .22 caliber revolver. Then Steele and Osborne locked the gun in a cabinet.

"When the chief of police and I learned that a gun wanted in connection with a felony shooting was in Osborne's possession when it should have been immediately turned over to the police, then you have evidence that is being withheld," Lacey says.

When his actions came to light, Osborne said, "Frankly, if anybody had asked, we would have given it to them sooner. No charges had been filed, so we didn't think anybody was anxious about it." Osborne has said all along that he notified campus police about the gun. Last week Osborne conceded in an interview with SI that prosecutors were probably looking for the gun at the time he filed it away. "The weapon was missing when we asked [Williams] to get it. If we hadn't made him give us the gun, the police might never have gotten it."

Williams pleaded not guilty. His lawyer is awaiting a ruling on a motion to drop one of the charges. Meanwhile, he is playing, a fact Osborne defends by noting that since Williams was raised by his grandmother, the athletic department has taken a parental role in supporting him.

Christian Peter, a senior defensive tackle, was sentenced to 18 months probation in May 1994 after he pleaded no contest to a charge of third-degree sexual assault brought by a former Miss Nebraska, Natalie Kuijvenhoven, who was then a Nebraska student. According to Osborne, Kuijvenhoven's lawyer contacted him about Peter, and Osborne says he suggested that all the parties—including Peter—meet in his office at the athletic department. But Kuijvenhoven would have none of it. "It's clear Osborne was trying to intimidate me in order to get rid of me before a trial would ever happen," Kuijvenhoven told SI. Osborne says he has never pressured a witness.

Osborne says that Peter, a Cornhusker captain, has been "a model guy" since completing a private program that no one at Nebraska can discuss in any detail.

Senior wide receiver Reggie Baul was charged last Nov. 20 with stealing a wallet from a woman in a Lincoln restaurant. Hal Anderson, the lawyer who represented him, hired a retired policeman to administer a lie detector test to Baul. According to Osborne, Baul passed the test. Osborne then permitted him to play in the Orange Bowl victory over Miami that clinched Nebraska's national title. On March 6, Baul pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession of stolen property. He was fined $100 and placed on six months probation. He remains a member of the team.

According to police, sometime after 4 a.m. on Sept. 10, the night the Huskers returned from a rout of Michigan State in East Lansing, Phillips entered the third-floor apartment of Scott Frost, a quarterback from Wood River, Neb., who had transferred to Nebraska this fall from Stanford. When Phillips found McEwen in the apartment, police say, he pushed her into the bathroom, knocked her down and dragged her by the hair down a flight of stairs.

At 11 a.m. last Thursday, McEwen walked into Lacey's office after returning from her home in Topeka, Kans. That day Lacey interviewed her for the first time, three days after Osborne had spoken with her. Early in the week Osborne had said, "I wouldn't call it a beating. But [Phillips] certainly did inflict some damage to a young lady."

It is clear that Osborne had been aware for some time that Phillips might be trouble. In March 1994 he was alleged to have grabbed a student from another college around the neck. Misdemeanor charges were dropped after he agreed to pay $400 to repair a necklace that was broken, though he failed to complete a mandated diversion program.

On Sunday the Omaha World-Herald reported that what had allegedly taken place in Frost's apartment apparently resulted from a long, troubled relationship between McEwen and Phillips, and that friends of McEwen's had seen signs of physical abuse. The paper also reported that according to one of those friends, Osborne was aware of violence in the relationship and had urged Phillips and McEwen to stop seeing each other. This summer, the World-Herald asserted, Osborne had warned Phillips, "If you ever touch her again, you will be kicked off the team."

Osborne does not recall using those exact words, but he had no choice but to suspend Phillips. "He tends to believe anything these kids tell him," says Joe Nigro, of the Lancaster County public defender's office. "The problem with Phillips is that it happened at Scott Frost's apartment, and Scott talked to [Osborne] before Lawrence talked to him. He has to believe someone."

For discipline, Osborne assigns players five points each, and they keep playing until they lose their points. Cutting class costs one point on the Osborne scale; a felony conviction costs five. Skipping a practice is three points, and committing a criminal misdemeanor is four. And he has been a font of second chances for players and ex-players, including Muhammad, whose eligibility is up but who has retained his scholarship and works as an undergraduate coach. Muhammad was involved in a fight at a Lincoln hotel last year in which Nebraska defensive back Ramone Worthy was stabbed. "My feeling is Abdul can do more good on the field than he can simply drifting around the community," Osborne says.

Osborne says he is also inclined to grant a second chance to Phillips: "If Lawrence is in a structured program, he's more apt to get treatment than if we cut him loose."

Say this for Osborne: He knows his student-athletes aren't all choirboys. As the Husker plane landed in Lincoln on the night Phillips allegedly beat McEwen, Osborne told his players over the intercom, "Have a nice night, but stay out of trouble."

Osborne says Phillips may be back for the Colorado game.

The coach has been a font of second chances for his players.



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