July 2, 2013


Tom Osborne Goes for Two : On the stunning gamble taken by Nebraska's head coach in the 1984 Orange Bowl (Michael Weinreb, July 2, 2013, Grantland)

"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.

...you should never punt nor kick except on kickoffs.    
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Posted by at July 2, 2013 5:23 PM

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