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Memories of Signing Days Past

February 01, 2017

Tom Osborne didn’t attend Nebraska’s letter-of-intent-signing-day news conference in mid-February of 1987. Recruiting coordinator Dave Gillespie met with reporters instead.

That was a curious situation. Two years earlier, Osborne had discussed those who had signed letters with the Huskers despite having undergone heart by-pass surgery barely two weeks before.

Gillespie wouldn’t say where Osborne was, though reporters speculated, accurately, that he was in Louisiana, home of Parade magazine and USA Today All-America quarterback Mickey Joseph, who lived in Marrero and played at Archbishop Shaw High School in New Orleans.

Marrero was just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

NCAA rules prohibited coaches from being present when athletes signed letters of intent in 1987. But Joseph hadn’t signed. And according to newspaper accounts, his mom had asked Osborne to come to New Orleans. Osborne had been on the road recruiting and was headed back to Lincoln.

Joseph had narrowed his choices to Nebraska and Oklahoma, which considered him a good fit for its Wishbone offense. Plus, the Sooners had lost another quarterback in Texas, Port Arthur’s Travis Ford, who had committed but changed his mind and signed with Oklahoma State. Ouch.

Osborne met with Joseph and his family Wednesday night. Joseph told Osborne he would sign with Nebraska in the morning, after telling the Oklahoma coaches later that night. The next morning Osborne and Jack Pierce, the Huskers’ “off-campus recruiter,” waited across the street from the high school while Joseph signed a letter then met with reporters in a news conference with his family.

The Omaha World-Herald reported that Osborne had told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Joseph had received as much attention “as any player we’ve ever recruited.” That was a reflection not only of his success but also because his decision came down to Nebraska and Oklahoma, though some suggested the Sooners were recruiting Joseph just so the Huskers wouldn’t get him – at least until Ford bailed. That’s how intense the competition between Nebraska and Oklahoma could be.

Joseph’s recruitment was reminiscent of 1980, when the Huskers and Sooners went head-to-head recruiting Turner Gill, a quarterback at Arlington Heights High in Ft. Worth, Texas. Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer reportedly tried to convince Gill that Nebraska wouldn’t play a black quarterback.

Joseph was “the most sought-after option quarterback in the nation,” according to Nebraska media guides while he played. He was “maybe” the fastest quarterback the Huskers had ever recruited, running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, his freshman capsule in the 1987 guide said.

Nebraska was also a finalist for the nation’s most sought-after running back in 1987, Emmitt Smith from Escambia High in Pensacola, Florida. Smith was a Parade magazine and USA Today prep All-American, as well as USA Today’s national offensive player of the year.

His final three schools were Nebraska, Auburn and Florida. On signing-day Wednesday, in the afternoon, Smith arrived for a news conference at his high school wearing Husker red. But he was just kidding. He and his family had made the decision on Tuesday night – Florida.

When Osborne went to New Orleans at the suggestion of Joseph’s mom, he didn’t know whether Joseph would pick the Huskers. So he wasn’t blindsided as he had been six years earlier.

Osborne wasn’t at a news conference on the Wednesday in mid-February of 1981 when letters of intent could first be signed because Nebraska didn’t hold one. It was postponed until Thursday. The coach had gone to Kansas City, Missouri, on Wednesday at the request of June James, a top-rated linebacker at Kansas City’s Southeast High School who had signed a Big Eight letter of intent with the Huskers the week before. James had narrowed his choices to Nebraska and Texas.

That was the final year for conference letters of intent, which were only binding within a conference.

James signed the Big Eight letter, he told the World-Herald later, to alleviate the hassle of recruiting. The hassle wasn’t just a result of calls from coaches. Reporters were part of it, too.

In any case, Osborne went to Kansas City, as did Texas Coach Fred Akers, and, according to the Associated Press, watched at James’ home as James signed with Akers. The AP quoted James as indicating his choice had been Texas all along. He told the World-Herald his comments were taken out of context. The World-Herald headline said: “Recruit Rebuff Sours Osborne as 25 Signed.”

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