The legend has an office in downtown Lincoln, on the fourth
floor of an ordinary building less than a mile from the Nebraska
campus. It's smaller than his spacious old digs above the south
end zone at Memorial Stadium, but a new job brings new quarters,
and this is where Tom Osborne now stays busy. It's important to
stay busy. In the infancy of his retirement from coaching, he
checked with Dean Smith and with former Washington football
coach Don James, and part of their advice was to avoid idle
time. "I arranged for the fall to be especially full," says
Osborne, sitting behind a small desk cluttered with books and
papers. "I didn't want to sit around looking at the walls."
In this modest room Osborne works up lesson plans for the two
courses he teaches at Nebraska (Sport in American University,
and Coaching of Football). He also tracks his speaking schedule,
raises money for the university and coordinates the activities
of Teammates, the eight-year-old mentoring program for Lincoln
teenagers that he and his wife, Nancy, run. Much of his work is
quite fulfilling. Still, it's a departure from his previous
occupation, in which he coached the Cornhuskers to 255 victories
in 25 years and to three national championships in four seasons,
overseeing the construction of a modern dynasty before his
retirement in January.
"I miss football," Osborne says. "I guess that's not a surprise.
You become so wrapped up in what you do that it becomes your
identity. Everybody has to find his own way to get through life
when that identity is gone. But I do miss it very much."
It's at this point that the story of the legend and his program
so often takes a sour turn. It's a story that has been told at
Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and more than once
at Notre Dame. The legend leaves, and the aura diminishes until a
great program falls slowly from its pedestal. Each season becomes
an excuse to revisit the deeds of a coach who is no longer there
and to challenge the man who is expected to meet an impossible
standard. The scenario almost inevitably leads to failure, the
pressure building as time passes. Ohio State coach John Cooper,
for instance, goes to work every day at the Woody Hayes Athletic
October 4, 1998
The story might be different at Nebraska. It has had practice at
this sort of thing, having in 1973 replaced Bob Devaney, who won
101 games and two national titles, with Osborne, his dutiful
lieutenant. Before Osborne stepped down, he extracted a promise
from the school that he would be replaced by Frank Solich, his
dutiful lieutenant. Osborne can be stubborn (e.g., Lawrence
Phillips, 1995), and on this issue he allowed little wiggle room.
Osborne has changed in the Nebraska players' eyes from a
revered, distant authority figure to a grandfatherly retired
coach who shows up at the football facility almost every day,
either to jog on the artificial turf inside the stadium or to
lift weights beneath its west stands. "It used to be you would
never just walk up to Coach Osborne and start talking to him
because he was Coach Osborne," says fifth-year senior center
Josh Heskew. "Now he seems approachable, but I miss those
cliches he would tell us in the week of a big game."
Last Saturday afternoon former Cornhuskers quarterback Scott
Frost, back in Lincoln during a bye weekend for his NFL team,
the New York Jets, stood in a radio booth high above Tom Osborne
Field at Memorial Stadium. Down below, Nebraska was dismantling
a good--but very young and intimidated, despite its No. 9
ranking--Washington team, en route to a 55-7 victory that
improved the Huskers' record to 4-0 and solidified their ranking
as the No. 2 team in the country. "I'm not surprised," said
Frost. "Credit Coach Solich. Credit Coach Osborne too. Credit
the entire program." Indeed, it could have been any afternoon in
the Osborne era. A hot wind blew from the south, the stadium was
awash in red and white, and a respectable opponent positively
froze. "Business as usual," said Frost.
Osborne's objective in choosing Solich as his replacement was to
avoid interrupting the assembly line of success that had
produced 60 wins in 63 games heading into this season. "I wanted
the staff to remain intact and the players to have continuity,"
says Osborne. That wish has been honored. Cornhuskers, Inc. is
still thriving. Daily team meetings still begin at 2 p.m.,
practice at 3. A staggering 120 players dress for home games and
roughly 150 practice each day. The offense is still a diabolical
pro option, and the defense is still voracious. The head coach
still calls the plays from the sideline. "If it's not broke, we
aren't trying to fix it," Solich said last summer, and he has
stuck to those words.
In other ways, though, Solich has been transformed from doting
assistant to leader. Staff meetings start early and run late.
Practices sometimes go longer than they're supposed to. "You can
feel a little tension because Frank is trying to make sure he's
on top of everything," says offensive line coach Milt Tenopir.
"Hey, Tom wasn't the coach at the beginning that he was at the
Osborne was seldom as fiery as Solich is in addressing the team.
Before the demolition of Washington, Solich shouted, "Fellas,
they're not ready to play with us! They're not in the condition
that we're in! They're not as strong as we are!" Solich was so
stoked, says fifth-year senior tight end Sheldon Jackson, "I
thought he was getting ready to put the pads on right there."
Solich, 54, might have liked that. He weighs 160 pounds, just
five more than when he played fullback--and rushed for more than
1,000 yards--on Devaney's teams from 1963 to '65. He could be
called an overachiever, as a player and as a coach, and it is a
label that he would not shun. Solich's 79-year-old father, also
named Frank, worked in the coal mines near the family's home in
Smokeless, Pa., 10 miles outside Johnstown, and is now in poor
health as a result of that work. "He instilled a work ethic,"
says Frank Jr. "He taught me never to expect anything to be
given to me."
The elder Solich knows that his son's Cornhuskers possess two of
the elements common to all of Osborne's great Nebraska teams: a
skilled, multidimensional quarterback, Bobby Newcombe, and an
explosive I-back, DeAngelo Evans. With Newcombe and Evans, both
sophomores, starting together for the first time last Saturday,
the Huskers cranked out 527 yards in total offense, including
434 on the ground. Evans rushed for 146 yards and three
touchdowns in his first start since the 1996 Big 12 championship
game, and Newcombe ran for 79 yards and three scores and
completed five of eight passes for 84 yards.
The deft option work of the six-foot, 195-pound Newcombe
resembles that of his predecessors, Tommie Frazier (1992-95) and
Frost (1996-97). Newcombe is a more refined passer than either
of them, however, and while he is smaller than both, he is more
elusive than Frost and faster than Frazier. "It took me about
one day to see how much athletic ability Bobby has," Frost says.
Newcombe played wingback a year ago--Nebraska was desperate to
get his talent on the field--but he also attended quarterback
meetings with Frost and begged for instruction at every turn.
Newcombe was uneasy in the days leading to Saturday's game, not
because he had sat out the two previous games with a partially
torn left knee ligament and not because Washington was a
daunting opponent, but because a pressing academic week was
hampering his preparation. Newcombe, who is double-majoring in
business management and psychology, carries a 3.0 GPA and plans
to graduate in 3 1/2 years or less, had tests last week in
economics, accounting and art history and papers due in two
other courses. He was up past 1 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday
nights. "I was calling plays wrong on the field all week because
my concentration wasn't on football," Newcombe said after
Saturday's win. His father, Robert, who talked to him on the
phone several times during the week, said, "He seemed just plain
nervous because he puts so much pressure on himself,
academically and athletically."
The father and son have shared an unusual life. Robert Newcombe
was a Peace Corps volunteer who was assigned to Sierra Leone, in
West Africa. He arrived there in August 1974 and worked as a
teacher in the Mende tribal village of Geoma Jargoh, where he
met and married Jandeh Sandi, a member of the village. Bobby was
born to the couple in August 1979, and they moved to the U.S.
before his first birthday. His parents divorced when Bobby was
16, but he remains close to both. Newcombe is the rare college
player who was raised on a diet of beans and cassava leaves and
who called his mother from the stadium before his first start.
"I believe Bobby is goal-oriented and competitive from me," says
his father. "From his mother he has a calmness. And he definitely
has the [athletic] Mende physique." Whatever the source, his
natural athleticism has long been transcendent. In his senior
year at Highland High in Albuquerque he won five events at the
New Mexico state track and field meet.
Washington couldn't touch him. After coming out of the tunnel
screeching before the kickoff ("I had never seen Bobby do that,"
said Heskew) and jumping on his teammates like a linebacker,
Newcombe exploited the Huskies' Buddy Ryan defense with killer
reads. Most of Newcombe's pitches went to Evans, who was back on
the field after twice undergoing surgery (in July and October
1997) to repair damage to the nest of groin and abdominal
muscles known as the pelvic floor. Both times Evans was cut
horizontally on his lower abdomen, as if for a cesarean section,
and he is just now approaching full strength. This is a
harrowing thought for future opponents facing what Newcombe
blithely calls "pitch-and-run football."
It is a satisfying thought for Osborne, who holds to one last
ritual of his former life. On Sunday afternoons he watches tapes
of the previous day's game. He holds a coach's clicker in his
right hand, stopping and starting the tape, watching each
Cornhusker's every move. It is tedious work, consuming long
hours, but for Osborne it brings a familiar joy. He sees plays
that he once called and players he recruited winning games on a
field named in his honor.
Best of all, he sees the line unbroken, at least for now. He sees
the machinery still humming.
Solich was so stoked before the game that one Husker thought the
coach was getting ready to put pads on.
At Cornhuskers, Inc., a staggering 120 players dress for home
games and roughly 150 attend practice each day.