Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: NCAA Hits NU with Suspensions, Osborne Considers Forfeit

August 29, 2019

Nebraska’s pass-list drama in the late summer of 1986 began with an NCAA investigation into the leasing of a Nissan 300ZX by I-back Doug DuBose and spilled over into other areas.

Husker coach Tom Osborne said the NCAA was really after DuBose “all the time.”

But the fallout included the discontinuation of Nebraska’s Lincoln parents program, announced by Athletic Director Bob Devaney in late July, and an expanded investigation into how Husker football players were providing their game passes to those other than relatives.

The NCAA’s initial concern was that DuBose had been selling access to his passes. That proved not to be the case. In fact, according to Osborne, DuBose hadn’t even used his passes a quarter of the time.

First, however, the Lincoln parents program, which had matched up student-athletes—not just football players—from outside of Lincoln with families in Lincoln, providing them an opportunity for down-time away from the dorms. The NCAA had changed its rules regarding such programs, prohibiting the sharing of meals with and the providing of rides for student-athletes. The Lincoln families also couldn’t allow student-athletes to stay overnight in their homes.

As an example, Mike Hoefler, a senior offensive guard from Norfolk, Nebraska, had stayed with a family for two weeks during the summer of 1983, using its van to drive to and from a summer job. His mom had paid the family for his stay, and he had filled the van with gasoline, twice, as well as washing it. That wasn’t sufficient, according to the NCAA, so he was suspended for one game.

By mid-August of 1986, the DuBose auto-lease investigation was suspended indefinitely. He had suffered a season-ending knee injury, so the matter of his playing that season was moot. Not so for the pass-list investigation, however, which resulted in a penalty requiring the suspension of 60 players.

According to the NCAA those players had identified names on their pass list as relatives when in fact they were not. The investigation included 77 players; 17 were cleared by the NCAA.

A television commentator compared the pass-list investigation to hunting mosquitos with tanks.

The other 60 were subject to suspension, 53 for one game, seven for two. The seven had violated what the NCAA considered its pass-list rule in more than 10 instances.

UNL Chancellor Martin Massengale called the suspensions “unreasonable.” Osborne said the pass-list violations were a matter of ethics rather than a violation of NCAA rules because no money was involved. Plus, according to him, the NCAA had taken a guilty-until-proven innocent approach.

He was told, “something about, ‘Well, there are a lot of people who say you’re not all you say you are, that you claim one thing and act another,’” Osborne said.

There was an attitude that Nebraska was finally getting what it deserved. Boston Globe sports columnist Will McDonough compared it to a scandal at Texas Christian in which players had been paid, including Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Davis, who was suspended for a season.

Again, no money was involved. Players had simply allowed friends rather than relatives to use the passes.

In any case, the suspensions could be served in one game, with the seven held out another. Or they could be served by 10 players at a time, with those each game selected alphabetically.

Osborne was unwilling to spread out the suspensions, leaving the opener against Florida State at Memorial Stadium. The Seminoles, who opened the previous week with a 24-0 victory against Toledo, were ranked 11th nationally; Nebraska, coming off a 9-3 season, was No. 8.

And if the 60 suspensions were to be served that game, the Huskers would have to forfeit. The first night game in Memorial Stadium history was to be televised nationally by ABC. But without the 60 players, it would be “a joke to put on television,” Osborne said.

Three-quarters of the team’s top-40 players were among those to be suspended, he said. Nebraska would have no quarterbacks or running backs and would have to use freshmen—the Huskers still fielded a freshman-junior varsity team—as well as those slated to redshirt. 

As late as the Thursday morning before the game, it appeared Nebraska, which had filed an appeal seeking reinstatement, would forfeit. An Associated Press writer offered these predictions: 

  • if the appeal led to a stay of the suspensions, Nebraska would win 31-21;
  • if 10 Huskers were suspended, Nebraska would win 24-21;
  • if all 60 Huskers were suspended, Florida State would win 63-0.

ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook initially thought the pass-list problem involved paying to be on the list. When he found out otherwise, he said the fact it didn’t involve money needed to be emphasized. That hadn’t been the case, however.

[To be continued]

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.

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