Lincoln is not a bad place to be stuck in if you care about family values, hearty food and truck-stop philosophy. The earth there is dark and as flat as a coffee table. Somewhere a train whistles. The girl at the five-and-dime rings up a roll of Lifesavers and adds the sales tax, saying, "That'll be 35 cents, plus the government." It's a town where you can disappear into your own thoughts for 31 years—a perfect place for Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a shy, deeply private man whose apparent goal is to be invisible. "There are times when I'd like to evaporate," he says.
Sometimes it seems that he already has. His face is as white and starched as his shirt. His eyes are blue and kindly but distant, like something reflected in a storefront window. "Some fella the other day called me a bowl of Cream of Wheat," he says, and he attempts to laugh. His mouth twists into an awkward smile, then folds back into its natural expression, which is rueful.
"Tom has never rolled up his britches and danced on a tabletop," says Iowa State coach Jim Walden, an old acquaintance. Instead of dancing, for more than three decades Osborne has jogged three miles a day, five days a week, around the same Nebraska track. "I guess I'm in a rut," he says.
Some rut. For 21 straight years the Cornhuskers have won at least nine games and gone to a bowl. And on Oct. 7 Osborne, 56, reached the 200-victory mark, joining only two other active coaches, Joe Paterno of Penn State and Bobby Bowden of Florida State. But the true reward of his profession has always eluded him: He has never won a national championship.
December 27, 1993
A Nebraska victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 would give Osborne that missing title and, in a single stroke, transform his career from workmanlike to brilliant. The Cornhuskers (11-0) are No. 1 in the coaches' poll and the bowl-coalition rankings, while Bowden's Seminoles (11-1) are No. 1 in the AP poll. About this apparent slight, Osborne lapses into characteristic silence. "He doesn't really [complain] out loud," linebacker Trev Alberts says. "I guess because the subject frustrates him."
It was for just such reticence that Osborne was nicknamed Yak in high school in Hastings, Neb. But in a rare burst of eloquence he has called the national championship "my albatross." Indeed, his failure to win the title has colored his career and rendered his relationship with Nebraska fans "uneasy," he says. For while Osborne has never brought the Cornhuskers to grief, he has never raised them to the heights they reached with back-to-back national championships in 1971-72 under Bob Devaney. Osborne has won only the games he was supposed to win, losing to a lower-ranked team just twice in 251 games. But Nebraska has lost its last six bowl games, and it has beaten a Top 10 team just once in its last eight attempts.
Osborne doesn't need his doctorate in educational psychology to realize that some people regard him as the guy who always loses the big one. He also understands that no one wants to hear about the mitigating circumstances, such as: In five of those six bowls Nebraska's opponent was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2; and three of the losses were to either Miami or Florida State, in Florida. Osborne isn't one to argue. He simply tells his secretary to screen out the hate mail, and he simmers in his own mild fashion. "Our obsession with Number One in this country tends to drive us toward the conclusion that you have to reach the top of the hill, and everybody else is a loser." he says.
The truth is, Osborne considers himself the possessor of an unofficial national championship. On Jan. 1, 1984, at the Orange Bowl, a Cornhusker team regarded by many as one of the best ever to play college football suffered an excruciating upset loss to Miami, 31-30, when Osborne chose to go for a two-point conversion and a victory in the final seconds. Kicking an extra point for a tie would have given Nebraska the title. Osborne doesn't second-guess his decision; he just consoles himself with the idea that the pursuit of a national championship is as rewarding, he says, as "the actual achievement." But this New Year's Day the pursuit may be uphill: The Cornhuskers are 17½-point underdogs to the Seminoles.
One of Osborne's staunchest defenders is Devaney, who gives much of the credit for his titles in 1971 and '72 to the young assistant who was his chief play caller. Devaney believes that Osborne demonstrated long ago that he has the fire to win the championship. "He's not a person to irritate," Devaney says. "He will take only so much pushing around." He can launch a locker-room tirade so furious that it leaves him trembling. "He gets so mad, his eyes kind of water," says kicker Byron Bennett. But the strongest word this Sunday-school teacher employs is dadgumit.
No, Osborne is not funny, but he has a weakness for irreverent players like Bennett, a mouthy Texan who takes the astonishing liberty of calling Osborne "Yakkety" to his face. And although Osborne is a teetotaler, he enjoys a party. "I don't know anybody who doesn't like him," says Husker running back Calvin Jones.
Then again, virtually nobody outside of Osborne's wife, Nancy, and three children claims to know him. His best friends, he says, are "fish guides." Osborne's idea of a vacation is to cast a line into a pond on his working farm in Valparaiso, Neb. He likes fishing because it offers him unbroken solitude. He tried golf for a while but discovered that on the links Nebraskans still tried to talk to him about the national title.
Still, he protests, "I'm not the shrinking violet people think I am. I'm not a recluse. But what I do for a living is such an open book. It happens in front of 75,000 people every week. So I try to hang on to something."
What he would love to let go of is the pressure he has been under since he took over from Devaney, who was not only wildly successful but also famously charming. By comparison, Osborne looked bloodless. Comparing him with Devaney, in fact, became a joke on Osborne's first team, the '73 squad. One day during a quarterback drill someone suggested that Osborne, a former receiver who played three seasons in the NFL, run a route. He cheerfully sprinted out for a pass. Quarterback David Humm fired a bullet, and as Osborne caught it a defensive back speared him in the back, upending him and knocking the ball loose.
As Osborne slowly got to his feet, Humm said, "Devaney would've hung on to that one."
Being undervalued is the story of Osborne's life at Nebraska. He spent his first three years there working for no pay. In 1962 Devaney had grudgingly given Osborne a job as an unsalaried assistant while he took postgrad courses in psychology. Devaney assigned Osborne a dormitory room and told him he could eat his meals at the training table, but that was all the coach offered. "I didn't treat him very well," Devaney says.
Devaney and his staff were a back-slapping bunch who spent their time on the golf course or in bars when they weren't coaching, and they viewed the studious, . churchgoing new assistant with skepticism. "He was different from the other guys," says Walden, who was on that staff. "But he didn't look down on anybody." Devaney figured Osborne would quit after a year or two. "I thought he'd be a schoolteacher," Devaney says.
But it gradually became apparent that this quietest assistant had a galvanic touch with the offense and a steadying influence with troubled players. One of Osborne's least-likely relationships was with Johnny Rodgers, the searingly fast wing-back whose brilliant career as a Cornhusker was largely attributable to Osborne, even though the two of them rarely agreed on anything but football. Rodgers, who led the Cornhuskers to the national title in 1971, became Osborne's personal charge. Osborne devised schemes to get the ball to Rodgers, and the coach and player ran together every day, talking about football and the world in general. "We talked and we ran, we ran and we talked," says Rodgers, who eventually left school with the Heisman but no degree.
Today Rodgers is a 42-year-old undergraduate at Nebraska majoring in broadcasting. He returned to school this semester under an NCAA community-service program that allows schools to put former players back on scholarship to earn their degrees. Osborne helped Rodgers gain access to the program. "We don't sec eye-to-eye on many things," Rodgers says. "He's always disapproved of my lifestyle. I took chances, and Tom was more settled. But one thing we agree on is that we're friends. He's treated me the same way for 20 years: honestly."
Like Rodgers, Osborne is an impassioned defender of the athletic scholarship as an agent of social change. Osborne has bucked the NCAA's attempts to raise academic standards for athletes, arguing that the standards are elitist and that college entrance tests are racially biased. He believes that many underprivileged athletes will be shut out if they can't qualify for admission as athletic exceptions. To bolster his arguments, he notes that his players who have completed their eligibility have had an 81% graduation rate, that 29 of them have been designated Academic All-Americas and that 143 have been named to the All-Academic Big Eight team. Osborne proudly points to players such as fifth-year senior Kevin Raemakers, a star defensive lineman this season, who barely gained admission to Nebraska but graduated in four years.
The coach puts his money where his mouth is. Several years ago he started a grassroots youth program in Omaha to help children who are in danger of dropping out of high school. Every year he adds $10,000 of his own money to the effort. "Tom does his duty," says Nebraska associate athletic director Don Bryant. "When he retires there probably won't be a lot of great, hilarious stories about him. But there will be some poignant ones."
Why does greatness elude Osborne? One widely accepted explanation is that he has relied on a one-dimensional option offense and on big, corn-fed linemen who can dominate their Big Eight counterparts but are too slow for the opponents they have faced in the bowls. Lately, however, Osborne has added more passing schemes and recruited smaller, swifter linemen and linebackers. The '93 Cornhusker squad is the quickest in years, and Alberts may be the fastest linebacker in college football.
Another chapter in the book on Osborne reads that he is too boring to uplift a team. "He is not a motivational-type guy," says Rodgers. "He's not a general. If you can't pump the guys up, you need someone on the staff who can." Osborne's staff, some observers believe, is not among the best in college football. No assistant of Osborne's has gone on to excel as a head coach elsewhere.
In the end, though, a great coach should be larger than life. The statesmanlike Paterno is revered, and the colorful Bowden (who, no one needs to remind Osborne, is also without a national championship) is beloved. Osborne is unapologetically ordinary. And he gets satisfaction from the notion that with or without a title, he may never leave Nebraska.
"There's no place I'd prefer to get to," he says.