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.
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: