Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: The Pay-for-Play Debate and OU-NU in 1986

September 19, 2019

At 2:30 p.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1986 at Memorial Stadium, Oklahoma’s Todd Thomsen kicked off to the Nebraska end zone. There was no return.

The time, according to the official statistics, reflected a significant storyline related to the No. 5 Huskers’ Big Eight-championship showdown with No. 3 Oklahoma. 

A Nebraska win would mean a three-way tie for the title. Colorado, which had handed the Huskers their only loss, would join them and Oklahoma, all with 6-1 conference records. 

An Oklahoma victory would give the Sooners the title by themselves.

Before any of that, however, there was the matter of the kickoff for the nationally televised game, on ABC. Dick DeVenzio, “Coordinator of the Revenue Producing Major College Players Association,” had asked players from both teams to delay the kickoff for 30 minutes.

During the week leading up to the game, players on both teams reportedly were split 50-50 on whether to do what DeVenzio, a former Duke basketball player, had asked. 

Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said he empathized with the players. Nebraska’s Tom Osborne, who talked with DeVenzio, said, “I think Coach Switzer and I agree the players are the most forgotten element in the whole equation of college athletics.”

Neither coach endorsed delaying the kickoff, though.

Those in the sellout crowd of 76,198 weren’t surveyed on the matter. All but a few were there to cheer on the Huskers, who had dropped two to Oklahoma after beating the Sooners three consecutive seasons, with what would be known as the “Scoring Explosion” backfield.

Oklahoma had lost its third game of the season at Miami, 28-16—it was the second year in a row Vinnie Testaverde had led the Hurricanes past the Sooners, completing a combined 38-of-56 passes for 531 yards and six touchdowns. Oklahoma had come back to win the national championship in 1985, defeating No. 1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl; the Sooners were trying to repeat.

They certainly had the résumé, leading the nation in total offense, scoring, rushing, total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. They averaged 44.4 points. Even so, Husker defensive end Broderick Thomas, never one to hold back, said: “I believe we can shut out Oklahoma.”

That didn’t happen, but for three quarters and nearly 5 minutes of the fourth, the Sooners could manage only one touchdown, on a nine-play, 70-yard drive late in the first. Quarterback Jamelle Holieway finished the drive with a 4-yard run, and Tim Lashar kicked the extra point.

Nebraska scored first, on a 13-play, 85-yard drive, with I-back Keith Jones scoring from 2 yards out. Dale Klein kicked the extra point, then added a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter.

The Huskers increased the lead to 17-7 early in the second half, when Dana Brinson’s 48-yard punt return set up a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Taylor to Rod Smith.

Lashar kicked a 22-yard field goal 4:21 into the fourth quarter, but the Sooners struggled offensively after that. Holieway lost a fumble at the Nebraska 25-yard line with 7:53 remaining. Then on some attempted trickery, one of his rare passes was complete to wide receiver Derrick Shepard, who pitched to running back Anthony Stafford, who fumbled the ball away after a 17-yard gain.

Nebraska could manage only 7 yards on three downs, so John Kroeker punted, 34 yards, with the ball rolling dead at the Sooner 6-yard line. Just 4 minutes and 10 seconds remained.

Oklahoma would drive 94 yards on 11 plays to a game-tying touchdown, on a 17-yard, Holieway-to-Keith Jackson pass with 1:22 remaining. Holieway had completed two-of-seven passes before that drive, during which he was three-for-three, including the touchdown to his tight end.

The big play on the drive was a 35-yard pass to Shepard.

At tie at 17 seemed likely.

Nebraska again was forced to go three-and-out, with a 46-yard Kroeker punt and 5-yard return giving the Sooners’ first down at their own 35 with 50 seconds left.

Holieway threw an incomplete pass, and then another which was nullified by a holding penalty on the Sooners. Holieway scrambled for 8 yards, leaving Oklahoma third-and-12 at its 45.

The play was a pass, Holieway’s sixth of the quarter—and fifth completion.

Jackson got a step on Thomas, tipped the ball and caught it. The play gained 41 yards to the Nebraska 14-yard line. Nine seconds remained.

Lashar came on, kicked a 31-yard field goal: 20-17.

“We have the ‘Sooner magic,’” Jackson said.

Said Switzer: “It’s not this field. It’s not a jinx. It’s nothing but the two best teams in the conference every year, every year, every year.”

Because of that, DeVenzio had picked the game in hopes of making a statement about student-athletes and the revenue they generate. 

That was 1986. The issue remains.

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