Lawrence Phillips was the most talented running back to ever come to Nebraska. There, I said it. And yes, I remember Mike Rozier. But I also remember LP in his prime, before he scaled that apartment building to find his ex-girlfriend Kate McEwan in bed with future Husker star QB Scott Frost. You can look up all of the numbers and the stories about LP everywhere (and his wikipedia page is pretty detailed on his entire life), but ask somebody who saw Phillips play in person, and you'll hear stories that remind you of old men talking about seeing Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle hit a baseball. As big of a pain in the ass LP turned out to be, I can still see him running downfield like nobody else before he scaled that apartment wall in September of 1995.
LP never became anywhere near that superstar stratosphere, of course. But in addition to being the most controversial and notorious athlete to come out of the University of Nebraska, you have to mention that Nebraska probably doesn't win their first National Championship under Tom Osborne without Lawrence Phillips.
Following the 1993 season, Nebraska was ranked #2 (only because they were undefeated, trust me, nobody thought anything of them back then) and had a date with #1 with-a-bullet Florida State. FSU and Charlie Ward were so highly thought of that they were SEVENTEEN (17) point favorites over the Corn. #1 vs #2 and the spread is 17 freaking points. And oh by the way, Florida State had one loss! Hell, everybody wanted a rematch between the earlier classic game between FSU and Notre Dame, where the Irish upset Bobby Bowden's bid at a perfect season. What the rest of the nation hadn't figured out at the time is that Osborne had finally figured out that he needed to recruit speed. It was almost like he watched Rocky II one night and heard Mickey repeat, "SPEED, SPEED, get that chicken" in his head for the next 6 months. He had a sophomore quarterback in Tommie Frazier who didn't give a shit about anything but winning. He was finally going to bring in a team with athletes who now could actually hang with Florida State if not beat them. And if that meant there'd be a few thugs in the ointment, so be it. Hell, everyone around Nebraska was tired of winning the old Big 8 then going down to the Orange Bowl and getting their heads handed to them. That's why FSU with one loss was #1 and undefeated Nebraska was #2 and a 17 point DOG.
One of those new kids in town was a running back who former defensive coach George Darlington found in southern California. Most of TO's new recruits were speed demons on defense, but the kid fro SoCal, LP, had too many physical skills to ignore let alone pass up. Osbrone gave him jersey #1 and a scholarship to Nebraska.
And we knew very little about this player until that 1994 Orange Bowl game, where Charlie Ward was going to Heisman his way all over the Corn. Spike Lee was even there, thinking chronicling Ward's career might make for a film that never materialized. Another person who was in attendance, because he was busy doing sideline work for his network televising the game, was none other than one OJ Simpson, who only 6 months later would find himself staring down the barrel of some serious LP-esque jail time. The Corn took a 7-6 lead into halftime, and OJ caught up with Osborne for a quick interview. And I promise you, once I figure how to load VCR tapes to youtube, it'll be up there.
"Well OJ," the always restrained TO said. "We could sure use you out there." Osborne still knew where to find the thugs to fill his team!
But TO had something better on his sideline than an aging and soon to be slashing (allegedly) OJ. He had Lawrence Phillips, who none of us had really gotten to see before, set to debut before the entire college football world. Make no mistake this was Tommie Frazier's team, but enter LP into the 4th quarter, with the Corn down 15-7. Still a close game, and by all indications NU was going to beat that 17 point spread. TO and LP would make sure of it, as Phillips touched the ball 12 times in the 4th quarter alone, finally announcing his presence with authority with a powerful 12 yard touchdown run that was seemingly going to put Nebraska in position to finally win that elusive National Title that TO still didn't have on his resume. That 12 yard run might as well have been a 75 yard scamper. It certainly looked that way.
A failed two point conversion following that touchdown would come back to haunt the Corn, as they'd eventually lose to Florida State 18-16. Which was all well and good because everybody wanted Bobby Bowden to finally win his first National Championship for whatever reasons. It's still one of the greatest and important football games in Nebraska history (no matter how badly Billy C wants us to believe in that 2005 Alamo Bowl win over Michigan), as it announced that TO had stacked a new deck, and none of those Florida schools who loved to push Nebraska around should take the Corn lightly anymore. Not with Lawrence Phillips set to start his sophomore year at I-Back.
Nebraska started off the following year in stunning fashion, ready to run the table and play whoever stood in their way for TO's first National Championship. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Orange Bowl. Tommy Frazier suffered severe blood clots early in the season, and was out, and the very earliest he could come back MIGHT be the bowl game. Without having to worry about Frazier, defenses could key on LP. It didn't matter. Phillips rushed for 1,722 yards that season, and made sure the Corn would go undefeated before Frazier could come back under center. Frazier came back in time to play almost half of the Orange Bowl against a great Miami team, as he and LP and the rest of the new Huskers finally won that first National Championship, fittingly against the Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl 24-17.
Frazier and Phillips came into the 1995 season as legitimate Heisman favorites. There was talk that the two could finish 1-2 in the voting. The season would find LP putting a major smudge on TO's legendary resume, as that Nebraska team is still considered the greatest college football team of all-time, even without LP.
Everybody knows the story, but what a lot of people don't recall is that after only two games that season, LP was clearly the Heisman front runner. On September 9th, AT Michigan State, Phillips ran for 206 yards and four touchdowns in a romp of a win. But that clearly didn't leave LP satisfied. That very night, after he got back home to Lincoln, he got word of his old girlfriend's whereabouts. Scott Frost had just transferred from Bill Walsh and Stanford to Nebraska, and he'd get introduced to one of the most popular Huskers in the worst of ways. But Frost got off relatively unscathed compared to what LP did to Kate McEwan. The details have been discussed in full too many times (dragging her by the hair down three flights of stairs).
Lawrence Phillips should have been kicked off the football team immediately. But in one of two moves that would come back to haunt both coach and player, Osborne simply suspended Phillips for a handful of games. Some immediately looked at it as TO putting winning over everything else (forgetting the fact that true freshman Ahman Green would fill in right away and put up equal numbers to LP). Others jumped on him for babying his players, which he had done repeatedly in previous years. The truth of the situation is that Osborne did not want to simply throw Phillips back out on the streets after he and Darlington found him in Southern California with barely an upbringing. He felt responsible for bringing him to Nebraska, and thought that kicking him off the team would lead Phillips down another wrong rabbit hole.
What TO failed to realize -- or maybe he did, with his next decision -- was that there was no hope for Phillips. There was no excuse for what he did to McEwan. Her life was ruined by this man, and he was still going to get to play for the greatest football team of all-time. So Osborne did eventually bring LP back, to the point where he'd make him a key element in the romp over Florida for his second consecutive National Championship. Many people remember that Florida game for that incredible Tommie Frazier touchdown run. What people don't remember is LP running for 165 yards, scoring 3 touchdowns, and Osborne's worst mistake at the post-game press-conference.
"Lawrence is going to go pro," he said, almost relieved. "I want him to go pro. I've told him he should go pro. He'll go to the NFL."
If TO really gave that big of a shit about Phillips life after what he went through with all of the criticism following the suspension and bringing him back, he would have made him come back to Nebraska for his senior season. He would have made sure LP had one more year under Osborne's influence, and THEN be even more ready for the NFL. But obviously the strain of even having Phillips around had gotten to Osborne, and he eventually said good riddance, go get your money now son but I've done all I can with you. Good night, and good luck.
It turned out to be a horrible mistake, as we've all seen what's happened since. Dick Vermeil made him the 6th pick of the 1996 draft, falling for the same things we all saw in Lawrence Phillips. He'd eventually have to cut LP the following season (of course while supplying the requisite crocodile tears while calling Phillips potentially the best running back he had ever coached). The rest of LP's career and life is a big old rap sheet.
And now, LP is where OJ was that same great year of 1994. Staring down the barrel at 20 years in the can. I have no idea how or if TO would help Phillips out now. I'm sure he now feels like the rest of us do, that somebody who looked as good as LP came with some sort of price.