In advance of Thursday’s premiere of “Day by Day: The Rise” at Rococo Theatre, 85-year-old Tom Osborne reflected on his career, the beginnings of the TeamMates mentoring program, how he handled being an offensive coordinator and a CEO, and commented on what he doesn’t miss about the game.
Q. How much were you interviewed for this documentary, and how much of it have you seen advance of the premiere?
Tom Osborne: Well, I was interviewed for maybe 45 minutes or an hour altogether, and I’ve seen bits and pieces of it. I haven’t seen the whole thing. I do know they’ve worked real hard on it and put together a lot of player interviews. As far as what’s in the movie, I’m sure there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes that I don’t know about. I know what went on when we were on the field for games and practices, but you never quite know how players feel about things, and it will be interesting to see those interviews. I think it will be somewhat revealing about what went on during that period of time.
(Filming of “Day By Day” began in 2019, and Bobby Bowden was interviewed for the documentary shortly before he died in 2021.)
Q. I’ll bet it brought back a lot of memories. How meaningful was it to see Bobby Bowden and Barry Switzer interviewed for this project?
TO: Bobby was probably the coach that was closest to me during the time I was coaching. His kind words mean a lot. Of course, Barry and I have stayed in touch over the years. I don’t talk to him every week, but probably every couple three months I talk to him on the phone or send him an e-mail. He’s also been a good friend. We shared a lot of experiences, because we played every year.
Q. Do any other surprises come to mind, based on what you saw in the preview?
TO: Of course, all the players I saw I expected to be interviewed. There weren’t lot of surprises that way. I imagine any surprises I’ll find will be how the players felt, things about team chemistry, maybe how they felt about games coming up. I think those things will be more interesting to the fans, what the players were thinking and experiencing as opposed to what you could see on TV or in the stadium. You don’t know what s going on inside a player’s head, even on the practice field or away from the practice field. Those things will be interesting to me.
Q. I understand this project will benefit the TeamMates program. Tell me about the beginnings of TeamMates, and who was instrumental in that?
TO: We (Tom and Nancy Osborne) started TeamMates back in 1991, and it was 22 football players matched with 22 seventh- and eighth-grade boys in Lincoln Public Schools. We asked the players to mentor those guys and spend some time with them during the week, primarily in the schools. That’s how it started. Eventually the program grew. All 22 of those original kids graduated. 21 graduated on time, and one of them was riding dirt bikes around the country making some money, and he graduated a year later. And of those boys, 18 went to college. That was a lot better than we thought. Then in Lincoln we started using more adults as mentors, then it spread into neighboring states. We’ve mentored 42,000 kids over 30 years. We didn’t anticipate it would be a program of this size. We wanted to do something for some kids. We thought it would be a good thing for players to do something for somebody else. That’s how it all started.”
Q. What are you most pleased about the way TeamMates has grown and developed over the years?
TO: We find in about 85 percent of the matches, school attendance improves, then behavior improves, and they retain classroom instruction better. Then they become more hopeful about the future, they see some light at the end of the tunnel. Hope is pretty significant to improve later-in-life success. These mentors are able to provide a spark of hope in difficult circumstances. Education plays a big role. We’ve consistently graduated between 95 to 98 percent of our seniors. And I think they’ve also benefited from a positive role model in their life. Some of the mentors — quite a few— stay with the kids after they graduate high school and continue to work with them in college. The main mentoring is done from third grade through 12th grade.
Q. How much of your time does TeamMates take these days?
TO: I go to the TeamMates office pretty much every day. Sometimes I’m there one or two hours, and sometimes four or five hours. I do quite a bit of mentor recruitment, sometimes in Lincoln, sometimes in Omaha. I probably spend 20 to 25 hours a week with TeamMates. I also mentor a couple of young men, and see them pretty much weekly. I started with them in eighth grade, and they’ve gone through high school and into college. I sometimes talk to them on the phone, but see them personally quite a bit.
Q. Getting back into football, how was coaching the ‘70s and ‘80s Huskers different from coaching in the ’90s? What unique challenges did each decade present?
TO: I’d say in the ‘70s, following Bob Devaney was not easy. In his last three years, he only lost two games, and won two national championships. The bar was set fairly high. Bob was a pretty gregarious guy, and I was only 35 years old, and people didn’t know me very well. We won, but we went 9-3, 10-3, and people didn’t think it was very good compared to what Bob finished up. I suppose some people thought I wasn’t the right guy for the job. We didn't beat Oklahoma for the first five times we played them. Some of those Oklahoma games, we thought we had it won, but they’d make a big play and pull it out at the end. After we finally beat them, we pretty much played them evenly and did pretty well. We went 12-1 and 13-1 in 1982 and 1983, and then things got better, and of course, the ‘90s were good. It was kind of a process, and we did the best we could.
Q. What was the secret to you being able to be your own offensive coordinator and still keep a handle on everything as the CEO of the football program?
TO: Starting at 7 a.m., I would sit with the defensive coaches for the first hour or so of each day, with the defensive staff. We’d go over the preceding day’s practice film. Then probably from 9 o’clock on, most of the time I was with the offensive coaches. Meetings with the quarterbacks were about 1:30, general meetings around 2:30 and practice started at 3. I spent a lot of time watching film, probably 30 to 35 hours a week watching film of our opponent’s defense. I had a good feel for what they would do in certain situations. It was certainly more time consuming, but it was something I enjoyed doing, setting strategy. It was something I had done for Bob and I kind of fell into that role. I tried to keep a good handle on the defense, and the kicking game.
Q. What about your coaching improved the most as the years went by?
TO: I don’t know, I suppose the more you do something, hopefully you learn a little bit. I think our staff was real good, and we were together a long time. We developed a lot of institutional knowledge. Sometimes, with me calling the plays, somebody would see in the first series on the field, the opponent was lined up differently than what we’d seen in the game film. Sometimes teams had done that to us years before, and these guys had good ideas on how to counteract it. Same thing defensively, sometimes teams would come out in a set that we hadn’t seen all year, but one of the coaches would share what we’d done against that formation a few years ago. Quite often when we were on defense, I’d be on the phones with our coaches in the box, we’d stay in communication.
Q. What was the thing you did best over the course of your career as Nebraska head coach?
TO: I think we treated players well, and they knew we valued them, tried to make sure they got an education. We hoped that they’d turn into good fathers, husbands and good citizens. The overwhelming majority did do that. Some guys surprise you occasionally, but we had good team chemistry and attitude. I think we were somewhat innovative. Boyd Epley came on board with the weight program, and we started a nutrition program which I think was maybe the first. We also got into sports psychology, and developed the Unity Council, which was very helpful to us in the 1990s. For the most part, we got along well as coaches. I think the reason we had our coaches stay together as long as they did was because they felt appreciated and were treated well, they thought it was a good place to coach.
Q. What adversity do today’s coaches face that you didn’t have to?
TO: I didn’t have to deal with Name, Image and Likeness, and I didn’t have to deal with the transfer portal. Sometimes players can leave on a whim and be immediately eligible to play somewhere else. We didn’t have all the transferring. We didn’t have to spend large amounts of money to make sure your players felt satisfied with playing. Those are the biggest, from my perspective. There may be some who would not agree, but there are a lot of coaches who are kind of shaking their heads right now.
Q. How often do you go to Husker football practice these days, how involved do you get, and does Scott Frost ask for your advice?
TO: I probably go there one or two practices a week. I try to talk to Scott every couple of weeks. He knows he can get in touch with me any time he wants to. He can call me. He’s been in coaching a long time; he knows what he wants to do. I don’t want to be a nuisance or a micromanager. If I think of something that I think might help, I present it to him, but I really don’t do that a lot.
- Coming Thursday: Jared Tomich interview
- Coming Friday: Grant Wistrom interview
- More about the series
Tom Osborne in his first year as head coach, 1973.
Tom Osborne conferring with an official.
Quarterback Tommie Frazier and coach Tom Osborne during the 1994 Kickoff Classic game against West Virginia.
Tom Osborne leads the team into the stadium at Oklahoma in 1992.
Tom Osborne during his introduction as Nebraska athletic director in 2007.
Tom Osborne on the sidelines during the 1994 national championship season.