Imagine Tom Osborne in Seattle Seahawks garb, his ever-present ball cap, strolling NFL sidelines while matching wits with Joe Gibbs, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, et al.
It easily could've happened.
During the early 1980s, Osborne considered becoming the Seahawks' head coach. He met in Denver with the team's general manager. He also heard overtures from the Houston Oilers around that same time period.
"Seattle was a little bit tempting because the Pacific Northwest has a lot of fishing and outdoor activities that I thought would be attractive," Osborne said recently. "Some people talked to me, but I never did take it very seriously."
It's no surprise the NFL came after Osborne in the early 1980s. Led by the tall and slender redhead, Nebraska won 12 games in both 1982 and 1983, the latter squad falling only two points short of a national championship.
It's no surprise Osborne stayed in Lincoln.
The man belonged in the college game. Belonged at Nebraska. A native of Hastings, he belonged on the sidelines at Memorial Stadium, squinting into the afternoon sun on splendid autumn Saturdays.
His reserved, humble, determined, hard-working nature fit our state's culture perfectly.
With a Ph.D in educational psychology, he belonged in the midst of young people, espousing the importance of education and helping his players become productive adults.
Osborne recalls a conversation with former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry.
"He told me he didn't feel he ever impacted a player's character," Osborne said. "By the time he got them, the character was already pretty much formed. As a college coach, I felt you could make a difference in a player's life. There was an educational aspect I thought was important."
It was more than that, though.
"Personally, I just liked Nebraska," he said. "I liked the people here."
And the people liked Tom, especially after he won those three national championships (1994, 1995 and 1997) -- but before that, too.
Osborne made a significant difference in the lives of countless players. But let's be real: He has made a difference in the lives of countless people, period, in the state and beyond, who admire and respect his core values of integrity, trust, respect and loyalty, and pardon me if I'm leaving out any of his virtues.
His sense of calm and quiet dignity permeates the athletic department and impacts the entire state.
No, he's not perfect. He would be the first to admit it.
Above all, he's unique.
Osborne, in my opinion, is unique because he was a statesman as much as he was a football coach. Rare is the football coach who can transition easily to life as a U.S. congressman.
Sure, he probably could've enjoyed success as an NFL coach. But he belonged in the college game. Belonged at Nebraska, in a program with unique challenges.
He clearly enjoys working with student-athletes. Thing is, he admired his players.
"You're talking about people with quite a bit of physical courage and a certain amount of moral courage," he said. "Because, when you go out there on that field, you're risking the wrath and criticism of thousands of people -- if you fumble a punt or make a critical mistake. Lots of people wouldn't want to take that responsibility."
The head coach at Nebraska also had better have courage. Bob Devaney set a high bar for those who followed him, Osborne being the first.
Devaney became extremely popular with Nebraska fans because of his gregarious nature, but mostly because he won big. The Huskers lost only four games during his final four seasons (1969-72), and he led Big Red to national championships in 1970 and 1971. Osborne knew well there would be lofty expectations. Upon taking over the program, he said he initially was interested in "survival" -- you know, pleasing the fans to the extent he wouldn't be fired.
"But I also wanted to make sure we did things the right way," he said. "I wanted to make sure there was a proper emphasis on academics."
Osborne also sought to run a clean program during a period when the NCAA lacked enough enforcement staff to properly police the college game.
"There were quite a few shenanigans going on around the country (during the 1970s)," Osborne said. "We didn't want to be part of that."
He always has wanted to make sure Nebraska treated its student-athletes well, especially in regard to meeting their academic needs. But it was more than that. The Huskers worked hard to provide what Osborne describes as "ancillary services" -- nutrition, strength training, athletic medicine, and the like.
Osborne is genuine in his concern for student-athletes' well-being. When various issues arise -- and I've asked him about several matters in the last 25 years -- he almost always considers first how the student-athletes will be impacted. Granted, that's how it should be, always. But in reality, many administrators' top concern is finances. Or something other than the student-athlete.
"It seems like so many of the Big Ten meetings we go to, they really revolve around dollars and television contracts -- those kind of things," Osborne said.
Meanwhile, student-athletes reap no financial benefits, which for years has stuck in Osborne's craw.
Osborne is set to retire Jan. 1. He departs with concerns about the sport he so loves. He appreciates rule makers' emphasis on player safety, "yet it's pretty hard to play defense anymore because they've liberalized the use of the hands (of offensive players)."
What's more, defenders face an increasing amount of tackling restrictions.
"When you tackle somebody, it's awfully hard to know where your helmet is going to strike," he said. "If a guy ducks, and you're going at his midsection, and you hit him in the helmet, you get a 15-yard penalty.
"But I think the game is still popular," he added. "The college game is always more innovative. There always are more dimensions."
He noted, with a measure of pride, that the San Francisco 49ers recently installed the zone-read option play.
Once upon a time, Osborne had the option to bolt to the NFL. He chose to remain in our midst -- right where he belongs.
Tom Osborne and I had a loud, long, veins-sticking-out-in-your-neck argument after practice one day. The issue was about access to players for interviews.
Osborne snap-closed the 20-minute debate with “I’m here to win games.” I stormed away. He ran his laps.
The next day, like the day after all the other heated confrontations, he would be the first to approach and say “We OK on this?”
How could I say “No”?
Here was one of the greatest coaches turning the page, moving on to the next item.
Two sleepy-eyed reporters would meet Osborne early the morning after bowl games for one more story before putting Husker football to bed until recruit signing day.
Year after year at 6 a.m. it was the same. Osborne alone with a film projector in the ballroom at the Sheraton Bal Harbor or the Scottsdale Inn or the Fountainebleau Hotel, watching game film and looking at notes on recruits.
The next game, the next season preoccupied his mind once the bowl game was over.
Even the morning after winning his first national championship Jan. 1, 1995, he was reviewing film from the night before and getting ready to fly to meet recruits.
Coach of the year awards, national recognition and runs at national titles year after year ... none of that mattered any more than the next game, the next opponent.
As for awards, he would usually name four other coaches who had great seasons and, as for national titles, he’d mention two other teams with valid arguments.
Osborne’s idea was simple. Win.
He did. He knew that to win games he had to win people, win practices, win coaches.
He was eloquent and touching and as hurt as anyone when everybody’s hero, Brook Berringer, died and hundreds came to the funeral. He was the same when only a handful of former teammates showed for the funeral for Andra Franklin, who died alone and mostly forgotten.
When streaking was a big thing on the NU campus, Osborne quietly and naively suggested to his players that they could run laps inside the stadium with him.
When players fought, he'd often remind them that the opponents deserved such violence.
He won on the field and off the field. He won fans and he picked up fans in the media.
To win the media, he gave access. Nothing more precious than information for us ink-stained wretches. And for Osborne, there was nothing better than others understanding what he was doing and why. The more information we had, the less chance we had to complain about starting quarterbacks, play calling and results on the field.
Members of the national media often harped on the dinosaur offense that couldn’t win the big ones, until Osborne started winning all the big ones.
He’d often conduct interviews while doing laps around Memorial Stadium.
The first lap, “Coach, what about Colorado?” The next lap, “Well, they’re pretty good.” Another lap, “Is your team speed up to the Buffs' defense?” The next lap, “We feel we have some answers.” And on and on it went.
He allowed me to attend his coaches' and players' meetings for five weeks late in the 1997 season so I’d understand more.
Three times a week, I’d join the meetings at 7 a.m., when it was cold and dark outside.
Osborne would open staff meetings with a prayer.
There were reports on injuries, recruits, player situations with family and grades, travel, and often a digest of the latest local newspaper stories about the Huskers from offensive line coach Milt Tenopir.
For the next 90 minutes, practice planning and game planning. After that, the offense and defense broke up and the next two hours, Osborne gave a lecture and daily tutorial on the offense, while Craig Bohl would try to keep order as Charlie McBride and George Darlington debated defensive strategies. As it was proved, the offense was a dictatorship and the defense a democracy bordering on chaos.
Tenopir would often have to elbow me when Osborne would ask, “Ken, why are we running the 41-pitch options with the single tight end?” Ron Brown would smile and help me review the pop quiz for receivers that day. Turner Gill gave me the same daily tests that quarterbacks took. Day after day, I failed. But Osborne never yelled, never kicked me out of class. He’d start over and explain the zone-blocking schemes for a fullback trap and why they’d never use it against Kansas’ shifting defensive front.
When I’d suggest a Statue of Liberty play or the annexation of Puerto Rico, Osborne would say “Sound plays work. Unsound plays don’t work very often and never for very long.”
He knew every play his Huskers would run each week. His staff knew the plays and the players would practice each play dozens of times.
“You learn to be prepared for everything,” Frank Solich said.
Osborne tried to prepare for everything, from the national media onslaught about national titles and player problems to the local guys wondering about the sixth-string quarterback on the depth chart.
From Lawrence Phillips to Christian Peter to Tyrone Williams, Osborne believed in keeping his players close to the program because he could do better than jail. He believed Proposition 48 players (academic casualties) were better off at Nebraska than in a junior college. He believed in people and he certainly believed in his players and his purpose. He believed in walk-ons being treated like Tommie Frazier and Neil Smith.
He believes in God. Whether it is Psalms 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” or letting go of the past, as in 2 Corinthians, or denying one’s self, as in Matthew, Osborne found his base.
“This is not a one-man show,” he said. “I’m just a coach, trying to win games.”
It was a whole new ballgame.
When Tom Osborne decided to step into politics in 2000, swapping X's and O's for EPA and HHS, and trading the university classroom for the campaign playing field, he was on unfamiliar turf.
Osborne quickly mastered his new job as a congressman in 2001, swinging into action in the House to represent western and central Nebraska's interests, influencing farm policy and rural economic development, pushing for high-speed Internet access, centering on the problems youths encounter.
At the same time, he constantly touched base with his constituents, traveling the sprawling 3rd District when he was back home. Osborne worked at his job and he campaigned hard, even when everyone knew his re-election was a slam dunk.
But he never mastered -- or even cared to play -- the political game.
"I don't really understand party politics very well," Osborne said at one point. "It has no appeal for me."
Osborne easily won three terms in the House, but when he reached for the governorship in 2006, suddenly he was playing on Gov. Dave Heineman's home field.
Heineman, a partisan operative and Republican Party stalwart, had honed the skills of political strategist and tactician over a lifetime. And he was the incumbent governor.
And he hammered Osborne for not opposing legislation that allowed the children of illegal immigrants who were settled in Nebraska to pay resident college tuition rates.
The Republican Party establishment tilted sharply, but quietly, in Heineman's favor, recognizing that Osborne would not be the kind of governor who would tend to the party's needs.
And that was all she wrote.
Osborne had announced his gubernatorial candidacy in his hometown of Hastings on a Saturday afternoon in April at about the same hour his football teams used to tee up the football, suggesting he'd "like to take a shot" at tackling divisions in the state, population loss in most counties and unfulfilled economic potential.
An iconic figure, he was besieged for autographs and snapshots everywhere he went.
It even happened in Washington when he arrived there in 2001 as the new congressman who had guided the Huskers to three national championships. Walking down the corridors of the Capitol and a House office building in the January week of his swearing-in at the age of 63, he was instantly recognized and greeted by fellow congressmen and women and members of their staffs.
One of the most striking features of Osborne's years in Congress and as a candidate was to see the state's most recognized figure at events in Nebraska wearing a name tag identifying him.
And, in a way, just by donning that name tag, he told us a little something about who he is.
Tom Osborne described his experiences of coaching and serving as athletic director as both challenging and enjoyable.
The bigger challenge, though, was on the football field.
That, Osborne said, was because of the many variables involved.
“You have 150 young people and an opponent that you don’t know for sure what they’re going to do,” Osborne said. “Sometimes you’ve got the weather, and sometimes you’ve got injuries.”
That doesn’t mean that his stint as athletic director didn’t come with a formidable challenge or two.
When he first replaced the fired Steve Pederson in an interim role in 2007, Osborne said his biggest task was changing the culture and getting everybody to feel good about what they were doing.
“I thought when I first came here that people seemed to be a little bit in shock, a little disoriented, maybe not a lot of trust,” Osborne said. “It seemed like they had been through a lot.
“I think, over time, people have become more comfortable. I think most of them would tell you they enjoy coming to work here. There are fewer turf battles. There are more people pulling in the same direction, or at least, that’s my perception.”
The fan base, Osborne said, is also more unified than it was five years ago.
Osborne's most rewarding experience as athletic director, he said, was helping build the Hewit Academic Center on the west side of Memorial Stadium, where the former weight room was located.
“It benefited all the sports, all 23,” Osborne said, “and really, the central part of our mission here is graduation and academics and making sure people grow and develop personally.”
The most difficult part of Osborne’s tenure as athletic director, he said, was firing coaches – football coach Bill Callahan, baseball coach Mike Anderson and men’s basketball coach Doc Sadler.
“I know how hard it is, and I know how hard they work, and having been a coach, you really hate to let people go,” he said. “That’s the ultimate test for me, was always what was in the best interest of the athletic department long term? You couldn’t let personalities or feelings get in the way of what you felt needed to be done for the best interest of the athletic department. But it was still very hard.”
The highlights of Osborne's coaching tenure were three national championships in a four-year span, along with the relationships he built with many players and coaches.
His toughest moments as a coach, Osborne said, included the national championship near-misses – in 1982, 1983 and 1993.
“The main regret is just how hard the players worked and the level of talent and everything we had,” Osborne said. “You’d like to have seen those guys achieve a championship, because they certainly played at that level. They deserved to be at that level. But you’ve got to be good, and you also have to be a little bit fortunate.”
Osborne said he’ll remain around the athletic department for the next five or sixth months after his retirement, and is willing to serve as a resource to new athletic director Shawn Eichorst, if needed.
“If I can be a resource in recruiting, I will,” he said. “I see a lot of student-athletes and parents come through, and if I can help, I’ll do that.”
He’ll also assist in any fundraising, and also focus on helping develop the athletic research area.
“The shell space is built,” Osborne said. “We haven’t done the build-out yet; we’re getting a handle on staffing, but there’s a lot to be ironed out there.”
In addition to working more with his TeamMates mentoring program, Osborne said also he’ll spend more time with his wife, Nancy.
“I’ve told Nancy I’d like to do something with her that would be her choice. So many things that we’ve done, she’s been drug along to bowl games and different things,” he said.
“She’s bitten the bullet a pretty major way for a lot of years.”
I grew up with Tom Osborne on the sidelines and in my living room, long-legged and gum-chewing and as steady as Chimney Rock.
A coach from my father’s era, the two of them taking me through my teenage years -- the wide-tie, sideburn-loving '70s -- and all the decades beyond, with the comforting reassurance that a grown-up was behind the wheel.
I never wrote a fan letter to the head-coach-turned-athletic director, but I was there for the Tunnel Walk sendoff this fall, tears falling, up in the nosebleed section with 85,000 of my fellow fans as our guy trotted across the field named for him.
The only Nebraskan with a football field and an expressway -- and a legacy that will outlast them both.
Here in the middle of the country with the corn and the cows and the cloud-touching capitol, I understood that those things defined my state for much of the fly-over-us, drive-through-us rest of the country.
And I understood this, too: none of them said Nebraska more than the bigness of the Big Red and a humble guy in a headset and red windbreaker.
Our very own Opie with a Ph.D. and a playbook.
The Beaver to Barry Switzer’s Eddie Haskell, Dr. Tom in Washington and the white knight riding in to save the day as athletic director five years ago.
The fan mail has been inundating One Memorial Drive since the 75-year-old announced he was stepping down on Jan. 1 -- 30, 40, 50 cards, letters and emails a day.
Happy to see you come out of the tunnel again, with the team …
You know your accomplishments, but also you gave (us) dignity, pride, and peace of mind …
I have been wanting to write to you since you announced your retirement. I was hoping that day wouldn't come …
Every piece of mail opened and read and given to Osborne, the way it’s been since he took over for Bob Devaney in 1973.
Osborne dictates a response to every congratulatory note, and every constructive critique.
He’s always answered his fan mail, says a publicity-shy staffer, although the not-so-nice letters didn’t always make it to his desk.
These days, the “Good Job, T.O.” mail has an underlying theme that goes beyond football. Thank you for your leadership, your character, what you’ve done for Nebraska …
Who can argue with that?
In a relationship this long, we forget the bad times. The years the thoughtful former quarterback couldn’t quite -- as another of Osborne’s biggest fans might say -- “Git-R-Done.”
We remember the seasons that worked, not the never-quite-enough years.
We mellow. We grow to appreciate steady and consistent, understated and modest.
After Dr. Tom left the sidelines in 1997 and the tears of little boys and grown men dried, a lot of us became even bigger fans.
Who couldn’t root for TeamMates?
Or a man who went on to learn a new playbook as a congressman, lost the governor’s race with grace, steadied the ground five years ago and grimaced but put on a ball cap and letter jacket anyway to give the rest of us one last football Saturday lump in our throats?
All around him, commotion. The kind that comes after a team runs an option play on fourth-and-8 (really, who has the guts to call that?) and puts the ball in the end zone with a national championship on the line.
“Look at this play!” NBC’s Don Criqui screamed into the microphone as Jeff Smith scooted 24 yards, diving inside the pylon. “Touchdown, Nebraska!”
Those at the 1984 Orange Bowl can still vividly recall the delirium in the stadium.
Back in Nebraska living rooms, the mood was similar: Hoarse screaming and jubilance, spilled bean dip and chaos.
Immediately after the score, the TV cameras flashed to Tom Osborne.
He was already in the ears of two players, calling for a two-point conversion that would either win or lose the game.
Steady, calm. He was already busy plotting the next move when everyone else still needed a few seconds to digest the last one.
Had you not been aware of the goings-on around him, his demeanor could have confused you into thinking he was making a play call against New Mexico State in September.
Of course, this seems to hit at the center of what Nebraskans have always loved about Osborne the most: He was the steady hand on the wheel you could count on even when everybody else was losing their head.
It is something many will surely miss as Osborne’s time as Husker athletic director comes to an end Jan. 1.
A few years ago, former Husker split end Frosty Anderson, a senior on Osborne’s first team in 1973, recalled a moment from T.O.'s first game as Nebraska's head man.
The Huskers were playing a top 10 UCLA team. With Bob Devaney gone, some people worried the ride was over. They feared a potential loss in Osborne’s debut.
But Nebraska blitzed the Bruins 40-13 that day, taking command in the first quarter, when Randy Borg returned a punt 77 yards for a score.
We bring that play up for a reason.
"When Randy broke into the open like that, I was standing right next to Ozzie," Anderson once told the Journal Star. "And when it was apparent that he was going to go, I started to jump up and down and grab him (Osborne) by the arm and really start to rock him, shake him, 'Hey, he's going to go all the way.' And he kind of shrugged me off. He was thinking about the next play.”
Osborne never seemed to change his demeanor -- even when he had put the coaching headset away.
As athletic director, he was put to one of the biggest tests of his career in the summer of 2010 when conference realignment arrived -- a staredown with Nebraska.
There was a memorable meeting that June in which Big 12 athletic directors and school presidents played a high-stakes game of poker amid rumors that Nebraska and Missouri had a foot out the door, and then rumors that six southern league schools might bolt for the Pac-10.
After one meeting, Osborne found himself cornered by reporters, his back literally and figuratively against the wall. And after the final meeting, a report came out of Texas that Nebraska had been given a deadline to decide if it was staying in the Big 12.
There was initially a certain degree of panic around the state when that report came out. "Nebraska has until 5 p.m. on Friday to tell us what they're going to do,” one of the Big 12 officials said.
A Journal Star reporter reached Osborne that night shortly after the report came out. What about this deadline? Was Nebraska in a bad spot?
On the other end of the line, Osborne responded with the same composure he always had walking the sidelines.
“I really don’t know what the final parameters are,” he said, not acknowledging any deadline.
"Eventually, all of the facts will come out."
There was plenty of chatter in Texas during that time about this and that. But Osborne knew silence was better.
He didn’t say much the next few days. He’d say his part six days after the report of that deadline. He’d say that Nebraska was going to the Big Ten.
Considering the Big 12’s choppy waters at that time, and the security and financial boon the Big Ten offered, most Nebraskans were no doubt once again thankful Osborne had written that letter in the 1960s.
It was a letter to Devaney, inquiring to see if Osborne might be able to help coach while attending grad school.
Devaney wrote back that he couldn’t pay much, if anything, but he’d like to have Osborne around.
According to a Journal Star story from 1972, Osborne didn't receive a salary at the beginning. His compensation was free meals at the training table.
But Osborne, who earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, saw his future in football.
“The longer I coached the more I liked it,” he said as he prepared for his first season as head coach. “It got to a decision point. There’s no way you can be a half-time coach. You can’t do anything half time and do it well.”
He’d go on to post a 255-49-3 record in his 25 years as Nebraska’s head coach, with his team winning three national championships and winning at least nine games every year.
It is why, despite his foray into politics and time as athletic director, most who come across him still call him “Coach.”
The game of football always intrigued him, he said in a 1987 interview with the Journal Star. But as much as anything, it was being around fellow coaches and players.
“I enjoy seeing people make something out of themselves,” he said then. “Some are disappointments, but you win more than you lose. I like people in athletics. They are committed, disciplined. They’re risk takers. They know something about paying a price.”
You can make a lot of friends on the journey.
Not that long ago, Public Policy Polling asked Nebraskans to give their opinion of Osborne. With many people, even headline makers, it’s hard to get at least 70 percent of the population to even know who you are, let alone think highly of you.
But in Osborne’s case, he received a favorability rating of 86 percent.
And this week, as Osborne prepares to leave the athletic department he first joined 50 years ago, there will be much nostalgia and memories shared.
Everyone else can look back. Here’s guessing Osborne’s thinking about his next play.
PROJECT DESIGNERS: Matt Schubert, Clark Grell
PROJECT COORDINATOR:Darnell Dickson
REPORTERS: Steven M. Sipple, Ken Hambleton, Don Walton, Brian Rosenthal, Cindy Lange-Kubick, Brian Christopherson
PHOTOGRAPHERS: Gwyneth Roberts, Eric Gregory, Francis Gardler, Adam Wolffbrandt
EDITORS: Julie Koch, Karl Vogel, Rob Schlotterbeck, Clark Grell, Matt Schubert, Ted Kirk
PRODUCTION: Erik Bahr, Matt Schubert, Zach Pluhacek, Shawna Richter-Ryerson