Lincoln is not a bad place to be 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 33 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 26 straight years the Cornhuskers have won at least
nine games and have gone to a bowl. Last season Osborne, 57, reached
the 200-victory mark, joining only two other active coaches, Joe
Paterno of Penn State and Bobby Bowden of Florida State. And,
finally, on Jan. 1, he achieved the ultimate reward of his
profession, the one that had always eluded him. Tom Osborne won a
Nebraska's victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl gave Osborne that
missing title and, in a single stroke, transformed his career from
workmanlike to brilliant. It also redeemed years of criticism that he
couldn't win the big one. In retrospect, Osborne's characteristic
silence in the face of perennial skepticism and Monday-morning
quarterbacking now looks like quiet grace.
''He doesn't really complain out loud,'' former Cornhusker
linebacker Trev Alberts once observed. ''I guess because the subject
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
once called the national championship ''my albatross.'' Indeed, his
failure to win the title colored his career and rendered his
relationship with Nebraska fans ''uneasy,'' he says. For while
Osborne had never brought the Cornhuskers to grief, neither had he
ever raised them to the heights they reached with back- to-back
national championships in 1971 and '72 under Bob Devaney. Osborne
won only the games he was supposed to win, losing to a lower-ranked
team just twice in 268 games. Until the victory over Miami, Nebraska
had lost its last seven bowl games and had beaten a Top 10 team just
two times in its last nine attempts.
Osborne didn't need his doctorate in educational psychology to
realize that some people regarded him as the guy who always loses the
big one. He also understood that no one wanted to hear about the
mitigating circumstances, such as these: In six of those seven bowl
losses, Nebraska's opponent was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2; and
four of the losses were to either Miami or Florida State -- in
Florida. Osborne has never been one to argue. He simply told his
secretary to screen out the hate mail, and he simmered in his own
mild fashion. ''Our obsession with Number 1 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 said last season.
One of Osborne's staunchest defenders has been 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
national title. ''He's not a person to irritate,'' Devaney says. ''He
will take only so much pushing around.'' Indeed, Osborne can launch a
locker room tirade so furious that it leaves him trembling. ''He gets
so mad, his eyes kind of water,'' former kicker Byron Bennett once
observed. But the strongest word this Sunday-school teacher employs
Hardly anybody other than 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 even on the links Nebraskans tried to talk to him
about the national championship.
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.''
One thing Osborne finally let go of was the pressure he had been
under since he took over from Devaney, who was not only wildly
successful but also famously charming. By comparison, Osborne seemed
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 has been the story of Osborne's life at
Nebraska. He spent his first three years there working for no pay. In
1962 Devaney grudgingly gave the 25-year-old 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 backslapping bunch who spent their
time on the golf course or in bars when they weren't coaching, and
they viewed the studious and 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 probably quit after a year or two. ''I
thought he'd be a schoolteacher,'' Devaney says.
But it gradually became apparent to all those around him that this
quietest assistant had a galvanic touch with the offense and a
steadying influence on troubled players. One of Osborne's
least-likely relationships was with Johnny Rodgers, the searingly
fast wingback 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 -- away from the
field -- 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 44-year-old undergraduate at Nebraska majoring
in broadcasting. He returned to school in the fall of '93 under an
NCAA community-service program that allows schools to put former
players back on scholarship so that they can earn their degrees.
Osborne helped Rodgers gain access to the program.
''We don't see eye to eye on many things,'' Rodgers says of his
former coach. ''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.''
January 17, 1995
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 42 of them have been designated first-team Academic All-Americas
and that 155 have been named to the All-Academic Big Eight team.
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 did greatness elude Osborne for so long? One widely accepted
explanation is that he relied on a one-dimensional option offense and
on big, corn-fed linemen who could dominate their Big Eight
counterparts but were too slow for the opponents they faced in the
bowls. Lately, however, Osborne has added more passing schemes and
recruited smaller, swifter linemen and linebackers. The Cornhuskers
served notice that they were a changed team in '93 with one of their
quickest and most ambitious teams in years. An unbeaten squad went
into the Orange Bowl against top-ranked Florida State as 17 1/2-point
underdogs. Instead the Huskers played the Seminoles, supposedly one
of the best offensive teams in college football history, to a draw
before losing in the final moments on Scott Bentley's field goal.
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.'' But does a great coach have to be
larger than life? Perhaps not. The statesmanlike Paterno is revered,
and the colorful Bowden (who, no one needs to remind Osborne, was
also without a national championship until the '94 Orange Bowl) is
beloved. Osborne is unapologetically ordinary. Title in hand, he may
never leave Nebraska.
''There's no place I'd prefer to get to,'' he says.