Criminal element removes Nebraska's white-hat image

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When they played for the national championship a year ago in the Orange Bowl, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were a white-hatted team that couldn't win the big one.

This year, they're wearing the black hats in the Fiesta Bowl against Florida as they try to become the first team since Alabama in 1978-79 to win consecutive national titles.

"Interesting, huh?" Nebraska linebacker Jared Tomich said yesterday. "I'd say things are a little different this year."

A little? Don't stop there. In the past year, Nebraska has undergone a profound image makeover marked by almost cartoonishly positive and negative changes.

The positive came with last year's title-producing defeat of Miami in the Orange Bowl. Suddenly, after two-plus decades as a Top 10 team that always blew it in the end, the Huskers were the chalk in college football, renowned as the best around. They have played to their billing this year, beating every opponent by at least two touchdowns.

"Finally winning it all last year allowed us to take our game to a new level this year," cornerback Tyrone Williams said yesterday. "The pressure was off. The fans were happy. We could just play the games and not worry about the hype. I think the difference on the field has been noticeable."

Of course, there was a reason why the Huskers finally came through last year. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne had changed his philosophy several years earlier after watching his massive, methodical teams get outrun by a team from Florida every year in a bowl. He began to recruit speed instead of power. After a few years of transition, the Huskers finally were, uh, up to speed last season.

"I still hear people say we have a big, slow team, but that's just a leftover cliche," Tomich said. "It's not true. We put defensive backs at linebacker now. We're as fast as anyone. That's why we beat Miami last year."

Their Orange Bowl victory was a popular holiday tear-jerker, giving the stoic, gentlemanly Osborne his first national title after many near-misses while rewarding a program with a high graduation rate and a reputation for relative cleanliness.

What a difference a year makes.

"Now we know how Miami felt when they wore the black hats against us last year," Tomich said.

Why the black hats? Because of a series of crimes committed by Huskers players that have given the program the kind of publicity it never wanted.

The most publicized was tailback Lawrence Phillips' assault of his former girlfriend, but there were others. Riley Washington, a reserve wingback, was charged with second-degree murder in a case still pending. Tyrone Williams was charged with shooting a gun at a moving car two years ago. Defensive tackle Christian Peter had several altercations with women, as reported on an episode of "48 Hours" that used the Huskers' problems as a vehicle for debating sports and violence.

So much for the old image. Check out this nugget from Sports Illustrated's Fiesta Bowl preview: "[Playing for the national title] is as routine for this year's Cornhuskers as fingerprinting and mug shots."

And this from Jay Leno: "Well, it's been 24 hours since a Nebraska football player got arrested."

The players' opinion of the bad pub? Tomich just shrugged. "Things happen, people make mistakes," he said. "We just have to live with them as a team."

Of course, the Huskers are the only major college football team in their state and they have a loyal following without peer, so they hear mostly encouraging words.

"I don't think most people's attitudes in Nebraska have changed," Tomich said.

In many ways, that's only fair. The Huskers are a team of some eight dozen players in all, with many, many more success stories than criminals. There were eight first-teamers from Nebraska on the All-Big Eight team -- the All-Big Eight academic team. Quarterback Tommie Frazier is on schedule to graduate in four years.

And consider Tomich. His high school teachers in Indiana thought he was just stupid and lazy. Only when he got to Nebraska did educators discover that he had an attention disorder.

"The athletic department took the time to work with me and help me," Tomich said.

No, it isn't fair to cast all of the Huskers in a poor light because of the actions of a few. But those actions are indeed bad even by college football's low standards.

And Osborne kept the issue burning with his terrible decision to reinstate Phillips late in the season, a decision Osborne defends on the grounds that taking football away from Phillips might damage his psyche. No word on the damage to Phillips' former girlfriend's psyche.

In any case, the Huskers are back in the national title game again, for better or for worse, regardless of the color of their hats. More fans will root against them, but they're still favored by four points to win their 25th straight game and their second straight title.

"I try to concentrate on that more than the other stuff," Tomich said. "The other stuff, I try not to think about too much."

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