The vision was clear in his mind. "Look at this stadium right now," said Colorado football coach Rick Neuheisel as he pointed out his office window at Folsom Field, six long days before his Buffaloes' game against Nebraska. Oversized snowflakes fell on empty bleachers. In an adjacent room, Neuheisel's assistant coaches watched videotape of the unbeaten Cornhuskers and scribbled the beginnings of a game plan in grease pencil on shiny white boards.
"Come Saturday, this place is going to be bedlam," Neuheisel continued. "We're going to come into the stadium right through the middle of the student section, and the kids are going to go nuts." Of course. Stack the emotion impossibly high and then wait for the Huskers, winners of 20 consecutive games, to yield to fate. "Shoot, yes, they're ripe," said Neuheisel. "We'll play hard, then we'll get a couple of breaks. They've done an unbelievable job there despite all the distractions, but this thing ain't going on forever. The ball is going to bounce our way. I believe that." He nodded for emphasis, certain and confident.
It was a good plan, don't you think? Since coach Tom Osborne won his first national championship last January, Nebraska has not only replaced 14 starters but run a gantlet of off-the-field problems, most notably the suspension from the Cornhuskers—and last week, the controversial reinstatement—of junior running back Lawrence Phillips, who pleaded no contest to assaulting his former girlfriend in the early morning hours of Sept. 10. Ripe? Like the man said: Shoot, yes.
Except that Nebraska conducts its football program with the same single-mindedness with which a shark conducts lunch. The winning streak reached 21 games last Saturday afternoon with a 44-21 victory over Colorado. The chase for a second consecutive national title hit full stride as the Huskers vaulted past idle Florida State to the top of the polls. Neuheisel was right: Folsom Field was electric. But that didn't matter in the least to Nebraska. That's because the Cornhuskers push aside, with equal aplomb, roster changes and national scrutiny resulting from the criminal behavior of players. Some would say that is not an altogether endearing quality. But it serves Nebraska well.
"I wish I could give you an answer as to how we've done this," said Osborne, days before the Colorado game, as he stood at the edge of the Huskers' practice field in Lincoln. Then he found his answer. "I really believe the core of this team is very good," he said. "I believe it's good, in terms of attitude and character. This fall we've been smeared as a renegade team. I don't see that. I see disciplined, unselfish people who know what it takes to win."
Nebraska was never more tested than by Colorado. Not only were the Buffaloes the Cornhuskers' toughest opponents so far this season, but on the Tuesday before the game, Osborne announced that Phillips was back on the team. (He will dress for Saturday's home game against Iowa State and could start the following week at Kansas.) The Phillips decision divided not only the Nebraska campus, but also the state that so worships its Big Red. A poll conducted by an Omaha TV station showed viewers split almost 50-50 on whether to support or decry Osborne's decision. On the day of Phillips's reinstatement Cornhusker women's basketball coach Angela Beck, whose players include sophomore Kate McEwen, the victim of Phillips's assault, conducted a brief press conference that was a study in constrained emotion. "I will respect the decision of the school," Beck said. "I'm sure there are some things that need to change in the future." Mary McGarvey, chair of the university's Faculty Women's Caucus, questioned the right of a coach to make such a decision alone and said, "This sends a very bad message to women students. But we all expected that the coach would do what he felt was best for his team."
Osborne's action seemed driven as much by his desire to rescue lost souls among his flock as by a need to strengthen the Cornhuskers. Nebraska is 6-0 without Phillips and sinfully deep in I-backs. Phillips is a 20-year-old who lived in a West Covina, Calif., group home from the age of 13 and endured an extraordinarily difficult youth. Yet, Phillips also had been welcomed back to Osborne's team after at least two other transgressions (both for fighting), and Osborne acknowledges that Phillips had been warned before the attack to stay away from McEwen. But Osborne persists in his mission with Phillips, at the same time disregarding McEwen, the victim of a serious assault. "What else could be done for her, really?" he asked in the week preceding the Colorado game. This response came several minutes after he called the Phillips decision, "a minor issue, really," which he likened to choosing to go for a two-point conversion against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
Phillips's return might have splintered the Cornhuskers. "It's so wrong to do something like that to your girl, to any girl," said senior tight end Mark Gilman, one of Nebraska's co-captains. But as quickly as the players condemned the act, they rallied in the lockstep manner central to the mentality of football. "We're a family here," Gilman said. "We take pride in our unity." Said running back Clinton Childs, " Lawrence is a Husker, simple as that."
At Nebraska's core is senior quarterback Tommie Frazier, the Cornhuskers' leader and conscience. As a citizen Frazier is the kind who isn't likely to cross against a red light; as a quiet, intense leader Frazier finds the legal travails of his teammates tiresome and inexcusable. "Most of it is foolish stuff that could have been avoided," said Frazier. "And I'm pretty sure quite a few players are upset about it."
However, even Frazier adds, "What happens off the field stays off the field. Incidents happen, and it's bad that they did. But we go forward."