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Osborne leaves the door open for Phillips' return

(c) 1995 Copyright The News and Observer Publishing Co.
(c) 1995 Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (Sep 12, 1995 - 20:30 EDT) -- Tom Osborne left the door open for Lawrence Phillips to return to the Nebraska football team partly because the coach feared for the star running back.

"Frankly, on Sunday, I thought I would never see him again," Osborne said Tuesday. "I was afraid of what he might do to himself because I knew he thought he'd blown it. I was relieved when I finally heard from him."

Phillips, a Heisman Trophy contender, pleaded innocent Tuesday to misdemeanor charges of assault, trespassing and destruction of property. He is accused of assaulting an ex-girlfriend, Katherine McEwen, a 20-year-old Nebraska basketball player. Police said McEwen is out of state for her protection.

Osborne announced within two hours of Phillips' arrest Sunday night that the junior from West Covina, Calif., was dismissed from the defending national champions.

On Monday and Tuesday, however, he said Phillips may play again this season provided he makes certain, undisclosed, amends.

A consistent pattern emerged as the coach discussed Phillips and other Nebraska players who have had encounters with the law: Osborne talks to the player and others involved and makes his own decision on eligibility.

For example:

--Backup receiver Riley Washington is charged with attempted murder following an Aug. 2 shooting. Osborne visits Washington in jail, talks with other witnesses, including former Husker receiver and current coaches' aide Abdul Muhammad, and allows Washington to practice. He says he believes Washington is innocent and should be able to practice at least until his trial.

--No. 2 tailback Damon Benning is arrested Saturday on suspicion of misdemeanor assault. Police say he allegedly attacked a 19-year-old woman at his apartment. Benning says the woman, a former girlfriend, came to his house demanding photos and threatening to damage his car. Benning says any contact he had with the woman was to keep her away from him. Osborne talks with Benning and witnesses and says he believes Benning was defending himself. He declares the player eligible.

The pattern holds for Phillips. Osborne said he talked with Phillips and McEwen and her family and agreed there had been an assault.

Osborne says it would be best for Phillips -- and McEwen -- if Phillips remains a football player.

"I think if you remove the possibility that he can ever rejoin the football team, than you might really damage the possibility of Lawrence being all he can be," Osborne said. "I'm not sure that (kicking him off permanently) would enhance the young lady's situation."

No. 2 Nebraska (2-0) is at home Saturday against Arizona State (1-1).