It’s late Saturday morning. Omaha Skutt High School football coach Matt Turman sits in the coaches’ office, preparing to meet with his team in a couple of hours. Practice begins Monday.
Meanwhile, Turman is answering questions from a writer who wants to talk about the 1994 Nebraska football season.
I can’t help it.
It’s one of my favorite football seasons to talk about, write about and reminisce about to anyone who wants to listen or read. You could do anniversary columns every year. You wouldn’t do the 10-year anniversary of the 2004 NU season.
But 20 years ago this autumn, the greatest football season in Husker history took place.
That’s my opinion. I watched it. I chronicled it.
Turman lived it, experienced it. He went in a walk-on, third-team quarterback and came out the other side with a championship ring and a legend.
So much happened that year. So much to write about. If you took just one of the stories of 1994, it would be one of the all-time Husker tales. There were several of those.
Memories of that year are still fresh.
I’ll never forget walking into Memorial Stadium in early August, for the start of practice, and seeing the score “18-16” on the scoreboard. A reminder of the 1994 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.
If you didn’t see that, you just looked at the theme on the media guide: “Unfinished Business.”
It started with expectations. Hype. That trip to Giants Stadium for the Kickoff Classic. NU walloped West Virginia 31-0. The New York papers proclaimed Tommie Frazier the runaway Heisman Trophy winner. In August.
Suddenly, it was late September, and Frazier had gone away. Blood clots. What a stunning story to write, as we learned to spell Dr. Deepak Gangahar’s name.
And we learned all about a quiet, tall quarterback from Kansas named Brook Berringer.
Soon, Frazier’s backup was sidelined with a collapsed lung. And we found out about this Turman kid from Wahoo.
The walk-on started at Kansas State. He handed off a lot to Lawrence Phillips behind a dominating offensive line. He kept the 13-0 train on the tracks. Just an amazing day, punctuated by linebacker Ed Stewart’s famous line: “Nebraska is still Nebraska, Kansas State is still Kansas State.”
Colorado coach Bill McCartney brought his No. 2 Buffs to Lincoln. Mac pointed out how much pressure Berringer would be under. Mind games didn’t work. Berringer had one of the greatest games ever by an NU quarterback in a 24-7 win, one of the most important wins of the decade.
The Huskers beat an average Oklahoma team 13-3 in the finale. A Chicago Tribune writer turned to me as the game ended and said, “Miami is going to kill these guys.”
Orange Bowl. Miami again. Two quarterbacks, rotating by the quarter. Looked like another disappointment. Then came the fourth quarter.
And I’m sitting in that old press box, trying to write the story of Tom Osborne’s first national championship. You think about what you would write in that situation. All those years, waiting for the big one. Suddenly, in a flash of Cory Schlesinger, the moment was here. In that haunted Orange Bowl end zone.
That morning-after press conference. Tom and Nancy Osborne, smiling. How’s it feel, Coach? Don’t really feel any different.
In the following year, the behind-the-scenes stories and videos and speeches would come out. The Big Ten Network recently aired a show on that season. It’s recommended viewing for any coach and any team.
That’s because of the lessons. And this is why I call this the greatest Nebraska football season.
Were there better teams? Probably. Better victories? Maybe. But take everything that team had to overcome, where it had to win, who it had to beat, who it played without. Show me a better accomplishment than that 1994 season.
Patience. Perseverance. Faith. Leadership. Discipline. Toughness. Brilliant coaching. And NU’s greatest coach’s first national title. That season was a collage of all the things that Nebraska fans want their program to be about. Coach Osborne’s Opus.
These are timeless lessons that can be told — should be told — for as long as Memorial Stadium is open for business.
Just ask the Turman kid, who brings up those lessons, and stories, often for his two-time state champion program.
“It’s hard to believe that’s 20 years ago,” Turman said. “Some of these kids I’m coaching now, they weren’t even born yet.
“But their dads, who are big Husker fans, tell them stories of the glory days. They hear about it. Some of them do go back and research what happened.”
They did a year ago, when Turman showed up for the start of the 2013 season with the slogan “Unfinished Business.” The SkyHawks had narrowly lost in the playoffs the year before to the eventual state champion.
And then went out and won the title in November. How about that? The slogan still works.
When things get tough, Turman will tell his players about how the seniors and All-Americans stepped up and carried a walk-on quarterback through the assignment of his life. When there’s adversity, Turman says, you need your leaders to have strong backs.
And that Kansas State game. Once in awhile, Turman will roll out a line that his quarterback coach, Turner Gill, once told him.
“Before we went out (at Kansas State), Coach Gill put his arm around me,” Turman said. “He knew I was nervous. All he said was, ‘Just get the snap.’
“That was his advice. Just get the snap. He said, ‘You’ve been playing quarterback since you were 6. You know what to do. Get the snap and it will just be natural, what you’ve been taught.’
“I still use this piece of advice to my quarterbacks, in a big game, or to a kid who hasn’t played a varsity game.”
Finally, not long ago, Coach Turman discovered one of Coach Osborne’s secrets.
“His halftime speech at the Orange Bowl,” Turman said. “I remember so clearly, there was no panic in his voice. He was so sure we were going to get it done. He predicted exactly the outcome of what was going to happen.
“And later I was like, ‘How did he know the fullback play was going to bust open, that their D-line was going to tire so much they couldn’t even get off the field?’
“Sometimes now as a high school coach, you just get that inkling. You tell them at halftime, this play is going to work. Sometimes I find myself in that situation, and the kids look at you and say, ‘How did he know that play was going to work?’
“It’s kind of like déjà vu.”
The 1994 team will be honored at the Sept. 20 game against Miami. How fitting. There will be a dinner the night before. Oh, the stories. Turman can’t make it. He’s gotta coach.
This was a year that should be honored all season. As long as there are football seasons.
“We’re getting to the point I’m becoming old news, I guess,” Turman joked. “But I think in this state, those mid-’90s teams will always be a pinnacle. The kids I teach are Husker fans and they know about those teams. They ask me stories about what it was like when I played.
“Sometimes I feel like the old man recounting the past.”
Nah. This is a story that never gets old.
Contact the writer:
* * *
Video: Bo Pelini after practice Aug. 9
Video: Tom Shatel on "The Bottom Line"