Tom Osborne didn’t set out to be a college football coach. When that came about, he didn’t worry about making big bucks, which would later become a staple of the profession. Even when he was athletic director at Nebraska from 2007 through 2012, he was probably the lowest paid athletic director of any major college in the country. His salary in this runaway sports salary era was $250,000.
Nebraska got the steal of the century.
Osborne even ran for political office and was elected on the premise that he would unfailingly serve the people of his district, that every day as a U.S. Congressman, he would do his dead-leveled best to make life better for the people of this country. No lobbyist would ever get his hooks into this soft-spoken native of Hastings, Neb., where Kool-Aid was invented in 1927.
As a kid, Osborne enjoyed sports and was good enough to play in the NFL for three years as a receiver for the Redskins and 49ers. He then became an unpaid assistant for Bob Devaney, who took the Cornhuskers from perennial bottom-feeders in the old Big Eight Conference to penthouse status.
Osborne later became Devaney’s offensive coordinator and succeeded him as head coach in 1973. Devaney, who won back-to-back national championships in 1970-71, had planned to retire. Since the 1940s, no team had won three national championships in a row, so Devaney asked Osborne to wait a year to become head coach.
In 1972, Nebraska lost to UCLA and Oklahoma, each by three points, and was tied by Iowa State in Ames. That third consecutive national championship was not to be. Devaney stepped aside.
In 1983, Osborne developed a powerhouse squad that many were calling the team of the century. With Mike Rozier at I-back, the Cornhuskers steamrolled almost every team on the schedule, scoring 44 points on Penn State, 84 on Minnesota, 72 on Iowa State, 69 on Colorado and 63 on Syracuse. The Big Red were tested only in road trips to Oklahoma State, winning 14-10, and Oklahoma, 28-21.
Osborne was primed for his first national championship, but had to play Miami in the Orange Bowl, where the Hurricanes had home-field advantage. On top of that, Georgia upset No. 2 Texas in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 1984, and that provided an emotional jolt for the Hurricanes. Miami took a 17-0 lead against Nebraska.
With a commitment from the Orange Bowl for a book project, I flew from Dallas to Miami to see what would be the national championship game. Two things are indelible from that experience.
The Cornhuskers were able to rally and scored a touchdown late in the game to cut Miami’s lead to 31-30. I was standing no more than 15 yards from Osborne, who never hesitated. Many think he could have kicked the extra point and backed into a national championship.
Osborne was in Georgia last week and spoke to the Athens Touchdown Club. Prior to the meeting he said he never considered not attempting a two-point conversion, a pass that failed by mere inches.
“I know,” he said, “I would have never voted for a coach who didn’t go for the win.”
For the longest time, it appeared that Osborne would not win a national title. Finally, in 1994 — as he began thinking of retirement — he won his first national title. He won another in 1995 and a final title in 1997. Fate doesn’t always smile on every coach as it did with Osborne, but no coach was ever more deserving that this introspective and selfless man.
The other unforgettable moment in Miami came at the end of the game. Outside the locker room was Devaney, overwhelmed with frustration. He had segued from the position of head coach to full-time athletic director. He asked, “Do you think that Tom can still win coach of the year honors?” That was a poignant circumstance. Not often does an athletic director (who was also the football coach) support his successor like Devaney did Osborne.
Osborne will serve on the committee that will determine the Division I FBS playoff teams next season when that historic first for major college football comes about. Just as he was as a player, coach and member of the U. S. House of Representatives, we can count on Tom Osborne exercising the principles of honesty, integrity and fair play.
He didn’t want to serve on the committee but didn’t know how to say no. If the others on the committee are as qualified as Osborne, they will get it right.
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.