The moment the ball hit the ground may haunt Turner Gill forever. Because an incomplete pass is sometimes much more than an incomplete pass. Sometimes, it can be more like a ball and chain.
After battling back to within a single point of Miami in the final moments of the 1984 Orange Bowl, Gill watched as his two-point pass to Jeff Smith was batted down by Hurricanes defensive back Ken Calhoun. A caught ball would have given Nebraska the national championship and allowed one of the greatest college teams of the modern era to fulfill its destiny. But the incomplete pass was more than an incomplete pass.
"So many people remember that game and think that is Nebraska football," laments Gill, now the Cornhuskers' quarterbacks coach. "They don't give us credit for being the most consistent winner in college football."
A decade later to the very hour, Tommie Frazier led Nebraska to within range of a national-title-clinching field goal against Florida State - only to watch the ball sail left as time expired. Like his coach and quarterbacking predecessor, Frazier chafes at the perception of Nebraska as a team that can't win the big game. "We outplayed [Florida State] but we just didn't win," says Frazier, who returns for his junior season this fall. "We were so close but..."
After more than two decades of inopportune penalties, missed field goals, dropped passes, fumbles and interceptions eliminating one outstanding team after another - including three losses to archrival Oklahoma that spoiled undefeated seasons - Tom Osborne's Nebraska powerhouse occupies a dubious place in college football. At once, it's the winningest and most frustrated program in the game. Just as the Woody Hayes era at Ohio State wore the face of the bullish fullback struggling for three yards amid a cloud of dust, just as the Student Body Right became synonymous with the old Southern Cal dynasty, the Nebraska program now seems defined by all these years of futility in the national championship wars - by what it hasn't accomplished instead of what it has.
If the Huskers had not achieved so much steady success - at least nine victories and a bowl bid every single year since 1969 - they would not be considered so unsuccessful for failing to win the big one. After all, no one compares Northwestern to the Buffalo Bills. No one faults Vanderbilt for choking in the big game. Winning is the price of admission to the game that Nebraska keeps losing.
So why doesn't Tom Osborne seem the least bit frustrated?
The modern era of Nebraska football dates from 1962, when Bob Devaney arrived from Wyoming and started paying the dues on his legend. Over the next decade, the plain-spoken Devaney ended Oklahoma's stranglehold on the Big Eight and established Nebraska as one of the nation's top programs. Under his watch, the sparsely populated farm state without any major sports team of its own adopted Big Red football as its No. 1 obsession. (The school's NCAA record of consecutive home sellouts will reach 200 against Colorado on Oct. 29, by which time its national record of consecutive winning seasons will have reached 33.)
Even as he understood the strengths of being able to command so much attention from an entire state, Devaney realized the program could not win big on Nebraska talent alone, so he instituted a national recruiting strategy that continues today, particularly in the football hotbeds of Texas and Southern California. His 1970 and '71 teams, which set a new standard of offensive potency behind quarterback Jerry Tagge and Heisman Trophy winning flanker Johnny Rodgers, captured consecutive national championships and cemented Nebraska's place among the elite. Then he gave Nebraska Tom Osborne, his offensive coordinator and hand-picked successor.
On the second floor of the Memorial Stadium football complex one spring morning, Osborne seems quite relaxed for a man who should be so tormented. He speaks in a soft, clear voice, without any hint of a coach's bark. When he answers a question, he often begins only after a slight pause during which you can almost see the wheels turning inside his meticulous mind.
"He always seems to be checking things off a list in his head," says All-Big Eight cornerback Barron Miles.
If his face was not so well known in the millions of households where college football is worshipped on autumn Saturdays, Osborne easily could be mistaken for a minister or doctor or insurance salesman. This soft-spoken, pensive man comes across as anything but a coach whose record of 206-47-3 (.811) makes him the envy of the entire kick-ass-and-take-names profession.
His office reflects his personality: neat and modest. You will not find row upon row of great teams and all-star players staring down from the walls. Not that he would have any trouble filling the room with his teams, because under his direction, Nebraska has won or shared nine Big Eight championships, played in 21 straight bowl games, and produced 38 consensus All-Americas, four Outland Trophy winners, and 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier.
On the wall behind his desk, where one might normally find mementos reflecting some of those accomplishments, rests a 38-inch-long stuffed and mounted salmon, which Osborne caught during a fishing trip on Lake Michigan in 1978. It reveals more about the man than a thousand team photos.
"Some of the guys I was with encouraged me to enter it in a contest they were having, but I thought, 'Nah, what's the use?'" Osborne says. "Then I found out later it would have won. But that didn't bother me. I wasn't there to win a contest. I was there to fish."
Despite so many years of winning without winning it, Osborne refuses to get caught up in what much of the country believes about his program: that Nebraska plays a weak schedule; that the Cornhuskers choke in the big game; that his record-setting tenure is lacking without a national championship; that the pursuit of a title should be some sort of quest.
"People keep wanting me to say I'm heartbroken for not having won the national championship," Osborne says. "But I'm not. Would I like to win one? Sure. But heartbroken? No."
He cares, he says, more about consistency - and that's where no one can touch this quiet man. No coach ever won 200 games in his first 21 years until Osborne crossed the threshold last season. Only Paul "Bear" Bryant and Joe Paterno have coached more bowl teams. "He's the finest football coach in the country," says Devaney, who retired last year after many years as Nebraska's athletic director. "How can you criticize a man with such a fantastic record?"
There is the temptation to compare his coaching career to his passion for salt water fishing, to equate his life with that fish. Does he live and breathe to win or simply to coach? They are intertwined, of course, since no coach could survive at a place like Nebraska without winning big. But the man who doesn't rant and rave or throw temper tantrums also does not stress over things he cannot control. He loves the competition and refuses to be tormented by his perceived failures.
"Winning the national championship involves so many variables," he says, sounding more like a math teacher than a coach. "To say we haven't been successful just because we haven't [won a national championship] would require throwing out a lot of accomplishments this program has achieved."
"Coach Osborne never talks about the national championship," says All-American offensive tackle Zach Wiegert. "I really don't think it's a big deal to him."
But that doesn't stop his players from believing they can redefine Nebraska's place in college football.
By the time unbeaten Nebraska reached the Orange Bowl last New Year's, the once-feared Cornhuskers had lost so much of their national respect that they were considered 17-point underdogs to once-beaten Florida State. The suggestion that the winningest program in the sport since the Nixon administration could be blown out lit a fire under Tommie Frazier and his teammates.
"It hurt having everybody write us off like that," Frazier says.
On one level, the 1994 Orange Bowl, Nebraska's sixth straight bowl loss, was merely the latest in the Cornhuskers' long line of big-game failures. But under the circumstances, losing in the final moments to Florida State by a very respectful 18-16 represented a certain validation of the Cornhuskers, causing some who have dismissed Nebraska to question their conventional wisdom.
"We erased a lot of doubts out there about us," Frazier says. "It was very disappointing to lose that game, but it fired us up, made us start thinking about what we could do. We started talking about '94 right after that game."
Osborne may not discuss the big prize, but his players can be forgiven for the occasional daydream. Sure to be ranked among the top four in most pre-season polls, this Nebraska team, like so many before it, is good enough to win it all.
Frazier, who burst onto the scene two years ago and earned Big Eight Freshman of the Year honors while learning on the job, now runs the Huskers' multiple-I as well as any quarterback since Turner Gill. "Tommie has such good instincts," Gill says. "And he has shown great improvement as a passer." Losing I-back Calvin Jones to the NFL hurts, but Nebraska has at least three runners with 4.4 speed. On defense, Butkus Award winner Trev Alberts will be tough to replace, but the understated Osborne is quick to note, "This is the most defensive speed we've ever had."
Content to stand in front of his players before a big game and check off his mental notes, Osborne has never been known as a great motivator. His teams win on preparation, not emotion. But the FSU game and its aftermath have infused some of the Cornhuskers with a sense of purpose and history that smacks of emotion. They know they could change the perception of Nebraska football with one great season.
"We'd love to go out there and win the whole thing and show people that Nebraska can go all the way," says Zack Wiegert.
"That would shut all those people up," says Frazier.
"We'd win it all for all those teams who didn't," says linebacker Donta Jones.
That might even knock the old fish off the coach's wall.
Copyright 1994 by Keith Dunnavant