Nebraska football fans love their history, and they love the mythos that surrounds their team. One of the legendary tales of the Cornhuskers is Tom Osborne’s decision to go for two at the end of the 1984 Orange Bowl.
Had Osborne decided to play for the tie, some local commentators have called the near-certain national title that Nebraska would have won after the 1983 season “hollow.”
To recap (even though I’m sure many readers have the image of this play seared into their memories), Nebraska was undefeated in the 1983 season and a consensus No. 1 ranked team going into the Orange Bowl. The offense, led by quarterback Turner Gill, I-back Mike Rozier and wide receiver Irving Fryar, was dubbed the “Scoring Explosion” and may have been the best in the school’s history.
All that stood in the way of Nebraska finally winning a first national title for head coach Tom Osborne was a then-upstart Miami program led by Howard Schnellenberger.
But in the fourth quarter, Nebraska trailed the Hurricanes 31-17, playing on Miami’s home field and having lost Rozier to a sprained ankle earlier in the game. Nebraska made a furious comeback, scoring a touchdown and pulling to within one point, 31-30, with 0:48 left in the game. Without hesitation, Osborne went for two in an attempt to win the game.
Remember, this was 1983, a full 13 years before college football would abolish ties and institute an overtime rule.
Gill rolled to his right, throwing to I-back Jeff Smith. Miami safety Ken Calhoun deflected the pass, preserving the win for Miami and relegating Nebraska to a 12-1 final record and a No. 2 ranking in the final polls.
Both then and now, the consensus was that had Nebraska gone for the tie and finished 12-0-1, NU would have been awarded the national title for 1983 over Miami (who would have ended the season 10-1-1) and 11-1 Auburn.
That decision, to go for two and the outright win over a near-certain national title, earned Osborne legendary status in college football. Nebraska fans still point to that decision as evidence of Osborne’s courage and character, his willingness to “do the right thing” regardless of the consequences.
In recapping the game, Dirk Chatelain from the Omaha World-Herald referred to Osborne’s decision as an “unnecessary gamble,” and there is no doubt he was correct in that assessment.
But on KOZN AM 1620’s Unsportstmanlike Conduct, Chatelain expanded on his description. He defended Osborne’s decision as the right thing to do and went so far as to say that a national title won by Nebraska from a tie game would have been “hollow.”
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chatelain’s work—he is one of the few members of the local media who will confront and press head coach Bo Pelini, a critical part of a journalist’s job.
But on this issue, I would respectfully submit that Chatelain is off his rocker.
It is simply unreasonable to think that Nebraska fans would have rejected a national title won from a tie game as "hollow." At that point, it had been 12 years since Nebraska had won a national title, and Nebraska fans were desperate for that trophy. Like any fanbase, Nebraska fans would have found a way to rationalize a decision to play for the tie and a national title.
And there would have been plenty of rationalizations available. Just off the top of my head...
- Nebraska was “rewarded” as the country’s only undefeated team in 1983 by having to play a functional road game against Miami on the Hurricane’s home field.
- Nebraska had to play most of the game without Rozier and was still in a position to win.
- The tie was the “smart” decision, as Nebraska would have ended the season the only undefeated team in the country.
Fans are fans. And Osborne deserves every drop of credit he’s gotten for his decision, make no mistake. But part of the mythos around that decision comes from Nebraska fans having to salve the wound of losing what they thought was a mortal lock of a national title after the 1983 season.
Had Osborne decided to play for the tie instead, I have no doubt Nebraska fans would have flocked to his side defending that decision.
When you consider that at least some in the national media would have criticized Osborne had he gone for the tie—and the “circle the wagons” mentality Nebraska fans have whenever their program is criticized by the national press—it becomes even clearer to me that a national title from a 31-31 tie with Miami would have been welcomed and celebrated in the Cornhusker state.
(We’re assuming, of course, through all of this that Nebraska would have made the extra point. Junior Scott Livingston was 35-of-37 on extra points in 1983. He was 3-of-3 for extra points in the Orange Bowl but 0-of-2 in field goals, missing from 44 and 47 yards. Sophomore Dave Schneider was 32-of-36 for extra points in 1983, and senior Mark Hagerman was 9-of-11. Had Osborne “chickened out” and went for the tie—and missed—Osborne's legacy, and perhaps his career, would have been seen in a very different light.)
So, was Chatelain right that a Nebraska national title won from a tie in the Orange Bowl would have been hollow?
In retrospect, it’s a little easier to sniff at a hypothetical title won in 1983 off a tie as “hollow” after Nebraska won three in four years in the mid-'90s.
But I can’t see a circumstance where, in January of 1984, Nebraska fans would not have welcomed NU’s first national title since 1971.
Throughout the state and throughout the country, Nebraska fans would have proudly raised banners, worn t-shirts and put bumper stickers on cars reading “1983 National Champions” had Osborne gone for the tie.
And I defy anyone to argue that Nebraska fans even now would proudly brag about the Cornhuskers' six national titles, with no asterisk on the inscription for 1983, had Osborne gone for a “hollow” tie that night in South Florida.
Again, let me be clear. I think Chatelain is one of the best sports journalists covering Nebraska football. And I believe Osborne was correct in his decision to go for the two-point conversion and the win against Miami.
But to say that a national title coming from a tie in that Orange Bowl against Miami would have been “hollow” is a bridge too far for me.
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