NU Athletics Press Conference, 9.26.12

University of Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne leaves the sixth floor alone after announcing his retirement effective Jan. 1 2013 on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, at Memorial Stadium.

FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star

Some fishing holes surely need exploring and Nancy reminded him the garage hasn’t been cleaned in three years.

Tom Osborne will tell you that.

But if it is nostalgia you crave, or some self-critique about his legacy, well, the most famous person in Nebraska left that for everyone else on the day when he announced that retirement beckons.

“You know, that legacy question is a tricky one,” Osborne said. “I’d rather you guys wrote it than me. I don’t have any particular thoughts on that.”

Granted, the answer to that question was perhaps as simple as just looking around Wednesday morning, when Osborne spoke of his plans to retire as Nebraska’s athletic director Jan. 1.

The announcement came before a room packed with reporters and athletic department officials. Those in the back could barely hear him because of the noise of the camera shutters.

His words were carried live on radio and television stations across the state, many of its residents no doubt giving their full attention, just as they did when he went for two points on a balmy night in Miami, just as they did 15 years ago when he said he was retiring as Nebraska’s football coach with misty-eyed players looking on.

Fans and former players tweeted (a concept and word that could have not been imagined when Osborne first joined NU as a graduate assistant in 1962) well wishes and memories as he spoke.

“It would be selfish of me to call it a sad day,” tweeted one of Osborne’s former running backs, Calvin Jones. “You earned it.”

The 75-year-old Osborne was not overly emotional as he discussed his departure, beginning the announcement with a joke, and mixing in the dry humor Nebraskans have come to associate with him.

He told the story of seeing former football trainer George Sullivan, who still has a small office in the stadium, prior to the announcement.

“He’s got about a 4-by-4 cubicle,” Osborne said. “So maybe George will share some space with me.”

It figures Osborne will have a bigger space than that reserved for him — not just for those 255 wins and three national championships as a coach, but also for helping heal what was a wounded athletic department just five years ago.

That’s when Osborne was wooed away from a previous retirement by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman during the tumultuous 2007 football season, asked to step in as interim athletic director when Steve Pederson was fired that October.

Within two months of taking the position, the “interim” tag was removed. By 2009, he no longer had any end date on his contract.

“I think things were rocky when he came in, and then his leadership kind of calmed the waters,” said NU Regent Tim Clare. “And once he kind of calmed things down, I think you saw things kind of stabilize in the coaching ranks, you saw things stabilize from the donors’ perspective, and financially, he’s put the athletic department in a great setting. And then facilitieswise, he’s taken that to unprecedented levels.”

But if looking for the monumental moment of Osborne’s time as athletic director, you probably need to start with his role in helping direct Nebraska to the Big Ten Conference in the turbulent summer of 2010.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has said the connection he quickly formed with both Osborne and Perlman was significant in helping that merger go from just an idea to reality.

“There was a sense that these people are good people,” Delany once said.

No doubt, Perlman said, Osborne’s reputation was significant in helping Nebraska’s cause during those key weeks.

“More than just the connection, it was, ‘When Tom Osborne walks in a room, he represents something,’” Perlman said. “And it’s not just three national championships. That’s what I think people in Nebraska don’t understand as much as when you see him out amongst other groups. It’s not the national championships. It’s the sustainability of excellence over a long period of time. It’s the integrity. It’s the self-assuming nature of the man. It’s hard to not have such respect for him."

But always there was speculation about when Osborne would step away from the athletic department.

The reason was hardly lost on him.

“The aging process is kind of interesting …” he said in beginning his announcement Wednesday.

He recalled a moment from the news conference back in March to announce the hiring of men’s basketball coach Tim Miles. One of the first questions to Miles was what he thinks about working for a 75-year-old athletic director.

“So, at some point, whether you’re able to function or not, the perception that you’re getting old can get in the way,” Osborne said. “So I don’t want to be one of those guys that everybody’s walking around wringing their hands trying to figure out, ‘What are we going to do with him?’”

Health issues? Osborne said he’s in better health than he was when he was a congressman.

But because of his age, the guessing game about his departure date and who his successor might be was always there.

“It’s a little bit like being invited to an Irish wake or something and you’re supposed to be the body but you’re still walking around,” Osborne joked in an interview with the Journal Star this summer.

It was August, he says, when he made the decision to retire, notifying Perlman, who had asked for advance notice so he could begin a search for a replacement.

Perlman said it was decided at that time that an announcement about Osborne’s retirement would come some time around Oct. 1.

Referring to Osborne as “a real treasure,” Perlman said Osborne had “certainly stabilized the department” and “brought our facilities to a different level.”

Among the most notable facility upgrades are the East Stadium expansion and the building of the new Pinnacle Bank Arena in the Haymarket district. Both will be completed next year.

But there’s also been the addition of the Hendricks Training Facility for basketball, an indoor facility for baseball and softball, with plans to move the volleyball team to a renovated Devaney Sports Center.

It may be the addition of the Student Life Complex in West Stadium, however, that Osborne takes as much pride in as any of those other projects.

As athletic director, he has hired six head coaches, most notably Bo Pelini, Miles and Darin Erstad.

How those three coaches perform going forward will certainly play a significant role in how some grade Osborne’s time as athletic director.

Nebraska’s on-field performances from last year were nothing to jump up and down about. The Huskers won three conference championships — volleyball, gymnastics and indoor track and field – but none came in men’s sports. And football is trying to snap a conference championship drought that is going on 13 years.

“I think we have good potential,” Osborne said this summer of Husker sports. “But people don’t usually judge you by potential.”

But Osborne said Wednesday he feels the athletic department is “well positioned” going forward, and believes the culture inside it has improved since he arrived.

His first objective upon taking the AD post in 2007 simply was to improve morale within the department.

“The first meetings, the first day that I was on the job, it was 8 o’clock in the morning, I walked into a meeting of the executive team, and we had two or three mental counselors talking to them about stress reduction,” Osborne said. “I thought, ‘Well, this is odd.’ I wouldn’t say things were awful, but things were a little fragmented.”

He soon came to another big decision — deciding to fire Bill Callahan after a 5-7 season, then hiring Pelini eight days later. 

Despite the way it ended five years ago, Callahan did tell the Associated Press on Wednesday that he was happy for Osborne and wished him well in his retirement.

“The old coach did retire. He's paid his dues,” Callahan said. “He’s got such a great love for Nebraska that I thought he was going to probably be there forever. ... I think he’s a smart man, one of the greatest football, college football, coaches in the history of the game.”

Pelini said in a statement it’s been a privilege to work for Osborne, describing him as “a great leader, mentor and friend.”

Of course, in this state, Osborne also owns the tag of legend.

Perlman has seen the power of Osborne’s popularity even on the road, where a seemingly simple walk with the athletic director around an opposing stadium can turn into an adventure.

“A walk that would usually take five minutes takes 20, because people want to stop for an autograph or to say hello,” Perlman said.

The power of Oz.

Now, who takes the athletic director’s chair?

Whatever worthy candidates there might be, Regent Tim Clare says it should be clear from the start that the man leaving the post is one of a kind.

“You don’t ever replace Tom Osborne,” said Clare, “because he can’t ever be replaced.”

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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