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Trouble At The Top Nebraska’s Tom Osborne Has Seen School’s Shiny Image Tarnished

Elliott Almond The Seattle Times

It could happen again. On an early-autumn day on the prairie, where anticipation crackles across the cornfields and cattle ranches of Nebraska, the man with the most to gain, and most to lose, the man whose thinly veiled exterior barely conceals a silo of emotions, knows this is true.

It could happen again.

Tom Osborne might have repaired Nebraska’s damaged image in two years since Lincoln became the crime capital of college football, but the thin line between sainthood and Satan, between right and wrong, can be breached in the matter of one weak moment.

Osborne, who coaches football like a traveling preacher, has not strayed from this message through the most trying times. His moral compass always points toward spirituality even as society’s ever-encroaching corruption circles Lincoln.

Two games into his 25th season at Nebraska, Osborne says coaching is enjoyable again because in the past year the Cornhuskers have not crossed the line.

“That doesn’t mean 10 days from now we can’t have something else,” he said. “You just don’t know what is going to happen when you get up in the morning.”

Two years ago, the irreproachable Osborne probably didn’t want to rise a few times.

Two years ago, defending national champion Nebraska discovered what life at the top cost.

Two years ago, Lawrence Phillips, a talented but troubled running back from a West Covina, Calif., group home, drove to a teammate’s apartment in the early-morning hours after a game, broke in and confronted a former girlfriend, basketball player Kate McEwen.

Despite the presence of 6-foot-3 quarterback Scott Frost, an enraged Phillips grabbed McEwen by her hair and dragged her down several flights of stairs.

Phillips was suspended for six games, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and trespassing, attended anger-management sessions, returned to play in the Fiesta Bowl and has gone on to score touchdowns for the St. Louis Rams.

Last year, McEwen, who eventually quit the basketball team but remained in school, filed a sexual-assault suit against Phillips. The case was settled a month later.

Phillips’ was perhaps the worst of several transgressions exposed after Osborne’s first national championship, after the sad-sack, second-place coach finally reached the pinnacle of college football.

But it was Christian Peter, an outstanding, 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive tackle from New Jersey who further sullied the program’s image.

Peter was arrested five times from 1991 through ‘93 for exposing himself to a female student, urinating in public and failing to comply with a police officer’s orders, among other indiscretions. Despite the problems, Osborne played Peter because the tackle met his requirements after each incident.

He has remained loyal to Peter, critics say to a fault. “It seems he has blinders on when it comes to the players, even now,” said one who refused to be identified.

Osborne continued to stand by Peter even after two women, including a former Miss Nebraska, filed sexual assault and harassment charges against the player. Peter, signed by the New York Giants this year, allegedly groped the pageant winner in a downtown Lincoln bar. He pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. In a session for his athletes, Osborne lectured football players with ecclesiastic zeal.

Then, star linebacker Terrell Farley was arrested for driving under the influence in Lincoln eight days before the Huskers’ home opener against Michigan State. It was his second such incident. The team banded together and insisted on no more transgressions. The school instituted a campuswide code of conduct. Students failing to adhere to rules were dealt with by a judicial board.

That took Osborne’s staff out of the equation when it came to leveling punishment after criminal allegations. The team still has its rules, but now no one can accuse Osborne of meddling with the judicial system, as a Lancaster County district attorney did in 1995.

As he celebrates two milestones - the silver coaching anniversary and his 60th birthday - Osborne has not forgotten the hard lessons about reaching the summit.

“Most everything is a trade-off,” he said last week. “Certainly I wouldn’t trade the confidence and excellence of a couple of those teams. Yet when you have those kinds of teams, you are going to attract more scrutiny.”

Laws, the coach said, are magnified.

“I’m not in any way saying we didn’t have some flaws,” Osborne said. “There’s no question there are some things I wished had not happened, but I would say they probably were accentuated to the point that they were not entirely in balance.”

The other side Osborne refers to is the pride in not only winning at least nine games a season as head coach, but the Huskers’ stellar graduation record and the absence of any major NCAA violations.

And as No. 7 Nebraska prepares for its national showdown against No. 2 Washington at Husky Stadium today, the sports-talk shows, newspapers and television coverage are focused on football again.

“It’s amazing how fast all that stopped,” said Tom Shatel, Omaha World-Herald sports columnist. “It’s not like it never happened, but it’s pretty close. It’s gone from one extreme to the other in two years.”

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