The only current Nebraska football assistant coach to work on Tom Osborne’s staff clearly remembers the day he came for his job interview. The humble actions of Osborne on that day left a lasting impression on Ron Brown and helped form an unbreakable bond of respect.
Osborne announced his retirement Wednesday and Brown, the Huskers' running backs coach, was the go-to guy for perspective on what his mentor means to the program.
A young assistant coach from an Ivy League school (Brown University), Brown flew to Lincoln in 1987 to interview for the wide receivers/tight ends coaching job at Nebraska. There to greet him was Osborne, who had yet to win any of his three national championships.
Brown was surprised to find that Osborne showed up in a station wagon and insisted on carrying his bags.
Brown served as an assistant at Nebraska from 1987 to 2003, then rejoined the staff in 2008.
“He took a chance on me,” Brown said. “I had no previous relationship at all with Nebraska or him. I’m kind of the walk-on coach. He was kind of champion of the walk-on player, not only the scholarship player. The black kid from the inner city or the white kid from rural Nebraska, it doesn’t matter. Most of all, he’s done it with a lot of class and a lot of dignity. We’ll miss him, without a doubt.”
Just minutes before Osborne and UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman met with the media Wednesday, Osborne received a standing ovation from Brown and other athletic staff members.
“We were kind of surprised,” Brown said. “It caught me off-guard. We knew at some point it was going to happen and Tom has never been a guy who wants to overstay his welcome. If anything, he left early, just like he did when he left the coaching ranks when he was 60 years old. He had years left in him, no question he did.”
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Brown said Osborne proved his loyalty to the program by staying in Nebraska even when he lost the gubernatorial race in 2006 and then by responding when the university called on him to right the ship in the athletic department in 2007.
“The mark of a great man is that he doesn’t negotiate the non-negotiables,” Brown said. “He came back and brought a real healing and peace to the program. It starts with his relationship with people. He treats people with great sensitivity and love. Everyone in the athletic department was all on the same page. He was a servant leader.”
Osborne touched thousands of lives during his tenure at Nebraska, and Brown recalled the best piece of advice he ever got from Osborne.
“I was getting in trouble speaking up on an issue regarding our faith, and he said, ‘Look, whatever you do, keep saying the same thing. Don’t change your story for the media all the time, don’t try to kiss up. Once you start doing that you lose credibility.’ He told me that back in 1999.”
Osborne made the change from head coach to athletic director seamlessly, and Brown said he knows how.
“It starts with a foundation of caring for people,” he said. “Starting with the athletes, making sure the culture around here really nurtured them into well-rounded people. He didn’t want people to be one-dimensional. He talked a lot about not only the physical and mental but the spiritual.
“I hope he really enjoys his retirement years. He's an active guy and doesn’t like to just sit around the office. He’s been a fixture. He’s given me a lot of grace. We haven’t always agreed on every single thing in life, but we’ve agreed on a lot of things. He’s been a really good friend.”