Sports Medley: The Coach and his brutal star player
by Tony Medley
“EX-NFLER ACCUSED OF KILLING CELLMATE:
Lawrence Phillips, 39, the former star running back at the University of
Nebraska, is suspected of murdering his cellmate over the weekend.
Phillips, who also played for the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins,
became more notorious for his off-field run-ins with the law. He is
believed to have killed his cellmate, Damion Soward, at California’s
Kern Valley State Prison. Soward was serving a sentence of 82 years to
life for murder. Phillips was serving 31 years and four months for
inflicting great bodily injury involving domestic violence, spousal
abuse, false imprisonment, and vehicle theft.” LBNElert, April 14,
There’s more to this story than that. Phillips had a checkered career
with lots of problems at Nebraska, where he played under Coach Tom
Osborne from 1993 to 1995. In his junior year, 1995, he was arrested for
assaulting a former girlfriend. Osborne suspended him but almost
instantly reinstated him, as he was a Heisman Trophy candidate and just
about Nebraska’s entire offense. But Osborne’s actions ignited a lot of
controversy. Osborne was accused of pampering Phillips because he was so
important to winning. During a press conference, Osborne was asked, “If
one of your players had roughed up a member of your family and had
dragged her down a flight of steps, would you have reinstated that
player to the team?” and Osborne virtually admitted guilt by storming
out of the room without answering.
Osborne’s position was that punishing Phillips would be more harmful
than not penalizing him, claiming that the “best way to help Phillips was
within the structured environment of the football program.” Phillips
continued playing well and in the Fiesta Bowl, No. 1 Nebraska played No.
2 Florida. Phillips gained 165 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns
leading Nebraska to victory and the National Championship. So for
Osborne the end justified the means.
How about Osborne’s claim that what he was doing was in Phillips’ best
interests? With Osborne’s support, Phillips declared for the NFL draft a
year early, ridding Osborne of the problem of dealing further with him.
Smarter teams passed on Phillips but the St. Louis Rams drafted him
sixth. In less than two years with the Rams he spent 23 days in jail.
After the Rams released him he signed with the Miami Dolphins, who
released him after only two games when he pleaded no contest to
assaulting a woman in a night club.
After playing in Europe he came back to be signed by the San Francisco
49ers. But his play was lazy, refusing to practice or play hard. In one
game he failed to pick up a blitz resulting in Hall of Fame quarterback
Steve Young being hit so hard by the blitzer he was knocked unconscious
and suffered a career-ending concussion.
After the 49ers waived him, wherever Phillips went after that he
continued to have problems. Finally, in August 2005 he was arrested for
assault, accused of driving his car into three teenagers after a dispute
during a pickup football game in Los Angeles. He was found guilty of
assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 10 years. Then in 2009 he
was convicted of assault on his former girlfriend and sentenced to 25
additional years in prison. All that was before his cellmate was found
strangled to death.
And Osborne? He continued to coach for a few more years, then ran for
Congress in 2001 and served three terms in the House of Representatives,
then returned to Nebraska as Athletic Director. Had he done the right
thing and punished Phillips for his actions (probably waving goodbye to
a national championship), maybe he could have taught Phillips a lesson
and helped him turn his life around. Instead of using tough love to help
Phillips, Osborne coddled him, buttressing his team’s prospects, and
basked in the glow of winning the national championship, while Phillips
continued down the pampered road to ruin. Maybe Phillips was such a bad
egg that nothing could have saved him, but nobody will ever know what
would have happened to him had Osborne suspended him for the rest of the
season, which would have shown Phillips that there are consequences to a
person’s actions, even if that person is a star.
A Headline that says it all:
“Westbrook locks up scoring title but Thunder eliminated from playoff
race.” ESPN crawl.