The first season of the bowl alliance delivered a second national championship to Tom Osborne's Nebraska Cornhuskers.
—Mark Blaudschun has been the national college football and basketball writer for The Boston Globe since 1990.
Can you say dynasty? Can you say Nebraska? Can you say controversy? If you can, you'll have yourself a headline news version of the 1995 college football season.
Oh, there were other plots along the way, just as there always are. Northwestern won the hearts and minds of underdog lovers by going 10-1 and earning a trip to the Rose Bowl. Miami and Alabama, two of the power brokers in the game, stayed home in the post season because the NCAA said so.
And the sport, so often looking like a confused child lost in a department store, finally brought some semblance of order to its post season system by setting up a bowl alliance that actually let the top teams in the country—this year No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Florida—play each other in the Fiesta Bowl.
But more about those story lines later. The main plot was Nebraska, which clearly established itself as the team of the 1990's by playing in its third consecutive national championship game and winning back to back national championships, the first team to do that since Alabama turned the trick in 1978 and 1979.
If the Huskers' ride was smooth, it would be a nice story, but lacking something. After all, how often can you talk about Nebraska racing through its Big Eight season unbeaten and winning a bowl game for the title? Been there, done that.
The meat of this story would come from off-field activities because from essentially the start of the season, the Huskers established themselves as not only America's most dominating college football team, but perhaps America's Most Wanted team.
The problem was Lawrence Phillips, the Huskers' spectacular tailback who began and ended his season playing football, but spent six weeks during the season on the sidelines, courtesy of a suspension he received after assaulting his former girlfriend, a Nebraska women's basketball player. Osborne's immediate reaction was like the rest of the country—outrage. The incident might have quieted down if Osborne had followed his original plan of kicking Phillips off the team.
But Osborne, citing information that was unavailable to the general public and feeling a sense of obligation to help his star player while everyone else was condemning him, changed direction. Instead of booting Phillips off the team, Osborne merely suspended him. And six weeks after his suspension began, Phillips was back on the roster, remorseful and grateful for another chance.
If that had been the only incident, Nebraska's image of being squeaky clean might have survived. But all of a sudden, the police blotter seemed to be full of Nebraska players. Tailbacks Damon Benning and James Sims were arrested after arguments with former girlfriends, although the charges against Benning were quickly dropped. Receiver Riley Washington was charged with attempted second-degree murder, and cornerback Tyrone Williams was faced with a weapons charge. Defensive tackle Christian Peter had several brushes with the law.
(In fact, Peter's antics (eight arrests in six years that included charges of public urination and third-degree sexual assault) were deemed so odious that the New England Patriots drafted him in the fifth round and then rescinded their rights to him a few days later. No other NFL team bothered to claim him and his football playing days seem over.)
Back in Lincoln, the Nebraska reaction was to circle the wagons. Osborne said the national media was over-playing the stories, arguing that if Nebraska wasn't such a good team, no one would really be following the off-the-field incidents.
If the Huskers were less of a team, it might have been a problem. But nothing could stop them. Not their non-conference schedule. Not Colorado, Kansas or Kansas State, each of whom made a little bit of noise about moving the Huskers out as the top force in the Big Eight. And not the national media, which kept bringing up the Lawrence Phillips case.
All Nebraska did was win. Every week. They averaged 52 points per game and beat their opponents by an average of 39 points. With quarterback Tommie Frazier back for his senior season, the Huskers didn't even miss Phillips. They just ran their offense with other players, other bodies. Nebraska started the season as national champion and ended it the same way. While the Huskers were rolling along, other stories were developing, each with its own little twist.
The biggest change was the bowl system. With a new bowl alliance, which included the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls, the conference tie-ins of past years no longer existed. Excluding the Pac-10 and Big Ten conference winners, who play in the Rose Bowl, anybody could play anybody in the Fiesta Bowl game, which paid out $8.5 million per team for the right to have No. 1 vs. No. 2 for all the marbles.
In previous years, Nebraska, which won the Big Eight title, could not have played Florida, which won the SEC title. The Huskers would have gone to the Orange Bowl, and the Gators would have gone to the Sugar Bowl. More on that later.
The season began with the Kickoff and Pigskin Classics on August 26 and 27 respectively. While Michigan beat Virginia in a thrilling Pigskin, people were watching the Kickoff more closely. Since the last two winners of the Kickoff Classic (Florida State and Nebraska) had gone on to win the national title, Ohio State's 38-6 rout of Boston College seemed like a good omen for the Buckeyes.
And it looked like the trend might hold as Ohio State climbed steadily in the polls, winning each week. Going into their final regular season game against Michigan, the Buckeyes were a solid No. 2 behind Nebraska, with unbeaten Florida No. 3.
It seemed like another controversy was brewing over No. 1 even with a bowl alliance in place because if No.2 Ohio State won the Big Ten it would play in the Rose, not the Fiesta Bowl. But then the Buckeyes were upset by Michigan, 31-23 in the final game of their regular season, a defeat which allowed Florida to slide into the No. 2 spot and set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game against the Huskers.
For the Buckeyes it was a bittersweet season at best. In one afternoon, they saw their chances of the Big Ten title, Rose Bowl bid and an unbeaten season all evaporate. But they did get solace when tailback Eddie George won the Heisman Trophy over Tommie Frazier and Florida's Danny Wuerffel, in what had been one of the most unpredictable Heisman races in years.
Neither the Buckeyes, nor Penn State, nor Michigan, the three favorites to win the Big Ten was the team of the year in that conference. That role belonged to once lowly Northwestern, which beat Notre Dame in its opener and never looked back until it was in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 47 years. They were also celebrating in Florida as well, as the Gators rolled through the SEC season unbeaten, winning their third consecutive SEC crown.
Perhaps the most startling game of the Gators' regular season was their meeting with Tennessee in Gainesville on Sept. 16. Trailing 30-14 near the end of the first half, the Gator offense, led by Wuerffel, who set an NCAA passing efficiency record, roared back for an astounding 62-37 victory. Wuerffel took only 24 minutes to get the Gators 48 unanswered points in a victory which clearly established the Gators as the No. 1 team in the SEC. Tennessee never lost again, though, and finished their best season in years by beating Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl and earning the number three spot in the AP and number two in the USA Today/CNN Coaches Poll.
Perhaps the unluckiest team in college football was Virginia. The Cavs, began their season by losing in the last second to Michigan in the Pigskin Classic. Then they lost to Texas on the last play of the game when Longhorn kicker Phil Dawson hit a 50 yard field goal into the wind for a 17-16 Texas victory. Then, on a Thursday night ESPN game against unbeaten and No. 1 Florida State, Virginia, which had built a 10 point half-time lead, was hanging on to a 33-28 lead over the Seminoles.
Florida State, which had rarely been behind in ACC games, and had never lost one, was staging a drive down field for the go-ahead and potential winning touchdown. With the clock ticking off the final seconds of another close Virginia game, Florida State's Warrick Dunn went from the Virginia six to the goal line before he was stopped by Virginia linebacker Anthony Poindexter and safety Adrian Blum a few inches short of the end zone. The loss to Virginia knocked the Seminoles out of the No. 1 spot and again made Coach Bobby Bowden's team a bridesmaid in the national championship derby. After the game, Virginia coach George Welsh said “I couldn't see the goal line and I thought, 'Oh, God, it's going to happen again.'”
Alas, it did, sort of. In their final regular season game against Virginia Tech, the Cavs trailed 30-29 with 47 seconds left. But then Tech cornerback Antonio Banks intercepted a Mike Groh pass and returned it 65 yards for the game-clinching touchdown in a 36-29 victory, thereby robbing Virginia of the chance to win a game on the last play.
While the Cavaliers were living on the edge all season, Notre Dame seemed to go over the edge a few times and kept coming back. The season began with a disaster—a home loss to Northwestern—and got worse. After five games, the Irish were 3-2, out of the national championship race, which was bad enough. But Notre Dame had other problems.
Coach Lou Holtz had been feeling worse than his team after the Northwestern game. Not only were his spirits low, but he just didn't feel right. He didn't have his usual pep. And he had a tingling sensation in his legs that would not go away. Holtz, not the type of guy to let things go unchecked, went to the doctor for a series of tests. The initial tests didn't reveal much, but sent some ominous warnings. “They came up with 19 things,” said Holtz, later. “And 18 of them were fatal.”
Luckily for Holtz, the other one was serious, but not life-threatening. A bulging disc in his back was bad enough for Holtz to have surgery, which was performed in mid-September at the Mayo Clinic. Three weeks later, Holtz was back on the sidelines for the Notre Dame-Ohio State game in Columbus.
The doctors had told Holtz that four to six weeks would be a more prudent course of action. But after receiving assurances from the doctor that he was not jeopardizing his health and being careful to avoid any contact with anyone on the sideline, Holtz gave it a shot. The experiment failed. Notre Dame lost to Ohio State and Holtz was exhausted. He coached for the next month from the press box and let defensive coordinator Bob Davie take the reins. Remarkably, the Irish bounced back. They won their last six games and earned an Orange Bowl bid against Florida State.
The theme of the year in the Southwest Conference was nostalgia. After 81 years, the once mighty SWC was closing its doors as a football conference, its members auctioned off to places like the Big Twelve, the Western Athletic Conference and something called Conference USA.
For the record, the final game in SWC history was played between Houston and Rice, with Houston pulling out an 18-17 win. So much for the conference which produced five Heisman winners and several volumes of lore, dating back to the days of Sammy Baugh and Bobby Layne and continuing through the time of such star players as Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and Craig James.
Somehow it was fitting that proud and mighty Texas, long the marquee team for the conference, won the final title, edging out Texas A&M, which began the season with plans to contend for the national championship and a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Leeland McElroy. The Aggies received neither prize as a loss to Colorado in September effectively eliminated them from the national championship race and McElroy never quite had the year everyone expected.
The college football season saw other disappointments in other storied settings. Miami and Alabama, two of the premier programs in the country, both went on probation. The Crimson Tide argued that their sanctions were too severe and actually won reductions on appeal. The Hurricanes accepted their probation and prepared for next year. Unfortunately for coach Butch Davis, Miami still suffers from a reputation as a program out of control. In June '96, three Hurricane players were charged with burglary and battery after they attacked Miami track star Maxwell Voce.
On the coaching front, Georgia fired Ray Goff, and UCLA's Terry Donahue quit to take a job as CBS' color commentator.
As the season went down the stretch, Florida, Ohio State and Nebraska emerged as the leading contenders for the national championship. Ohio State self-destructed with its loss to Michigan, but Florida and Nebraska each rolled through the regular season unbeaten. The Gators looked legitimate, not only going unbeaten in a tough SEC Eastern Division race, but then beating Arkansas easily in the SEC title game. This turn of events set up the '95 Gators as one of the best teams in Florida history and potentially one of the greatest teams of all time.
With the bowl alliance in place, the Fiesta Bowl became a venue for a true national championship game, contrasting two teams with different philosophies and styles. The brute strength of Tom Osborne's Nebraska vs. the “Fun and Gun” passing offense of Florida coach Steve Spurrier.
But the game turned into a Super Bowl-style rout as Nebraska quickly and convincingly thrashed the Gators with an awesome display of sheer power. Huskers quarterback Tommie Frazier was the unquestioned star as he turned in one of the most dominating offensive performances in the history of any bowl game. On one play at least six Gators had clean and direct chances to bring Frazier down and couldn't do it. It was the run of the year and might have prompted at least one NFL team to give him a shot. Unfortunately, Frazier's history of blood clots was too much to ignore and the draft ended with Frazier not in any team's plans. In June of 1996, Frazier signed a one year contract with the Montreal Alouettes and set his sights on the 1997 NFL season.
By the half, the Huskers were well on their way to a 62-24 victory, one of the most one-sided national championship games in history. But that didn't diminish the satisfaction that Osborne had in winning back-to-back national titles. Osborne said it was the best team he has had in his 23 seasons. “It was probably the most complete football team we've had,” he said. “We didn't have a close call all year.”
Osborne praised his team's talent and its makeup. “This team has shown great character all year,” he said. “They were very focused on what they had to do.”
With two in a row accomplished, the focus is now on three, which has never been done. That alone should be enough to unite the embattled Cornhuskers for another run at the history books.
Sadly, as Osborne prepared for the upcoming season, the Nebraska program was jarred by the death of QB Brook Berringer in a plane crash on April 18. Berringer's story was a positive one in a sea of bad press. Said Osborne, “If you had somebody you wanted your son to be like, it would be Brook.” Even though Berringer's playing days were over, three in a row got a lot harder that day.