It was tempting enough to become enthralled with Nebraska's brilliance in its 62-24 Fiesta Bowl humiliation of Florida on Jan. 2. It was impossible not to marvel at the performances of senior quarterback Tommie Frazier, junior I-back Lawrence Phillips and the Cornhuskers' swift, lethal pass rush. Even though Florida was a very good team, it left Tempe, Ariz., in little pieces.
In winning its second consecutive national championship, Nebraska was transcendent that night in the desert—and you're not going to see the likes of that team again. All season the Huskers trampled the opposition like a colossus, but in the fall the supremely talented Frazier, along with 10 other senior starters, will be gone, Phillips will probably be in the NFL, and Nebraska's unique talent base will have been eroded by the rules of the new Big 12—the Big Eight plus Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech—which begins play in 1996.
Sure, Nebraska will always be one of the most powerful programs in college football—along with teams like Florida State, Michigan and Notre Dame—but beginning next fall the Cornhuskers will be part of the pack, fighting with Florida (again), Tennessee, Michigan, Syracuse, Miami and, who knows, maybe even Kansas State, for a national title.
That is why Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, still soaked and shivering from the obligatory ice-water dousing by his players, used his Fiesta Bowl postgame press conference to grumble, in NCAA-speak, about preserving his program's might. He launched into a plea to the presidents of the Big 12 to reconsider their recent decision to limit the recruitment of student-athletes who were once known as Prop 48s.
We already knew that Osborne was not much of a celebrator. But his timing on this issue seemed awkward and inappropriate. His team had just become the first in 39 years to win back-to-back consensus national titles. The Cornhuskers had fallen three points short of winning three consecutive national titles (they lost the 1994 Orange Bowl to Florida State 18-16), which has never been done. The morning after the Fiesta Bowl, Osborne did call the 1995 Huskers his best team, yet rather than bask in their accomplishment, he steered a captive audience to an arcane topic. It was something he had done frequently in the days and weeks leading to the game, fearing his giant program would soon be diminished.
That the Cornhuskers have been so dominant during a period in which NCAA-mandated football downsizing has tended to create parity is remarkable. The limit of 85 football scholarships per school (down from 95 in 1991 and 105 in '76), in conjunction with the raising of admission standards and the tightening of recruiting rules, has helped programs such as Kansas State, Oregon, Virginia Tech and, most famously, Northwestern, rise to prominence.
Nebraska has flourished as a superpower during that time because the Cornhusker program benefits from the convergence of many supporting structures. The Huskers have a smart, stubborn coach with 23 years of experience; unshakable faith in a football system built on the option and the running game and brutal, fast-paced practices; and facilities that include a 30,000-square-foot weight room, which is advertised as the largest among NCAA schools. The only major public university in the state, Nebraska has virtually an open admissions policy and low tuition (less than $3,000 for in-state students), which brings in walk-ons by the dozen. (Nebraska had 141 players on its Fiesta Bowl roster, a number reminiscent of Bear Bryant's days at Alabama but unusual in 1996. By contrast, Florida had 94.) Nebraska also willingly accepts athletes who represent academic and/or social risks. Finally, there comes an occasional gift, a once-in-a-generation talent like Frazier, who arrived in Lincoln from Bradenton, Fla., in 1992.
"It's a machine up there," says Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel admiringly. "I know because I've got to beat them."
Still, Osborne dourly stumps. And with good reason. The loss of Frazier, the team's undisputed leader, is almost immeasurable—"Half an offense, by himself," said Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick. Without Frazier, Nebraska wouldn't have been competitive in its loss to No. 1-rankcd Florida State in the '94 Orange Bowl; the Huskers probably wouldn't have beaten Miami in the '95 Orange Bowl to win the national title; and there wouldn't have been talk of a dynasty coming out of the Fiesta Bowl. And for those who thought that Cornhusker freshman I-back Ahman Green was as good as Phillips, the Fiesta Bowl should have proved that Green is good, but Phillips, who rushed for 165 yards and scored three touchdowns against Florida, is exceptional.
Still, what most threatens Nebraska's championship streak is the Big 12's policy on accepting partial and non-qualifiers under NCAA freshman eligibility guidelines. (A partial qualifier is a prospective athlete who meets only one of two minimum academic requirements—grade point average or standardized test score. The minimums are a 2.0 GPA with a 900 on the SAT or 21 on the ACT; or a 2.5 GPA with a 700 SAT or 17 ACT. A non-qualifier meets neither standard. If a school accepts a partial or non-qualifier, the athlete is ineligible for athletics for one year). On Dec. 20 the Big 12 presidents voted unanimously to limit each school to four partial qualifiers per year (two men, two women) and no more than one in a single sport. Non-qualifiers were excluded entirely.