There is a crappy 1998 film called ‘Sliding Doors’ starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie details two paths a woman’s life could take depending on whether or not she catches a subway train shortly after being fired from her job. The gist of the movie is that one small decision could alter someone’s life so drastically (in the timeline where she catches the train, she sits next to her eventual husband and gets home in time to discover her boyfriend’s infidelity; in the timeline where she misses the train, she never finds out about her boyfriend’s infidelity and her life begins a downward spiral). This movie got me thinking about the decision Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne faced on that calm night in South Florida on January 1st, 1984. More specifically, how that decision affected the University of Miami football program for years to come.
Before we get to the decision at hand, we must first set the stage. The 1983 season saw the Hurricanes lose their opener to Florida, 28-3. The Canes then reeled off ten straight victories, including wins against Notre Dame and Florida State, earning a berth in the Orange Bowl game. Heading into the game, the Canes were ranked fifth in the AP poll and fourth in the UPI. Nebraska, on the other hand, was the unanimous #1 team in both polls, sporting a 12-0 record. Held at night, the Orange Bowl was the last of the major bowls to be played. #2 Texas had lost earlier in the day to Georgia. #3 Auburn, who had lost to Texas earlier in the year, won in unimpressive fashion in their bowl game – a 9-7 victory over Michigan. All told, the events of the afternoon essentially turned the Orange Bowl game into a national title game. Further, it solidified the fact that Nebraska would be named national champs should they win or tie (remember, there was no overtime in college football at the time).
After jumping to a 17-0 lead, Miami saw Nebraska claw its way back to make it 17-14 at halftime. Two long scoring drives by the Canes made it 31-14 and Nebraska RB Jeff Smith‘s 1 yard TD run in the 4th quarter made it 31-24. After a missed 42 yard field goal by Miami, Nebraska took over and began driving the ball down the field. Nebraska QB Turner Gill hit Irving Fryar for a long pass to get the Huskers inside the Miami 35 with under two minutes left in the game. With less than a minute to go, Nebraska was faced with a 4th and 8 from the Miami 24. Osborne called an option play, which Gill ran perfectly, holding onto the ball until the very last second when he pitched it to Smith who streaked down the sidelines to score a touchdown.
With the score now 31-30 in favor of Miami, all Nebraska has to do to become national champions is: a) successfully convert the PAT attempt, and b) prevent the Hurricanes from scoring in the remaining 48 seconds. With the success rate of two point conversions in the 40% range, kicking the extra point gave Nebraska the best chance – by far – to win the national championship. At 12-0-1, Nebraska would still be the only undefeated team in college football. Osborne’s decision would seem to be not much of a decision at all. If I am a Cornhusker fan, or coach for that matter, the ultimate goal each year is to win a national championship. If that means you suffer a loss or tie along the way, so be it.
Earlier in the week, a reporter had asked Coach Osborne if he would go for two if put in this exact situation. His response: “I hope it doesn’t come up. I’ll be crucified one way or another on that one.” The crucifixion would certainly be harsher with a failed two point conversion then it would be with a tie and a national title in your back pocket. Then again, I’m not sure Osborne would have been able to return to Nebraska had he elected to go for the PAT and it was missed. By electing to go for two, you opt to win the game outright and let the fate of the national title lie on that one play. The rationale behind this presumably speaks to playing to win the game on the field. One can argue that knowingly going for the tie is a ‘cop out’ of sorts.
So, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Coach Osborne is faced with a decision. As it has been etched in college football history, Osborne of course elects to go for two and eschews the virtual guaranteed championship. Turner Gill’s pass to Jeff Smith falls incomplete and Miami goes on to win its first national championship. Six years earlier, after Coach Lou Saban‘s departure, the board of trustees at the University of Miami were confounded with escalating fiscal problems on top of the coaching carousel (Saban was the fifth Miami head coach in the 1970s). They were contemplating a move down to the I-AA division or simply eliminating the football program altogether. Enter Howard Schnellenberger and his promise to bring a national title to Miami within five years. Osborne’s decision to go for two allows this to occur. If Osborne kicks the PAT, Miami is looking at a title-less season.
The win for Miami propelled the program into the national spotlight. It solidifies its stranglehold on the South Florida recruiting scene and takes over as dynasty for years to come, winning an unprecedented four titles in nine years. Does this happen if Osborne kicks the extra point? I don’t know. It’s certainly plausible to think that Miami would still win a few national titles, but to take over the college football world and become the most feared (and hated) program of the 80s and 90s? That’s doubtful.
I’ve seen Osborne’s decision to go for two called ‘gutsy’ and ‘admirable.’ Then again, I’ve also seen it called ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant.’ That debate will continue. What is not debatable, however, is the sheer dominance of the Hurricanes in the late 80s and early 90s. The path that led to this ascendance started that starry night in the 1984 Orange Bowl. The road would lead to four more national titles over the next 19 years. What path would the Miami program have taken had Osborne elected to kick the PAT? No one knows. It’s certainly plausible to think that the Miami teams over the next few years are just a shade less efficient. Even if just a fraction, think of the many significant games that came down to the final play for the Canes over the next few years. One thing is certain, though – there is a coach in Tallahassee who wishes Tom Osborne elected to kick the extra point that night and sent Miami on a different path.