If Tom Osborne is anything, he is confident.
It's been 30 years since the 1984 Orange Bowl against Miami, a game with the national championship on the line. It was a game Osborne's Nebraska Cornhuskers, riding a 22-game winning streak, lost 31-30 when Osborne famously elected to go for two instead of a tying extra point.
A two-point conversion that failed.
On Saturday, Nebraska and Miami will play again, this time in Lincoln, for just the 11th meeting ever between the two schools. The series is tied at five wins a piece.
That game will undoubtedly dredge up archived footage and memories of Osborne's decision to go for the win instead of, as he put it, "backing in" to a national championship.
Osborne could have been annoyed when he was asked about the decision and no one would have blamed him. How would you like to be asked about a loss of that scale over and over again?
"Does it ever get tough revisiting that moment?"
"It’s not difficult for me to talk about," he said. "I don’t necessarily view it as a negative in our program."
Even after 30 years, there was no regret, no qualifying statement preceding the explanation. His answer was simple, as though you could hear his shoulders shrug matter-of-factly just by the tone of his voice.
It was the same answer now as it was then.
"You play to win."
Setting the Stage
There was no overtime in college football during the 1983 season. It wasn't instituted until 1996. Before that, it was possible to end a game with identical scores and without a winner, regardless of what Harvard football might say about a certain tie with Yale in 1968.
Yet, in 307 games as the head coach of Nebraska, Osborne tied just three times. That's fewer than 1 percent. And in the 11 seasons leading up to the '84 Orange Bowl, Osborne's Huskers won 108 games by an average of 28 points.
The '83 Huskers may have been the most talented offense of them all, averaging 50 points a game. They were loaded with running back and Heisman winner Mike Rozier, receiver Irving Fryar and quarterback Turner Gill, plus a wealth of offensive linemen.
|Notable Nebraska Players—1984 Orange Bowl|
|Mike Rozier||Running Back||Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award|
|Dean Steinkuhler||Offensive Lineman||Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award|
|Irving Fryar||Wide Receiver||All-American|
Rarely in Osborne's tenure of thorough domination did he need to go for two. He was prepared, however, should the occasion arise. It did against Miami, which was in its infancy of becoming "The U" under head coach Howard Schnellenberger. Quarterback Bernie Kosar was a freshman, as was running back Alonzo Highsmith.
With Rozier sidelined with an ankle injury, the Huskers entered halftime down 17-14. Thanks to another 14-point Miami run in the third quarter, Nebraska needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns just to come within one point.
Nebraska's second and final touchdown came on a critical 4th-and-8 inside Miami territory. A wide-open Fryar had dropped a pass in the end zone the play before. Gill took the snap on an option-action play, saw Fryar was covered, ran horizontally down the line and pitched the ball to backup running back Jeff Smith, who scooted 24 yards for the score.
"That particular play was fairly difficult to handle because it put a lot on the quarterback," said Osborne.
If that play was risky, it didn't touch what Osborne did next. With about 40 seconds left in the game, Osborne wasn't interested in the extra point. "By that point in the game," he explained, "it didn’t appear we were going to get another chance [on offense]."
There was no hesitation. Osborne had the play he wanted and felt confident after watching tape on the Hurricanes.
"When you start looking at two-point conversions, you’re looking at what they’re doing inside the 5-yard line defensively," Osborne said. "Even if an offense isn’t going for two points, if it’s third down and, say, two or three yards to go in a goal-line situation, it’s the equivalent of a two-point situation.
"We were fairly certain they’d be in man-to-man coverage and rushing at least five," he continued. "So we thought putting the halfback to the flat—hopefully covered by a safety or linebacker—we could pick up the three yards. So I thought we had a good play called and we practiced it several times."
Amid the roars inside the Orange Bowl, the offense stayed on the field. This was it, the crossroads of one dynasty and the start of another.
Gill took the snap, rolled out to his right and threw to the running back in the flat. It was just like they had practiced.
The result was not. The pass was batted away by Hurricanes safety Ken Calhoun. Incomplete. Game over. The months of preparation that could have resulted in Osborne's first national championship as a head coach, and the first for Nebraska since 1971, came to a halt in a matter of seconds.
"The guy who was covering Irving on the slant saw what was happening, came off his coverage and took a dive at the ball and got a fingertip on it," Osborne said. "He made a good play."
The intensity within the Orange Bowl surged. Schnellenberger was yelling for his players to get off the field. Osborne was trying to regroup, to figure out what, if anything, he could do next. There was nothing to do, except coming to terms with defeat.
"There was no doubt in Tom Osborne's mind, there was no doubt in my mind," Schnellenberger said about the two-point attempt in an interview with NBC's Bill Macatee. "He's a champion and he went after it like a champion."
Keeping with his philosophy, Osborne would likely say there was only one champion that night.
Going for two didn't end Nebraska's dynasty. It did, however, help launch another. That is the mark of a defining moment, as Evan Scott Schwartz of Sports Illustrated opined:
The ramifications were massive. Miami leapt to No. 1 in the final AP poll, just ahead of No. 2 Nebraska and No. 3 Auburn, which had squeaked by Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. The controversy extends to this day, as Auburn claims a share of the 1983 national title and fans and analysts still question Osborne’s decision to go for two.
Miami’s Schnellenberger would make way for the brash Jimmy Johnson, who would begin to shape Miami’s cocky and controversial identity. The Canes would march to three more championships over the next eight seasons, and the program soon became a recruiting juggernaut and factory for NFL talent.
Nebraska wouldn't win a national title for another 11 years—on Jan. 1, 1995 against Miami in the Orange Bowl, of all teams and places. From 1987-'93, the Huskers lost seven straight bowl games.
"Some people at the time wished we kicked the point because we hadn’t won [a national championship] since 1971," Osborne said. "They were hungry for that. I’m sure there are people today who still thought it was a bad decision."
But it never affected Osborne's standing within the Nebraska program. The Huskers' dynasty of the mid-1990s is one of the all-time greats. Chase Goodbread of NFL.com named the '95 Nebraska team the best to ever play college football.
Osborne's legacy is synonymous with Cornhuskers football. More than that, though, Osborne is synonymous with the state of Nebraska. When combining his years as a head coach, assistant, athletic director and even a member of the United States Congress, Osborne served Nebraska for more than 40 years.
Steven Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star captured the relationship last April when he interviewed Jon Frankel, who is producing/directing an upcoming 30 for 30 documentary for ESPN about the two-point conversion:
Nebraskans like to see themselves in Osborne, the Hastings native. Of course, they supported the coach's call.
"Nebraska lost the game, but did it with honor," said Frankel, getting to the essence. "Ultimately, that means more than what the scoreboard says."
Osborne chuckled, slightly scoffing.
"The 'moral victory' term—I don’t know what that means," he said.
In Osborne's mind, you either won or lost. And he won a lot. The head coach of 25 years won three national titles—all after the '84 Orange Bowl—and 255 games. Like all coaches, Osborne prepared to win every single one. He wasn't always successful, but he was 83 percent of the time.
"The main thing that was important to me was that we played at the highest level, which to me meant we were capable of winning a national championship," Osborne said. "I guess I walked off the field that night feeling that we had played at a very high level."
"And we just didn’t get it done."
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.