LINCOLN, Neb. — In cavernous Cook Pavilion, the indoor practice facility for the top-ranked Nebraska football team, Coach Tom Osborne shifts his weight as he reflects upon a season of 11 victories, no defeats and more questions about dubious behavior than a Whitewater hearing.
"I don't know," Osborne says slowly, looking away. "Maybe I'm so far out of step with society that I don't belong in coaching."
After 23 years as one of college football's most exemplary coaches, it has come to this. Even in America's heartland, where many in the state would rather talk about the Cornhuskers' showdown Jan. 2 with No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, the specter of criminal activity among athletes has prompted the coach and others on campus to consider what has gone wrong with the football program. In what should have been a season of nothing but positives, a Heisman Trophy candidate and two other players were charged with crimes ranging from assaults to stealing to second-degree murder.
This is a community in which acts of violence are rare, and interim Chancellor Joan Leitzel said the school once treated athletes as it did other students.
"Now we are asking ourselves, can we handle their misconduct in the same way?" Leitzel said.
Incoming Chancellor James Moeser, now at the University of South Carolina, said the answer is no.
"We train them to be good football players and also must educate them to the art of living with normal conduct," he said.
But the question continues to reverberate on campuses throughout the nation as crimes among athletes attract more and more attention.
A Times study found that 209 of 345 U.S. or Canadian athletes and team personnel involved in police incidents in 1995 were from colleges.
College coaches and administrators are asking themselves whether they should bring athletes to their campuses who already represent the educational standards, values and aims of the universities, or assist those who might be out of their element academically and socially in reaching those goals.
In Idaho, officials have acted decisively. Last month, the state board of education adopted strict guidelines regarding criminal activity involving athletes at Idaho, Idaho State, Boise State and Lewis-Clark State.
The policy's cornerstone is a disclosure statement, requiring athletes to acknowledge all past criminal behavior before competing. Coaches are no longer allowed to recruit athletes who have committed felonies or, in cases of juvenile proceedings, acts that would have constituted a felony.
Furthermore, any student convicted of a felony while attending a state school will not be allowed to participate again in intercollegiate athletics.
The strict policy was the board's answer to revelations published in the Idaho Statesman newspaper that dozens of Idaho college athletes had been in trouble since 1992.
"This came out of frustration," said Michael Larsen, the board's deputy attorney general. "Athletes, like everybody else, have to realize there are consequences for [bad behavior]."
UCLA athletics changed 15 years ago, after one of its star football players, Billy Don Jackson, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the fatal stabbing of a West L.A. drug dealer. During sentencing, a judge called Jackson, who played at UCLA for two seasons before transferring to San Jose State, a functional illiterate.
Since that troublesome disclosure, UCLA has established stringent recruiting standards for its coaches.
"From that point, we shifted philosophies," recently departed football coach Terry Donahue said.
UCLA police chief Clarence Chapman began a mentor program 18 months ago, through which officers get to know football players and serve as role models.
Chapman said he started the program because athletes had a disproportionate number of contacts with UCLA police. Those contacts were not always crime related, but Chapman wanted to build a strong relationship with the athletes. Two officers accompanied the Bruin football team to Hawaii for the Aloha Bowl.
The positive is that at least some schools are addressing the issue.
"I can't recall in any Big Ten presidents' meetings or Atlantic Coast Conference meetings a discussion of this issue five years ago," said Robert O'Neil, former president at Virginia and the Wisconsin statewide system.
But except for a few isolated examples, the situation has not changed significantly from the 1980s, when Colorado athletes had so many problems in Boulder that campus police would get a couple of game programs at the first home football game of the season.
"Saves you time," detective Tim DeLaria said then. "Instead of having a victim go through the mug book, you just take out your program and say, 'Is he in here?' "
The recent recruiting of New York prep basketball star Richie Parker raised questions of campus integrity. Parker was sentenced last Jan. 13 to five years' probation for first-degree sexual abuse of a teen-age classmate.