He wanted to disappear. He wanted everyone to show up at work
sometime in May and simply find him gone. That way there'd be
none of the hugging, the wet eyes, the searching glances by
friends and staff and players wanting to see if he was all
right. Better, there'd be none of those invasive questions from
reporters trying to tunnel under his reserve and unearth some
sense of loss: What are your emotions, Tom? How do you feel? No,
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne would've given plenty to avoid what
the 1998 Orange Bowl became last week, an uppercase
event--OSBORNE'S LAST GAME!--that was at once a tribute to his
career, justification of his system and a long, sweet goodbye.
Nothing, to a shy man, could be more distasteful. "This has been
a difficult week," Osborne said before the game. "I would have
much preferred to have gone away."
Yet, in his last game, typical Osborne self-effacement was
exactly what Nebraska didn't need. What the Cornhuskers,
undefeated but ranked No. 2 and derided because of a suspect win
over Missouri, needed was any and every attention-grabbing ploy
that might edge them into the title picture--a lopsided score
over No. 3 Tennessee, sentiment for Osborne, shameless
campaigning. For one night a Nebraska football game needed to be
what it rarely is: a spectacle.
So it was. Rendering Volunteers legend Peyton Manning useless
and grinding up the Tennessee defense with a spectacularly
punishing running attack, the Cornhuskers swatted aside the Vols
42-17, dared to dump a bucket of ice on their coach and then
acted just as aggressively in the postgame press conference.
"If anybody can honestly find it in their heart not to vote us
Number 1, that's their problem," said senior defensive end Grant
Wistrom. "If you're just going to give it to Michigan because
they haven't won in 45 years, then we don't want it anyway."
It all worked. Last Saturday the coaches who vote in the USA
Today/ESPN poll declared Nebraska No. 1, handing Osborne his
third national championship in four years--a feat accomplished
only twice before, by Minnesota's Bernie Bierman (1934, '35,
'36) and Notre Dame's Frank Leahy (1946, '47, '49). Once
ridiculed as a loser in big games, Osborne went out a winner
without peer: the first coach since Knute Rockne in 1930 to win
a national title in his final game, a 49-2 record over his last
four seasons and the highest winning percentage (.836) among
active Division I-A coaches.
"I can't think of a better way to go out," Osborne said, his
voice set at the usual monotone after the win. "I'm just pleased
the players played how they played." The next morning, when he
heard the news of the national title, Osborne again said he was
pleased and looked about as excited as a sleepwalker. He came
off the way he had all week--as Dr. Tom, analytical and cold. As
always, it was easy for the world to walk away from him
frustrated, sure that he was devoid of passion, wondering how a
man like this could be, of all things, a football coach.
Yet it was in football--and nowhere else--that Osborne found
himself years ago, and it was only in football that anyone
looking for his emotions would find them last week. In 1962
Osborne was studying for his doctorate in educational psychology
and working as a graduate assistant coach at Nebraska to support
himself. He wanted to be a teacher. But "when it came time to
make the final decision, I just could not pull away from the
game of football," he said last week. "It surprised me."
For a quarter century, the surprises continued. Osborne became
so entranced with the game that his wife, Nancy, and their three
kids, Ann, Mike and Suzi, often found themselves left out. Even
this year, after Osborne had all but decided that his age (60),
ailing heart and desire for continuity in the Huskers program
were reason enough to retire, he missed Nancy's birthday last
fall. "That's terrible," Osborne said. "I forgot about it. But
one day's like another when you're coaching, and I went right on
"The sacrifices have been made not by me. My wife has had a lot
of solitary moments, a lot of solitary times...as have my
children. That's bothered me. One thing I've thought about is
that I might coach until I'm 65 or 70 and then go out of this
game halfway feet first, but what would be left for them? I
don't know if you ever make up for what you've lost. I probably
On Dec. 10 Osborne announced he was retiring. But he admitted he
still would've loved to coach another season. "Every night I'll
be tired and say I'm going to go to bed at 10, and then I start
watching one of those crazy games and it's 11, 11:30--and I'm
still watching," he said. "I just really love football. But
there's more to life. I'll move on. I'll be fine."
Maybe. But up to the end he still couldn't pull away. No one
would have blamed Osborne had he cruised through the
preparations for his final game, giving the reins to his
handpicked successor, assistant Frank Solich. But Osborne
remained as focused as ever, and when the Rose Bowl ended, he
called a team meeting. "The door is still open, at least a
crack," he told his players. "It's open, and we've got to take
Two hours before the Orange Bowl kickoff, he ran, alone, onto
the field at a near- empty Pro Player Stadium and looked around.
He'd had so many moments, good and bad, in Orange Bowl
games--missing the two-point conversion against Miami in 1984,
losing to Florida State in '94, beating Miami for his first
title in '95. But Osborne hadn't come on field to reminisce. He
was trying to read the wind.
Osborne will be remembered as the sport's ultimate detail man, a
coach whose exhaustive conditioning program, deep rosters and
conservative offenses left little to chance. But what's lost in
nearly all depictions of Osborne is the ruthlessness he musters
come game time. His manner conveys a brainy, Bill Walsh style of
ball, but his best teams always have relied on savagery.
Opponents get hurt when they play the Huskers. "It's a physical
style of football, just knocking people down," Osborne said last
week. "Eventually that takes a toll."
Last Friday night a parade of Volunteers limped off the field.
Osborne kept pushing for more. At halftime, with Nebraska up
14-3, he told his team, "Winning isn't enough." The Huskers had
to make a statement to have a chance at a championship.
Tennessee had to be broken.
In reply his offensive linemen told Osborne they could sense the
Volunteers weakening--just as Miami had buckled under the force
of Nebraska's tougher, better-conditioned athletes in '95. The
linemen begged him to start running the ball between the
tackles, right down Tennessee's throat. First drive of the third
quarter Osborne called 12 plays, all but one a face-crunching
run up the middle. Nebraska marched 80 yards. Senior quarterback
Scott Frost scored to increase the lead to 21-3. It wasn't
enough. Now Osborne confronted his defense.
"I've never really seen him the way he was tonight," said
Nebraska senior defensive tackle Jason Peter. "He came and got
in everybody's face. That's very rare. Coach Osborne usually
just says, 'Come on, let's go.' But he just grabbed me and said,
'Enough is enough! You guys have got to go out there and get the
damn ball back. We've got to score some more points!' When we
heard that, we didn't want to do anything but win this game for
On the next series the Tennessee offense lost seven yards and
punted. The Volunteers were done. Osborne kept hammering away:
fullback Joel Makovicka over guard, Frost over tackle, junior
tailback Ahman Green over and over until he had run for 206
yards. Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer, who'd spent the week
praising Osborne's good nature, sounded puzzled after the game.
Then again, he'd never played an Osborne-coached team. How was
he to know he would be coming faceto-face with the man's
passion? "He's a great gentleman, I think," Fulmer said. "He
wasn't being too kind there in the second half."
With 4:24 left and the score 42-9 and the Nebraska corner of the
stands shouting, "We're No. 1!" Osborne's players were hugging,
holding up index fingers. Osborne kept speaking softly into his
mouthpiece, staring at his options on the list of plays in his
hand. It was all coming to an end, and everyone was beginning to
maneuver behind him. His son, Mike, carrying a video camera, was
stopped at the end of the Huskers' bench. "But that's my
father," he told the security guard. Tennessee scored. Peter and
Wistrom began dragging the ice bucket down the bench. The crowd
chanted, "Osborne!" Osborne adjusted the microphone on his
headset to make sure he would be heard.
The players dumped the ice on him with half a minute to go.
Peter hugged Osborne, who stared at the player as if Peter had
gone insane: What, now? During the game? Then Osborne turned
back to the game, watching with soaked pants as the seconds
ticked away. When the game ended, everyone came at him as he
headed for the middle of the field--cameras, TV reporters,
players. If only he could disappear.
He shook Fulmer's hand, but now Osborne was the center of a
jostling crowd, moving like a man carrying a beehive. He mounted
a podium in the stadium's southeast corner, where he squinted up
at the still-packed Nebraska stands. He took the Orange Bowl
trophy. He said he was proud of his players, his staff, the
fans. A bittersweet moment, he called it, and before the crowd
could react, Osborne ducked and was off, striding fast down the
At the 50-yard line the cameras caught him again, and by the
time he hit the 45, a backpedaling half circle of lights and
lenses had formed. Osborne didn't look at any of them. He was at
the 30, and his glance had shifted upward--past the seats, the
lip of the stadium, into the black sky. Flashes popped, and he
flinched. He was almost there. The tunnel loomed before him, and
Osborne picked up speed. He had got one big wish tonight, and
now another was taking shape. He was starting to fade from view.