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Lawrence Phillips continues to cast shadow over Nebraska, Tom Osborne

This fall marks the 20-year anniversary of Tom Osborne's greatest Nebraska team.

The school, as it did last year for the 1994 national championship, ought to commemorate the title with festivities centered around a home game. The Nov. 7 visit from Michigan State would work well; the 1995 Huskers team hammered Nick Saban's Spartans 50-10 early in the season.

That Nebraska team deserves recognition. It belongs in the discussion with the most dominant all time in the college game.

But the story of 1995 Nebraska cannot be told without Lawrence Phillips. The troubled former running back will always cast a dark shadow over that season.

A sad reminder arrived Monday as prison officials in California said they suspect Phillips, serving a 31-year sentence, of killing his cellmate.

And so media and others again drew a connection to Osborne, who reinstated Phillips late in 1995 after a six-game suspension for assaulting his former girlfriend.

Osborne, now 78, won 255 games in 25 years of coaching at Nebraska before he served three terms in Congress and five years as the athletic director in Lincoln. He sat last fall on the inaugural College Football Playoff committee and plans to return in 2015.

He remains one of the most respected figures in the history of the sport for his class, leadership and poise. Osborne earned accolades many times over for the example he set on the field. Away from football, the mentoring program that Osborne and his wife, Nancy, founded in 1991 continues to enhance the lives of thousands of youths every year in Nebraska.

Yet Osborne is inextricably linked to Phillips. It is neither fair nor unfair, but simply fact.

Twenty years of hindsight provides a more clear view on Phillips' downfall, rooted in a turbulent childhood. Five years of post-Nebraska hindsight, in fact, shed enough light on Phillips' path -- he found regular trouble, too, in the NFL -- to validate the widespread criticism of Osborne for his 1995 decision.

Osborne has said he regretted the move.

Of course, he had no luxury of the perspective that time provides. The coach, at the time, believed he could help Phillips by giving him structure. Osborne said it was not about the team, which required no contribution from Phillips to stand above its competition in 1995.

Many doubted those words from Osborne. Twenty years later, they ring somewhat hollow as Phillips might have just booked the rest of his days behind bars.

But Osborne has bettered the lives of far too many people for the tragic story of Phillips to serve as something more than a memorable mistake.

Full disclosure: I am a Nebraskan. I covered Osborne's final five teams. He's not perfect, but his word means as much as anyone I've known, personally or professionally.

I believe his integrity is rock solid.

Nebraska needs next fall to recognize the anniversary its 1995 championship. And amid the celebration, people need to think about Phillips. He is part of that team's story, a sobering reminder of all that can go wrong in life.