Legendary Nebraska QB Tommie Frazier and former Florida standout Danny Wuerffel were recently inducted into the College Football of Fame, an honor both contemporaries richly deserve. In the mid-1990s, they were a big part of my college football Saturdays - one leading an unstoppable Great Plains juggernaut, the other Spurrier's perfect system vessel allowing "that other Florida team" to eclipse Miami and Florida State. Though athletically dissimilar, they have more in common that most imagine: both were perfected system QBs.
Frazier certainly belongs in the College Hall of Fame, but the explanatory impulse behind that conceit - Frazier's athletic dominance and unique winning drive as the primary force behind Nebraska's half decade run of dominance - is flat out wrong.
But that doesn't stop the frequency of its repetition by the media.
For all of Frazier's big stage highlights and the unshakable confidence his Nebraska teammates justifiably had in his play, Tommie Frazier was every bit the system QB that Danny Wuerffel was; they were catalysts surrounded by strong supporting casts uniquely suited to a system that, in its time, created easy opportunities for even competent, much less elite, practitioners.
Tommie wasn't a one man gang - he was an important, but replaceable, cog in a ruthless Nebraska machine.
And that's no insult. It's just that the threshold of competence for winning QB play at the height of Nebraska's 1990s dominance was easier than most remember. Indeed, if Frazier had been as indispensable to Nebraska's success as the popular imagination supposes, Nebraska never would have achieved what it did.
Because the Huskers won as many games during their historic 60-3 five year run without Frazier at QB as with him.
Consequently, Tommie Frazier may be the most misunderstood great player in college football history.
Within any system, there is always a tension between creator and creation. Is the system enabling the athlete or is the athlete making the system possible? For the best system players, the answer is both. But the system is still the thing.
While Wuerffel is recognized as the best byproduct of Steve Spurrier's Fun N Gun offense - the ultimate system QB - Frazier is perceived as the raw athletic counterpoint, revered as a college football deity - a force of nature, a proto-dual threat, willing his Huskers to four Big 8 titles and two national titles. In fact, Frazier's exclusion from the College Football Hall of Fame was written of as an injustice and travesty. Everyone knows that Tommie Frazier was the ultimate winner!
He was the primal force behind a team that didn't so much play games as inflict them on their opponents.
But perhaps understanding Frazier means first properly understanding Wuerffel.
Florida QBs of varying talent levels put up big numbers before Danny Wuerffel (All-SEC performer Shane Matthews) and long after him (the Doug Johnson/Jesse Palmer carousel, Rex Grossman) in the Spurrier system. But it was the immobile, slight-armed Wuerffel that proved to be Spurrier's most reliable operator, throwing for a combined 74 TDs and 23 INTs in his final two years, at an amazing 10 yards per passing attempt. No Spurrier era QB can touch that mark, perhaps in part because of Wuerffel's ability to read defenses and throw accurate timing routes to a spot off of a short drop, rendering the defense irrelevant if they couldn't re-route the receiver. Wuerffel's balls were so accurate, so catchable, that his passes weren't so much caught as cradled and swaddled.
He was also the beneficiary of a unique transitional period in college football in which big conference defense coordinators were dragged kicking and screaming into modernity. Defenses played two coverages, OLBs frequently covered slot receivers man-to-man, running backs out of the backfield in the passing game were left solely to middle linebackers or "general pursuit", and defensive coordinators who played 5 or 6 defensive backs on early downs against passing sets were regarded as madmen.
Like Wuerffel, Frazier benefitted from his system, one decades in the making, with built-in counters and adjustments that exploited defenses both physically and mentally. The physical toll was imposed by Nebraska OLs who operated as a single, low-padded, 1500 pound organism intent on pain delivery - something like army ants crossed with wheat threshers, driven by a brutal FB; with a mental toll exacted on run-obssessed safeties with Husker TEs and WRs guaranteed three pass plays per game where the opponent's closest safety was nearer to the upper deck than any receiver eligible. I-backs like Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green seemed to manage six yards a carry while stumbling. Nebraska's counterpunching play packages and Osborne's ability to make every defensive answer the wrong one was option football perfected.
And the primary, most consequential Husker evolution that drove Husker winning during that time period didn't happen on offense - it was the reinvented Blackshirt defense.
Frazier was really good, of course. His sense of the flow of the option was excellent, he was an inspirational leader that knew Osborne's offense in and out, and though a limited passer, he came up big in some key games, and he could run with power and elusiveness. Mostly through very, very, very large holes. And he did it less often than any of us remember. In fact, post-Frazier, Nebraska QBs running the option under Osborne and Solich assumed significantly more burden than Frazier in the Husker offense, not less. This wasn't just a function of Husker blow-outs - on an adjusted basis, the QBs succeeding Frazier all more or less had the same per play output.
One of the most reliable indicators of a system player is system output (yards, production, wins) without them in it. Frazier's career offers an interesting insight.
Year Att. Net Avg. TDs 1992 86 399 4.6 7 1993 126 704 5.6 9 1994 33 248 7.5 6 1995 97 604 6.2 14 Totals 342 1,955 5.7 36
Year Att. Comp. Pct. Int. Yds. TD 1992 100 44 .440 1 727 10 1993 162 77 .475 4 1,159 12 1994 44 19 .432 2 273 4 1995 163 92 .564 4 1,362 17 Totals 469 232 .495 11 3,521 43
Statistics can lie and we shouldn't focus on Frazier's modest outputs. It's apples and oranges to QBs in other systems. Frazier existed within a specific offensive context. And he ate a lot of orange slices with his pads off in the second half. What you should notice is how he compared to other Nebraska QBs - even the later ones with inferior supporting casts.
Meet another Frazier contemporary, a backup QB named Brook Berringer. Few college football fans outside of Nebraska - and very few analysts - remember the name. He tragically died in a plane crash in 1996. But in 1994, he was greatly responsible for quarterbacking the Nebraska Cornhuskers to a national title.
Berringer served as the first perfect control in the Tommie Frazier-drove-Nebraska's-winning experiment.
In 1994, Frazier had a blood clot, missing seven of eleven regular season games. Enter junior back-up Berringer. Berringer led the Huskers to a perfect 7-0 record (including wins over two of Nebraska's three ranked season opponents), completed 62% of his passes, had a 149.5 passer rating, and threw for 1295 yards with 10 TDs and 5 INTs. This, despite playing with a partially collapsed lung in back-to-back games, where he was spelled by 3rd string walk-on Matt Tuman, who was also effective. Though not a particularly good runner, Berringer also chipped in 279 yards and 6 TDs rushing. Despite his injury, Berringer was clutch in Nebraska's biggest game - against 2nd ranked Colorado (a loaded Buffalo team that went 11-1 and crushed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl) - leading the Huskers to an efficient 24-7 victory on 12 of 17 passing.
Competent QB play + Nebraska system + Blackshirts = 17 point win over elite opponent.
The Nebraska defense was exceptional in 1994, and even with 2nd and 3rd string QBs directing the offense for much of the season - QBs clearly lacking Frazier's unique gift for the flow of option football - they still won all of their games by double digits.
In the 1995 Fiesta Bowl against Miami, Berringer platooned with Frazier (now recovered) and after a costly Frazier interception, Berringer threw a 19 yard touchdown to get Nebraska on the board. Later, trailing the Hurricanes, Frazier was re-inserted in the 4th quarter to offer a spark to a stagnant Husker offense, led Nebraska on two scoring drives (mostly on the strength of trapping Miami's penetrating DTs with FB Cory Schlesinger, who scored two 4th quarter TDs), and Frazier earned inspirational MVP honors despite his negligible box score. The Husker D must have raised an eyebrow.
A lot of QBs could win surrounded by the 1994 Huskers. And did.
1995 was an even stronger Husker team and they are seared into the national memory as an all-time great team. In fact, for most college football commentators, the five year Nebraska run is mostly encapsulated in this season and Frazier's highlight run against Florida is the dominant glimpse of our memory. Tommie Frazier did it.
But the Brook Berringer experiment continued in the form of Scott Frost...
In 1996, Frost succeeded Frazier at QB. Frost was a physical, underrated runner and inconsistent passer (this is a time-honored description of most Nebraska QBs from this era), a back-up transfer from Stanford ill-suited to a traditional offense. In his first year at QB, he threw for 1440 yards with a 13-3 TD/INT ratio and had 438 yards rushing with 9 TDs (at a modest 3.5 per carry). After an embarrassing early season blanking at Arizona State, mostly due to turnovers and inexperience at QB, Nebraska averaged 50.3 points per game in their other 11 contests.
The Huskers went 11-2 with a bowl blowout win over Virginia Tech.
In 1997, his second year in the system, Frost exploded for 1,095 yards rushing at 6.2 yards per carry and 19 TDs while throwing for comparable numbers (though fewer TDs). Same guy. Same specs. But he was now fully in tune with the system. The Huskers averaged 47 points per game on offense.
Frost led Nebraska to an undefeated season, became the first Nebraska QB to ever throw for 1,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards (Crouch and Lord would also do this), and won a (split with Michigan) national championship.
So without the singular greatness of Tommie Frazier, Nebraska went 7-0 in 1994, a combined 24-2 in 1996 and 1997, won a national title, and decimated a NFL-loaded SEC team in their bowl game (Peyton Manning's Tennessee, 42-17; Frost ran for three TDs and was 9 of 12 passing). Berringer goes unremembered outside of Husker fandom, Frost is regarded as a solid system guy that most college football fans barely recall, and Frazier is regarded as a singular athlete and the ultimate winner.
Interesting, isn't it?
But Tommie Frazier was a unique winner full of winnerness who compelled Nebraska to wins.
I won't address the dubiousness of QB Win/Loss record as the ultimate justification for excellence (see Greg McElroy and Ken Dorsey vs. John Elway) but I will offer this: Tommie Frazier was 33-3 as a starter. Brook Berringer (spelled by a walk-on) and Scott Frost went 31-2 combined at the height of the Husker empire, coinciding with, and just after, Frazier's time there. Even Eric Crouch went 35-7 in the post-Osborne era playing on much lesser Frank Solich teams. The winning trend in Lincoln at that time was just a tad QB independent.
In Tom Osborne's last 5 years as a head coach - 2 1/3 seasons with Frazier as his QB, 2/3 with Berringer, 2 with Frost - Nebraska went 60-3 led by a dominating defense, great OL play, a deceptively complex offense run seemingly on auto-pilot, several big game wins with all three at QB, and national championship contention every year.
Frazier was the indispensable component?
Would Frazier have significantly elevated the weaker Nebraska teams at the end of the Solich Era significantly more than, say, Jamaal Lord (1412 yards rushing as a junior, 5.6 yards per carry, 1362 yards passing, God bless his scatter arm)?
A one man wrecking crew might have. But that wasn't Frazier, despite the popular perception otherwise.
But, but what about the title game against Florida? That run is etched in my memory! He won that game!
First, that run. Pretend you're a defensive coordinator. How would you grade your defense on effort, tackling, basic sentience? Frazier runs downhill through a large hole. Then the pom-poms come out. Where one might see Frazier's singular drive for victory, I see a defense tired of three quarters of abuse, more or less quitting on the play. But, yeah, it is totally awesome. For what it represents - a total imposition of will. By a team.
Lawrence Phillips also dominated Florida, like ink on his rap sheet. Nebraska's OL also dominated Florida. Backup Brook Berringer also dominated Florida. Seriously. Berringer led the Huskers on two 4th quarter scoring drives. The Nebraska defense dominated Florida. Frazier's 199 yard rushing performance was a subset of a 524 yard team rushing performance (the Gators ran for a smooth negative 28 yards) against a Florida defense that featured a 260 pound nose guard as their best player, apparently had never seen option football - or worn shoulder pads - trailed 35-10 at halftime, and quit some time in the 3rd quarter.
Frazier was great? EVERYONE WAS GREAT.
Want to see Frazier at his big game best? Check out a young Frazier's 4th quarter failed comeback against Charlie Ward and Florida State, with Nebraska coming up just short on a missed field goal. Frazier flat out balled against a great defense.
Don't show me him kicking kittens.
Any Nebraska fan or journalist will tell you you're wrong, Frazier was the straw that stirred the drink.
NU fans are biased by their own historical experience. Journalists by a poor understanding of cause and effect.
Post 1983, every Nebraska fan grappled with the certainty that their team of Big 8 regional bullies would be well-coached, physical, and would get unceremoniously rolled whenever it encountered speed, typically in a bowl game against Miami or Florida State. Before 1994, they'd lost seven bowl games in a row. When Nebraska finally recruited and developed an elite defense built on quickness and updated their schemes from 1958 era football (until 1993, Nebraska ran a base 5-2 defense - I'm not kidding) and added a complementary stable of players on offense that could process and run Osborne's multiple Veer, they dominated college football for half a decade.
Frazier was the Nebraska QB when those program changes, most that had little to do with him, first came to light. Ergo, Frazier must have caused it. The thinking is: We used to lose to all of these teams! And all of our big games! Until this guy started taking snaps. He's magic! Yet when different, more modestly talented controls are introduced - Brook Berringer, Scott Frost - Nebraska kept right on winning and dominating. Cause and effect is always obscured once the personality cult kicks in.
He was a big game performer!
Often. Which is why I love Frazier. But so was the entire Nebraska team - the defense came up huge in every bowl game (dominating Tennessee, completely destroying Florida, playing very well against Miami and Virginia Tech) and was consistently dominant otherwise; the OL was superlative; the I-back talent was the best since Mike Rozier. That's how you go 60-3 over five years, even with the majority of those games without Frazier at QB.
Why must you bag on my heroes?
I'm not. Frazier was awesome. As the perfect system QB for his era and his offense. Best understood as an integral, but replaceable, part of a complete team in a system bigger than he was.
And now you understand it, too.