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The big news—huge news—around Lincoln, Neb., this spring is that Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, whose stubborn nature is as much a part of him as his red hair, has decided to open up the offense. This is a monumental step for the Cornhuskers, who over the past six years have ranked 102nd, 91st, 98th, 89th, 99th and 99th in passing among the NCAA's 106 Division I-A schools. Husker fans—and that's just about everyone in the state-are excited about the move. And yet, when Osborne was asked about it last week, the 54-year-old coach fixed his gray-blue eyes on his questioner and said, "I'm kind of concerned that the fans think they'll see a whole new concept out there, and it just won't be that way. We're not making any drastic changes here."
That's Coach Unbending for you. Even now, heading into what could be the most important season of his bittersweet career in Lincoln, Osborne acknowledges that his team will be throwing more but denies that this amounts to abandonment of his ultraconservative offensive philosophy. In fact, he claims not to understand why the subject should even be raised.
Osborne does have some cause to be exasperated by this line of questioning. After all, his 177-41-2 record gives him the best winning percentage of any active coach. The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in each of his 18 seasons, have gone to a bowl every year and have always ranked high in the national scoring, total offense and team rushing stats. So, what's the big deal?
Well, Nebraska has lost four consecutive bowl games for the first time in the school's 101-year football history. The Huskers have become a classic bully, beating up on weaklings but falling short against teams their own size. Check the record. The 1987 Nebraska team won its first nine games, then lost to Oklahoma 17-7 and to Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-28. The 1988 team took an 11-1 record into the Orange Bowl only to get clobbered by Miami 23-3. In the regular season the 1989 team lost only to Colorado, 27-21, but was ripped by Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, 41-17.
Then came last season, the most bitter pill yet. Largely because of an early, non-conference schedule so weak that athletic director Bob Devaney eventually apologized for it, the Huskers blew out to an 8-0 start. There was serious talk of Osborne winning his first national title—"my albatross," he called it—until Nebraska played host to Colorado on Nov. 3, a day that will live in Husker infamy.
Ahead 6-0 early in the third quarter, Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph dashed 45 yards for a touchdown. But after the score was nullified because an official saw Joseph step out of bounds, the fragile Husker psyche came unglued. In the final quarter, the Nebraska defense—a unit that would have six pro draft choices, including two of the first four picks in cornerback Bruce Pickens and linebacker Mike Croel—surrendered an embarrassing 27 points.
As it turned out, that was the season for Nebraska. After a 41-9 win over (ho-hum) Kansas, the Huskers got clobbered 45-10 by Oklahoma in Norman, dropping Osborne's record against the Sooners to a dismal 6-13. In the Florida Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day, Nebraska was routed by Georgia Tech 45-21, and the Huskers wound up tied for 17th in the UPI poll and 24th in the AP poll.
"I really don't know what happened," says Osborne, looking back on that flameout. "Consciously or subconsciously, a lot of players had bought into the idea that we had played a weak schedule, that Colorado was our first big test and that we could win the national championship if we beat them. After we lost, I couldn't find the key to getting back on track."
Osborne may be at a loss to explain his team's collapse, but there is no shortage of theories from his critics: the Huskers' lack of a passing threat; sluggishness in the defensive secondary; Osborne's questionable motivational skills; poor work by some of his veteran assistant coaches.
One persistent theory has to do with anabolic steroids. During the early and mid-'80s, Nebraska was regarded as a hotbed of steroid use. In a 1987 article in SI, Dean Steinkuhler, the 1983 Outland Trophy winner, admitted that he used steroids while a guard at Nebraska, and the 1989 book Big Red Confidential: Inside Nebraska Football, written by former SI staffer Armen Keteyian, stated that steroid use was widespread among the Huskers. However, in 1984 Osborne began random drug testing. Although no cause and effect can be proved, in recent years Nebraska's offensive linemen—the key to his push-'em-back, grind-it-out attack-have grown notably weaker.