To open with a cliché: You can’t keep a good man down.
Tom Osborne underwent double-bypass heart surgery the week before letter-of-intent signing day in 1985. But, accompanied by wife Nancy, he attended a news conference in the South Stadium lounge to announce Nebraska’s scholarship recruiting class.
Even though he was in the hospital at a crucial time in recruiting, and even though opposing coaches tried to use the surgery to persuade prospective recruits that Osborne wouldn’t continue coaching very long, the Cornhusker class was highly regarded nationally.
It included 24, among them seven from Nebraska, five from California and four from Texas. Most prominent were linebacker LeRoy Etienne from New Iberia, Louisiana; quarterback Steve Taylor from Fresno, California, by way of San Diego Lincoln High School—he lived with his coach his junior and senior years at in high school; and defensive end Broderick Thomas from Houston.
Etienne was a Parade magazine All-American, as prestigious an honor as a high school player could receive at the time. Taylor broke Marcus Allen’s total offense record at Lincoln High, as well as passing records held by Allen’s brother Damon. And Thomas, who was listed as a defensive end, was the Houston Post Defensive Player of the Year.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Thomas was adamant he was in no way a defensive lineman but rather a “linebacker.” He was so adamant that by his senior season, Nebraska, which ran a 3-4 base defense, had changed the designation of his position from “defensive end” to “outside linebacker.”
He also brought with him from Houston’s Madison High the nickname “Sandman” because he put ball carriers to sleep, he said, noting he was “the master of disaster.” His decision came down to Nebraska and Oklahoma. He picked the Huskers because of an Osborne visit to his home in Houston, as well as concern Sooner Coach Barry Switzer might play him in the offensive line.
Taylor, whose arrival was one year removed from Turner Gill’s final season, represented another step in the transition to an option-oriented offense, directed by a quarterback who could run. “We weren’t willing to line up with a 4.9 (seconds in the 40) quarterback anymore,” Osborne said looking back.
Because of his speed, several schools recruited Taylor as an athlete. But he was determined to play quarterback. Plus, he became a Gill fan after watching the 1984 Orange Bowl on TV.
“Nebraska was one of the pioneers in playing mobile quarterbacks . . . black quarterbacks,” Taylor would say looking back. Plus, not only could Gill run, he “got to throw the football.”
And that’s what attracted Taylor, who picked Nebraska even after then-recruiting coordinator Steve Pederson accidentally dumped spaghetti on him during a recruiting visit.
His second choice was Washington because Warren Moon played there.
Etienne’s final three included Texas A&M and LSU besides Nebraska.
Running back Ken Clark, Nebraska’s first scholarship recruit from Omaha Bryan High, was the sleeper of the 1985 class. He had missed half of his senior season because of injury. Even so, he had drawn interest from Kansas State and Iowa State, as well as Iowa.
All of the freshmen began fall camp on the freshman team, but Thomas moved up to the varsity before the freshman-junior varsity’s first game against the Iowa State jayvees.
Iowa State was the only Big Eight school that would schedule Nebraska’s freshman-junior varsity that season. The other four games were against junior colleges; Nebraska would win all five, the closest against Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College, 30-7.
Taylor started four of the five before joining the varsity full-time. Sophomore McCathorn Clayton was the starter, with senior Travis Turner and sophomore Clete Blakeman as back-ups.
Etienne played in three freshman-jayvee games before joining the varsity. Clark backed up Tyreese Knox, who had redshirted as a freshman the previous year, on the freshman-jayvee team.
Thomas, Taylor and Etienne would earn varsity letters as true freshmen while the remainder of the class would redshirt after playing on the freshman-jayvee team.
Eleven others in the class would earn letters, including 10 who lettered three times.
During the letter-of-intent news conference Osborne said he probably wouldn’t “go quite as hard” as he had prior to the surgery. That proved not to be true.
Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.