All the ghosts were there. It was strange how they kept popping into view on New Year's night, so many reminders of how Nebraska's legacy of failure began. There was Turner Gill, a Cornhusker assistant coach now but looking very much as he did in 1984 when he threw Nebraska's final, futile pass in the Orange Bowl. There was Howard Schnellenberger, Miami's coach then, back at the game for the first time—and Bernie Kosar and Alonzo Highsmith were there too. So, of course, was Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, whose best chance for a national title evaporated 11 years ago when the two-point conversion toss from Gill failed. Thus the Hurricanes' dynasty began, and the Cornhuskers started their pitiful tendency to gag whenever they set foot in Miami's venerable snake pit. "Boy," said Highsmith, a former Hurricane running back, "that wasn't long ago." But what do ghosts know about time?
Osborne knows: Losing can stretch minutes into hours, make years feel like decades and make nights go on forever. How many times after a bad game did he roll over and punch the pillow as sleep eluded him? How many times—a thousand, two?—did an interview crawl as he spoke yet again about losing the big one? "You want to know if I suffer?" Osborne said last week, softly. "Yeah, I suffer."
Not anymore. Under a perfect Miami sky, against the once unbeatable Hurricanes, in a stadium where he'd lost his last five Orange Bowls, Osborne finally overtook history. Because in what will surely be the final championship at the Orange Bowl stadium, a most unlikely ghost of New Year's Past lifted Osborne to a perfect 13-0 record and his first national title. A year ago Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier outplayed Florida State's Charlie Ward in the Orange Bowl but fell short as Bobby Bowden won his first national title. This time the imperturbable Frazier, playing in his first game since a blood clot was found in his right leg on Sept. 25, piloted the Huskers to two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a sloppy, wonderful, frenetic 24-17 win.
Afterward Osborne was his usual vanilla self, taking the title, the cleansing win over Miami and a congratulatory call from President Clinton in stride. Those begging for a show of emotion got a smile, nothing more. Osborne said he was "gratified" to have his 22-year Nebraska career capped by a championship. "I'm pleased," he said, "but I'm not usually overwrought." But those who know him understood what this game meant. "You could see it in his eyes," said Nebraska guard Brenden Stai. "I've never seen brighter eyes in my life."
Frazier lit that fire. Even though he shared time with backup Brook Berringer, there was little doubt whom Osborne trusted more with his team. "I want the ball in Tommie's hands," he kept repeating into his headset to Gill, now the Husker quarterbacks coach. Afterward Osborne said of Frazier, "He's a special athlete. He can create so many things. You don't have to rely on structure. He'll make the play." Nothing said more about Frazier's impact than the moment when, with Nebraska behind 17-9 midway through the fourth quarter, he stepped into the huddle, looked every player in the eye and said, "We're getting it done. We're scoring now." Two plays later fullback Corey Schlesinger bulled 15 yards for a touchdown. Then, in a nice bit of exorcism, Frazier completed—in the same end zone in which Gill's pass had dropped to end the 31-30 loss to Miami in 1984—a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.
"I'm a very confident person," said Frazier. "Once we tied, I knew that would take it out of them. This is what I told a lot of people: When I come back, it's going to be the national championship game, and I'm going to lead my team to victory."
That may be the most astounding thing. Frazier, a junior from Bradenton, Fla., hadn't played in more than three months, had missed the final eight games of the regular season—and yet, except for one botched pass that Osborne should never have called in the first place, he played as if he'd never been away. Frazier had been taken off blood-thinning medication five days before the Orange Bowl, and no one had a clue how he would perform. "If he can come in and beat our defense after being out nine weeks." Miami safety Malcolm Pearson said, "I'll be his biggest fan. I'll be his groupie."
Such was Osborne's faith in Frazier that Berringer was the only person who was surprised when Frazier was named the starter three days before the game. "He's very strong in his belief in what he can do," Gill said of Frazier. "Just his presence lifts everybody."
On Sunday night Frazier played just six series, threw three completions, no touchdowns and one interception. He rushed for only 31 yards. But Nebraska scored twice under his guidance. Not an eyebrow was raised when he was named the game's most valuable player.
Frazier, of course, didn't work alone. This Nebraska team, after all, carried itself just fine without him for those eight games, as Berringer and sophomore I-back Lawrence Phillips and the best Cornhusker offensive line ever rolled unscathed through the Big Eight and manhandled No. 2 Colorado 24-7 on Oct. 29 in Lincoln. Nothing, not the two frightening occasions when Berringer's lung collapsed, not walk-on Matt Turman's starting at quarterback against Kansas State, not the idea of playing a Miami team that had won 62 out of its last 63 games at the Orange Bowl, seemed to ruffle Nebraska. Haunted by a championship they felt should have been won in last year's Orange Bowl, the Huskers dubbed this season Unfinished Business immediately after the loss last January to Florida State. During summer conditioning drills the scoreboard at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium constantly flashed "1:16"—the last time Nebraska scored against the Seminoles. "We looked at it every day to remind ourselves where we were and where we wanted to be," Stai said.