It was wild. Summer died and the heat broke here this week. A mighty norther blew ice cubes across Nebraska and Big Red people everywhere pulled raggedy old sheets out of their cedar chests to protect Lincoln's tender vegetation.
Gene at the Phillips 66 station took down his sign that said the Cornhuskers would romp over the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 58-0. But after Nebraska won, 84-13, Gene went back to pumping gas and told folks he was close, durnit; the boys played some good ball up there.
"It was fun scoring all those points," Turner Gill, the quarterback, said this week. "I enjoyed it. You never really think you can beat somebody like that." Then, while Bruce, another gas pumper, took down Gene's sign and put up his own, predicting the Big Red would roll past UCLA, 33-17, the Dale Carnegie meeting kicked off in the high-rise hotel next door and everybody rejoiced. Night was falling as Nebraska neared another Saturday.
Then a light went on at Memorial Stadium, the dinosaur right off Cornhusker Highway, and Gene and Bruce could see it plainly. It comes on every night, that big red "N", part neon and part flourescent bulb, burning up the heavens. But what they couldn't see were these words, carved into the gray stone facade of the stadium built in 1923: NOT THE VICTORY BUT THE ACTION; NOT THE GOAL BUT THE GAME; IN THE DEED THE GLORY.
It took somebody a long time to think that up, but defensive tackle Mike Keeler told a stranger this right off the top of his head: "There's a certain pride about this place. Every time we step out on the field, we're adding to tradition. The stands explode and the sky turns red. It's chilling and magical. There's meaning here."
Adjacent to the lobby of the stadium's athletic business offices, where a replica of Johnny Rodgers' 1972 Heisman Trophy is one glass case over from the the Lombardi Awards won by Rich Glover ('72) and Dave Rimington ('82), there is a lounge with original paintings by Leroy Nieman, a fireplace with fake logs and several dozen portraits of Nebraska's all-Americas dating back to Vic Halligan in 1914. The latest is of Mike Rozier, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior I-back from Camden, N.J., who was the Big Eight player of the year in 1982 and is the leading returning vote-getter for the Heisman Trophy.
Last week against Minnesota, Rozier gained 196 yards on 15 carries and raised his career rushing total to 3,090, the most ever by a Nebraska player. This season, Rozier ranks third in NCAA rushing with an average of 152.7 yards per game but has yet to carry the ball 20 times in a game. Consider that Herschel Walker averaged 30 carries last year when he won the Heisman. In 1981, USC's Marcus Allen had 433 carries in 12 games for an average of 36. Carrying the ball so often helped Allen carry the offense, and he won the Heisman.
"You carry the ball more, you got bigger chances of getting hurt," Rozier explains. "I'm carrying only 16 and 17 times a game and still getting 180 and 190 yards. I figure the more yards I get on the less carries, that ought to show people what kind of better ball player I am."
Tommy McDonald, a 1956 all-America halfback under Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, was commissioned by the university to paint the pictures of Nebraska's all-Americas. But Rozier, who watched "The Wild, Wild West" on TV last Saturday rather than Marcus Dupree and the Sooners as they lost to Ohio State, does not know this.
Rozier does not like Oklahoma, has never pretended to and probably would not like the idea of a former Sooner committing his likeness to canvas.
On another wall, the framed photograph of Coach Tom Osborne gives one the impression of civility; he looks like a bank president, wearing a dark suit and club tie, his hair parted inches above the right ear. "But he's the perfect coach," Gill said. "We know Nebraska's gonna win because we know Coach Osborne's gonna win. That's the tradition here."
But although the tradition boasts nine top 10 finishes and as many bowl appearances, Osborne has not won a national championship since being named head coach in 1973 after Bob Devaney stepped down to become athletic director. In the 1981 Orange Bowl, Nebraska lost to Clemson, 22-15, eight points short of claiming the title from a team that went virtually unscathed all year. Last season against Penn State, a controversial touchdown with four seconds left to play cost Osborne and the Cornhuskers the national championship, even though they did beat LSU in the Orange Bowl.
"We didn't go into this season with the national championship as our definitive goal," said Osborne, who goes for his 100th career victory against UCLA Saturday. "We wanted to be the best team we could be and win all our games. The emphasis was on improvement, playing the best you can play, and the rest would fall into place.
"It's really hard to tell how good we are because we haven't been tested yet, and that worries me," Osborne said. "This could be the best team ever at Nebraska but it's still early to tell. We could lose three games in a row. Who knows? We really haven't played anybody yet."
Nebraska has outscored its first three opponents, 184-93, and leads the nation in scoring with an average of 61.3 points per game. The NCAA record is 56, set by Army over nine games in 1944. The first-team offense has yet to play a complete game, largely because Osborne has pulled his top three skill players--Gill, Rozier and wingback Irving Fryar--early in the third quarter rather than further embarrass an opponent.
All three are legitimate Heisman contenders but choose not to contemplate their own bright futures. Instead, as Rozier says, "winning the national championship has become our Heisman. Some days when we're joking around in the locker room and the subject (of winning the Heisman) comes up, I tell Irving, 'Okay, Fryar, you take the head,' and 'Turner, you take the legs, cause I want the arms.' We really don't think about it unless somebody brings it up. We're too busy thinking about winning the national championship than to worry about all that."
Against Minnesota, Fryar produced 253 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns with an offense that gained 790 yards in total offense. Fryar caught 70- and 68-yard touchdown passes and rushed for 92 yards on three carries. "I call him another Johnny Rodgers," Rozier said.
"Please," protested Fryar, who wants to be an air traffic controller. "I don't like nicknames. Not the Scoring Explosion. Not the Cornhusker Constellation. No nicknames. None of that. I prefer Irving Fryar, okay?"
The two touchdown passes to Fryar were the longest of Gill's career. By dint of his athletic skills alone, Gill may be the best all-around quarterback to ever play for the Cornhuskers, better even than Jerry Tagge (1971) and Vince Ferragamo (1976).
"What I like about football is that it's all about teamwork," Gill said. "If you want to be an individual guy, then go to another sport. We have a lot of great players here and we all know we'll get our share of the thunder. The pub (publicity) doesn't matter so much. We have the talent and we win. And all that matters to us is winning, anyway. That's what Nebraska football's all about."