Is a former University of Texas president to blame for Nebraska football’s struggles since the late 1990s?
In a new book — titled “The Transformative Years at Kansas State: The Years of President Jon Wefald from 1986 to 2009” — Wefald alleges that a controversial decision to prevent “non-qualifiers” from being admitted to Big 12 schools was implemented by former Texas president Robert Berdahl strictly to bring down Nebraska.
“It was aimed directly at Cornhusker football,” reads an excerpt from the book obtained by the Kansas City Star. “By the late 1990s, this new Big 12 rule has seriously damaged the quality of Nebraska football. In fact, you could say it brought the era of Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne to a close.”
The rule in question had to do with Proposition 48, an NCAA rule put in place in 1986 that set minimum standards on incoming athletes for college entrance exam scores and grade point averages on high school core courses. A “non-qualifier” was a student that met neither the exam nor GPA standard. A “partial qualifier” met one but not both.
This became a hot-button issue when the Big Eight and Southwest Conferences merged in the mid-1990s.
The Big Eight had no league-wide policy on admission of non-qualifiers or partial qualifiers. The schools made their own decisions. Nebraska’s policy was to accept non-qualifiers and allow them to meet NCAA academic standards while sitting out of competition during their freshman year.
In a World-Herald story published in July 1995, Tom Osborne laid out his position on the subject:
“It's not smart to tell a young man that you can't even come and pay your own way and prove you can make the grade. If he can pass 24 hours in college with a 2.0 grade average, it seems he ought to be given a chance to play. That's quite a sacrifice."
The schools joining from the SWC (Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech) viewed it differently as they had not been accepting athletes who failed to meet Prop 48 standards. According to another July 1995 World-Herald article, it was Berdahl who was “appointed to draft proposals for the Big 12 to vote on concerning those athletes' acceptance.”
Berdahl then became public enemy No. 1 in Nebraska for his opposing stance. This battle eventually became so heated, that in December 1995, Berdahl told the Dallas Morning News that Texas would reconsider joining the Big 12 if non-qualifiers were allowed to be admitted to conference schools.
"I am hoping it can be worked out. It is in the interest of the conference to do so. If the conference approves a policy that creates such an uneven playing field, it would be very difficult for us. We would have to review our options at that point."
Osborne’s response to The World-Herald at the time: "I have nothing against Texas. They have to do what they have to. But so do we."
As the vote neared and intensity swelled, questions started to surround Berdahl’s motivation. Nebraska was in the midst of an era of domination in the Big Eight. The Huskers won four straight conference titles from 1991-94 and were on the cusp of winning a second consecutive national championship when this issue was being debated after the 1995 regular season.
World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel wrote this in December 1995: “There is a school of thought that their aim is to knock the Nebraska football machine down to everyone else's level. There may be some truth to that. But closer to reality is that this is not about academics and whether the Big 12's reputation wears ivy or mud. This is all about power.”
The vote came shortly before Christmas that year. Berdahl’s proposal passed 11-1 with Nebraska the lone opponent. That means even their seven cohorts from the Big Eight sided with Texas and the other SWC schools.
The new rule would deny initial athletic eligibility to all academic non-qualifiers and allow each school to accept just four partial qualifiers a year — one for football, one for another men's sport, one for women's basketball and one for another women's sport.
The lopsided vote didn’t come as a surprise. Then-interim UNL chancellor Joan Leitzel told The World-Herald at the time, “This direction has been building over many weeks.” That didn’t dampen the frustration from those at Nebraska that Texas had come out victorious in this grab for power.
A couple weeks later, Nebraska did get consecutive title No. 2, dominating Florida for a 62-24 victory in the Fiesta Bowl. But even in the shine of a championship, there was focus on that vote.
Athletic director Bill Byrne intimated to The World-Herald that the vote was more about bringing down Nebraska than it was about academics.
"I don't want to be paranoid. But I have had comments made to me by some of the other conference athletic directors along the lines of, 'It would be nice if you could lose a few games now and then.' It's hard not to be paranoid when people are shooting at you."
The latest revelations from Wefald, the former K-State president, would seem to confirm Byrne's feelings from two decades ago.