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Tom Osborne Goes for Two

On the stunning gamble taken by Nebraska's head coach in the 1984 Orange Bowl

In 1985, in the aftermath of the boldest single decision any college football coach has ever made, Tom Osborne published an autobiography titled More Than Winning. It is a book that somehow manages to be both brief and tedious, short on telling detail about his career as the head coach at Nebraska and long on religious platitudes and recountings of post-heart-surgery hospital enemas.1 It is dedicated in part to the Creator and thanks the Lord in the acknowledgements, in case He didn’t get the message the first time; in the opening paragraph of the foreword, Osborne admits that the publishing company contacted him about a project, and that he “had many reservations” about writing a book at all.

This is no one’s fault, really, since Tom Osborne is a proudly undynamic guy whose long-term success has come to embody the spirit of one of the most proudly undynamic states in the union.2 The penultimate chapter in the book, “A Difficult Road to Walk,” is an in-depth exploration of Osborne’s Christianity — he notes that he never infringes on Sundays during the season, so his players can attend services, “Protestant, Catholic or Jewish3 — and this chapter is far longer than his description of the thrilling Orange Bowl game played the year before, which is pretty much the only reason an autobiography of a midcareer college football coach from a sparsely populated state who had not yet won a national championship would be desired by a major publisher in the first place.

As far as I can tell, Osborne never gets to the point of explaining the rationale behind his pivotal Orange Bowl decision in More Than Winning.4 But I like to think he is purposefully vague about it because he prefers to speak in parables, which is what you’d expect from a man who nearly went into the seminary after college; I’d like to presume that the rest of the book, with its folksy yarns about Osborne’s upbringing in small-town Nebraska — in particular, the anecdote about Osborne’s grandfather, who once lost a political election because he literally refused to campaign — is meant to tell us everything we need to know about Tom Osborne’s state of mind on the second evening of January in 1984, when he went for broke and failed in spectacular and very public fashion.

“I was disappointed,” Osborne writes about this failure, “and yet it was certainly not a shattering experience.”

If almost any other football coach said this in an autobiography, I would assume he never actually bothered to read his own book. But this is what set Tom Osborne apart during all those years as head coach at Nebraska: He really did seem to exist on his own spiritual plane, set apart from the egotism that drives most of the men in his profession. He was such an overpowering believer in the Christian arc of sin and redemption that he occasionally gave too much leeway to those who didn’t deserve it (Exhibit A: Phillips, Lawrence; Exhibit B: Peter, Christian). Even after his periodic character misjudgments, even after an unremarkable political career, Osborne remains the paragon of Nebraskan virtue — his approval rating in the state after he lost a gubernatorial election, according to a 2011 Public Policy Polling survey, was 86 percent, making him “the most popular person PPP has ever polled on anywhere.”

Some of this, of course, is because Tom Osborne was a remarkably successful football coach, especially later in his career. But really, only a man so confident in the karmic arc of the universe could have made the decision that Osborne did in 1984, and only a man who was willing to subvert politics could have survived the repercussions of that decision with the dignity that Tom Osborne did (which is why his move into real-life politics always seemed more like a default move than one based on passion). He had a national championship in hand, the easy way, if he wanted it. But Osborne refused to reduce the national championship to a campaign. He worked around the Argument — the push and pull of a championship system measured by opinion polls — that had defined the sport since its earliest days. And in doing so, he struck another blow in the long fight to cleave the Argument to pieces.

There were some inherently notable obstacles that hindered then-undefeated Nebraska in the final moments of the 1984 Orange Bowl, trailing one-loss Miami 31-24 with one minute and 47 seconds to play. The first was that Nebraska was attempting to overcome this deficit against the Hurricanes in front of its home crowd in Miami; a coach with a more combative nature than Osborne might have argued that the nation’s no. 1 team — a squad that had averaged 52 points per game and was already acknowledged as among the greatest of all time — probably didn’t deserve to play a road game for the national championship. The second obstacle was that the Cornhuskers were without Mike Rozier, who, in retrospect, may have been the greatest running back in college football history; he was on the bench, his ankle sprained,5 while his team drove downfield for the potential game-tying or game-winning score.

The third notable obstacle on this drive was Irving Fryar. Irving Fryar, of course, played for Nebraska. Irving Fryar may have been the best wide receiver in Cornhuskers history. But something weird happened here, and I’m not even sure how to talk about it without casting aspersions on Fryar himself — I have no proof of any foul play, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either — but I have never seen a receiver of Fryar’s prodigious ability drop a pass in the way he did in the midst of this drive. There he was, streaking across the middle of the field, wide open in the end zone, and Nebraska’s quarterback, Turner Gill, hit him directly in the hands. Fryar seemed to bat the ball away as if he were fighting off a rabid squirrel. Equally strange: Fryar went to the ground in the back of the end zone, hands to his helmet, in what I’ll just assume was a moment of genuine self-pitying introspection, and a gang of Orange Bowl executives — the guys in the awful, mustard sport coats — leaped up and down and celebrated right next to him. You want a five-second exposé on the inherent corruption of college football’s postseason system, you could do worse than that moment right there.

The fourth notable obstacle on this drive: Facing a fourth-and-8 with the game on the line, Osborne ran the ball. Technically, it was a play called “41 sprint pass,” a run-throw quarterback option, but there was really only one option for Gill to throw to, and that was Fryar running a slant. And given what had just happened, the only viable option for Gill was to keep the damn thing himself, which he did, pitching at the last moment to a second-string I-back named Jeff Smith, who careered around the edge of the line and down the sideline and into the end zone on the kind of crazy play that no coach would have the cojones to execute in today’s game.

The fifth notable obstacle on this drive, of course, was Osborne himself. When his team scored those six points, he didn’t hesitate. It was clear he had made up his mind long ago: He would go for two points here.6 He would not settle, as Ara Parseghian had done at Notre Dame years before; he would not put this in the hands of the poll voters, even though those poll voters would have almost certainly rewarded him with a title merely for mustering a tie game in a hostile stadium with a team that had scored more points than any squad since 1944.

Osborne didn’t seem to factor any of this into his thinking. He went for the two. He went for the outright victory, wrote one columnist, “in a rare display of courage, arrogance and selfishness.” He lined up three receivers to the right, and Gill threw in the flat to Smith, and the pass was tipped away, and Osborne’s gambit failed, and Miami won the national championship.

And no coach has ever succeeded by failing in the way Osborne has.

Tom Osborne

Years later, when Armen Keteyian wrote a book that examined Rozier’s possible cocaine use and questioned whether Fryar might have been involved in throwing the Orange Bowl, Osborne said that “for years Nebraskans have felt that I was predictable, unimaginative, too nice a guy, unemotional and all these types of things. And here’s a guy who comes from New York City, big-time writer, analyst of human behavior, and he says I’m mysterious and a man of conflicting emotions. I hope Nebraskans will sit up and take notice of that.”

I have no idea if he was joking. But I imagine that at least within the state of Nebraska, Tom Osborne became far more interesting than he actually was, merely because of the choice he made that night in Miami.

The NFL introduced overtime for divisional tiebreak games in 1940, and overtime for championship games in 1946, and sudden-death overtime for regular-season games in 1974. In Kansas, overtime rules for high school football were adopted in 1971. And through it all, thanks largely to the besotted fools in sport coats who danced on Irving Fryar’s skull in that end zone, college football changed nothing.

More than 20 times between 1869 and 1990, the “consensus” national champion played to at least one tie; Princeton is recognized by several sources as the no. 1 team in 1881, despite playing to two ties. In 1946 and 1966, most notably, the national championship was awarded to Notre Dame after a tie game. As is so often the case in college football, the status quo remained long past its due date, largely because it (a) reinforced the stature of the bowl system, and (b) reduced pressure on the coaches. It was one less decision to make. Sometimes, a tie felt like a victory; the lingering presence of the two-point conversion made it seem as if there were a tiebreaking method,7 even though there were situations when the two-point conversion didn’t come into play at all.

And so college football did not approve overtime until 1996, adopting the Kansas high school rules. Even then, the tie was only truly abandoned for reasons of commerce: The tie made it more difficult for a team to garner the six wins necessary to qualify for a bowl game. And now that college football had something called a bowl alliance, which would potentially match the top two teams, a tie game no longer seemed like a rational or desirable result.

It feels quaint now, to think that college football held out for so long. Part of what explains the endurance of the Argument is that the college game has tried so hard to maintain its unique identity, even if it comes at the expense of the people who actually watch it. There is only one good argument to be made in favor of the tie game, and this is that coaches will “play for overtime” late in games, that they will tend toward conservatism, that they will put off making any sort of controversial decision until they absolutely have to. And it’s true: This does happen now. Coaches consistently play for overtime.

But it happened before, too, when overtime didn’t even exist.

In an ideal world, every coach might have made the choice Tom Osborne did rather than play for the tie; it took Osborne actually doing it to make us realize that most coaches were perfectly happy with the tie game if it made them safe in the end. It took Tom Osborne to help us realize that the politics of college football were inherently absurd.

If I was sure a tie would make me No. 1 in the polls,” Ara Parseghian told the Associated Press the day after the Orange Bowl, “I would rather be ranked No. 1. Five, 10, 15 years from now, that’s what people will remember — that you were the top team in the country.”

And this is one thing that Ara, who famously played for a tie against Michigan State to win the 1966 national championship, got wrong: The majority of people found Osborne’s choice inherently noble. It is one case where a loss actually proved better than a win. Miami would go on to win other titles, and so would Nebraska, but that loss shaped Osborne’s legacy; in 1994, when the Cornhuskers went undefeated and Penn State went undefeated, Nebraska was awarded its first championship, largely because Osborne had yet to win one.8 (He won again the next year, which kind of invalidated the whole lifetime-achievement-award angle.)

“I was totally onboard with the two-point conversion,” said my friend Bob Ethington, who was born in Omaha and grew up a Nebraska fan. “It seemed the right and noble thing to do. When it failed, it was terrible, but I can’t say that I really second-guessed Osborne’s decision, nor have I since. Rather, I admired him for it. But as I think about it now — I would never support such a decision today. It would drive me crazy! And that realization makes me a little sad.”

Osborne’s choice did not alter anything overnight, because college football seems to pride itself on the glacial nature of its decision-making process. But it moved us steadily forward, toward the realization that the current system was inherently flawed and purposefully nebulous — that it almost seemed designed to punish those who pushed for any sort of definitive resolution. It set us on a path toward overtime and toward the BCS and eventually toward a playoff system, and it rewarded Osborne with a lifetime of solid karma from the people of his state.

But I agree with my friend Bob. And I think no coach in his right mind, faced with the Osborne Conundrum, would make this choice now. To give up a near-certain national championship in the polls for a shot at … what? A more definitive national championship? It sounds like a cautionary tale from Nate Silver. The consequences of failure would be seismic; in some places, it might even cost a coach his job. This is the uncomfortable truth about a sport that has slowly evolved from the Argument model to the zero-sum model: There is nothing More Than Winning. Thirty years later, Tom Osborne’s decision strikes me as both inherently laudable and sadly anachronistic.

Filed Under: College Football, Miami, nebraska, Tom Osborne, College Football Game of the Century, Michael Weinreb