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When the Big Ten Conference asked Tom Osborne to remember his last national championship season, I was fortunate enough to interview Nebraska’s Hall-of-Fame coach for his account that appeared in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game Program in Indianapolis. Osborne’s thoughts on that 1997 season were published jointly with Lloyd Carr’s remembrances of Michigan’s ‘97 season. The Wolverines shared the national championship that season with the Cornhuskers – Nebraska winning the final coaches’ poll and Michigan winning the final Associated Press media poll. Here are Osborne’s thoughts on the 15-year anniversary of that championship season:
Wistrom, Peter Bypassed NFL for another Title
“I remember certain details of my final season as a head football coach 15 years ago, but I’m not sure that I voted Nebraska No. 1 every week of the 1997 season. I will say, however, that our 13-0 team that beat a very talented Tennessee team 42-17 in the Orange Bowl was a solid national champion.
“We had great leadership on that team, and it started with Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter. They were probably more motivated to win that national championship than anyone else. Nine months before the ’97 season started, they came into my office to talk. Since both were projected to be first-round NFL draft picks, I thought they were going to tell me they had to do what was best for them and their families, but my instincts were wrong. They told me how good it felt to win national championships in ‘94 and ‘95 and how disappointed they were when we didn’t win another one in ’96. So they wanted to stay one more year, finish things up right and go out as champions.
“They were two driven players who took it upon themselves to create the vision for that ‘97 team after we had beaten Virginia Tech (41-21) a few weeks earlier in the Orange Bowl. Without their leadership and talent, I don’t believe that season would have unfolded like it did. Those two really set the tone with exceptional dedication and commitment.
“We won all 13 games that season by a 29-point average margin of victory. We had two close calls on the road at Colorado and Missouri, and we beat Texas A&M 54-15 in the Big 12 Championship. We had a cohesive offensive line with Scott Frost at quarterback, Joel Makovicka at fullback and Ahman Green at running back. Ahman rushed for 206 yards against Tennessee, and Scott scored three touchdowns, allowing us to take control early. We were up 42-9 on a Tennessee team that was blessed with a lot more talent than just Peyton Manning. They had 15 players that went on to play in the NFL, including four first-round draft choices, plus a second-round pick. We had great talent, too. Grant and Jason were first-round draft choices, and 10 of our players from that team were still playing in the NFL 10 years later.
Osborne Saw a Wide-Open Opportunity for Title
“The night before the final game of my career, I mentioned how I thought the door was still cracked for us to win a national championship. In my pregame speech I went beyond that. Maybe it was the sense of history, but I remember having the team’s complete attention as I went through all the mundane details. I decided to address the discouraging situation regarding the polls and told our team that I had thought a lot more about it and felt the door wasn’t just a little bit open. It was wide open, and I put my hands fairly far apart to show them how wide.
“We were playing the No. 3 team in the nation, and I felt if we played a great game, there was no way this team could be denied. I firmly believed we could come out on top in at least one of the national polls. Fortunately, the coaches looked a little more at the dynamics of the final game and the entire season. In their mind, many thought how they might play both champions, and who would be the most difficult. I know several told me that we would be the team they would least like to play if given that opportunity.
“Some believe the coaches’ vote might have been a sentimental one because I was retiring and the Orange Bowl completed a 60-3 record and 3-national championship run over a 5-year span for us. I would hope that was not the case as each team has to be evaluated on its own merits and sentiment should not determine anyone’s vote. I was, however, appreciative that my fellow coaches felt we deserved a No. 1 ranking at season’s end. I’m fairly certain that Nebraska and Michigan will still be debating this topic 25 years from now and beyond, and that’s probably not a bad thing because both schools can now say that100 percent of the 1997 national championship belongs to the Big Ten Conference.”
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