PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON received a Cornhusker football jersey, an autographed NU football and a Michigan jersey and baseball cap during a ceremony honoring the two championship teams at the White House in Washington, D.C., Thursday.MATT MILLER/DN

Co-champs share spotlight at ceremony

WASHINGTON, D.C. - It took the influence of the most powerful man in the United States to bring together the two most successful teams of the 1997 college football season.

President Clinton accomplished Thursday what the NCAA Bowl Alliance could not on Jan. 2, as the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll national champion Nebraska football team met face-to-face with Michigan, the Associated Press national champion.

Clinton honored both teams at a ceremony held in the White House.

FOUR NU FOOTBALL PLAYERS stop for a picture in front of the Washington Monument during a tour of Washington, D.C., before a ceremony at the White House. Even though it rained most of the day, the team visited Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol.MATT MILLER/DN

"We've had a lot of heavyweights in this room, but nothing compares to this," Clinton said. "The entire season, everyone has been trying to get these two teams to meet, and it looks like I'm the only one who could pull it off.

"Seeing how it's sunny outside, maybe we should go out and settle this whole thing right now."

The two teams, of course, declined Clinton's invitation.

Instead, the Wolverines' captains presented the president with a Michigan hat and a UM football jersey.

Aaron Taylor, Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter, the Cornhusker captains, gave Clinton a Nebraska jersey and a football autographed by the entire team.

Clinton praised Wolverine Coach Lloyd Carr on setting a precedent at Michigan and commended former NU Coach Tom Osborne on a "fine career."

"The Orange Bowl was a fantastic finish to your undefeated season," Clinton said to Osborne. "With three national titles and 255 wins, Tom Osborne is truly one of the great coaches in college football history. And I want to thank you for the way you did it, and the example you set."

Osborne, scripting a final highlight in his storied career, said a short goodbye.

"The senior leadership this year was the best I've ever seen," Osborne said. "They decided last January what needed to be done, and they did it. It was a gratifying ending to 36 great years, and I have a lot of people to thank for that."

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor James Moeser, along with the assembled athletes, coaches and staff from both teams, enthusiastically applauded Osborne's speech, which NU kicker Kris Brown called "emotional."

"You definitely got the feeling that something was ending," Brown said. "But you look back on everything, and this ending seems like a really fitting one. It's great for Coach Osborne to cap everything off at the White House."

The teams stayed in the White House after the ceremony to shake Clinton's hand and pose for pictures with the president.

"It was a great opportunity," UNL senior Jay Gates said. "It's not every day that someone flies you out to Washington and the president is there waiting for you."

Two Maryland State Patrol cars and four officers on motorcycles escorted Nebraska's three charter buses from Baltimore-Washington International airport to the district Thursday morning.

Upon their arrival in Washington, the Huskers began a five-hour tour of the nation's capital with a stop at Arlington National Cemetery. The team then visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the U.S. Capitol.

"The main value of the trip was that 75 to 80 percent of these kids have never been here and may never come back," said Osborne, who made the same trip with the 1994 NU national championship team. "Hopefully, there was some education involved with this."

But even the sights didn't compare to meeting Clinton, rush end Chad Kelsay said.

"It was so cool," Kelsay said. "We knew before we came here that we were going to have the chance to do this, but you don't realize what an honor it is until you're standing there next to the president."