Big Red Planet The former coach found Cornhuskers fanatics halfway around the world

June 13, 2004

Of course I'm biased, but I've always felt that the best college
football fans in America reside in my home state. I was reminded
of this when I traveled to the Middle East last December as
part of a congressional delegation. While meeting with our
troops in Iraq, I spoke with several soldiers who were Nebraska
natives. Instead of talking about the war on terror, all these
young men and women wanted to do was chat about the
Cornhuskers. Like nearly all Big Red fans, they were
knowledgeable and passionate about the team. One soldier even
flew a scarlet-and-cream Nebraska flag above his tent. It
really touched me that someone halfway around the world whose
life was in constant jeopardy would find a way to show his
loyalty to the school--but that's a Nebraska fan for you.

It's been six years since I retired as Cornhuskers coach. In
2000, I was elected to represent Nebraska's Third District in the
U.S. House of Representatives. I'm often asked what is more
gratifying, being a congressman or coaching the Cornhuskers. I
tell people that both are gratifying, but in different ways.

There's no question that I miss coaching. I'll always be
intrigued by the strategy that goes into football. And college
football in Nebraska is unique. We don't have a major pro team,
so everybody from Omaha to Ogallala lives and breathes Big Red
football. The support is unbelievable, in good times and bad. I
miss being greeted by the sea of red when the team takes the
field at Memorial Stadium, and I miss the special relationships I
had with my players. In fact, probably the best part of coaching
was recruiting a young man from a rough background and seeing him
do well in school and become a productive member of society.
Those were some of the highs, but when things didn't go well and
the team struggled, the lows were hard to deal with.
Congressional life is much more down the middle; there aren't as
many ups and downs. The hours can be just as long--sometimes even
longer--but it's all worth it when I can help a constituent solve
a problem.

Another thing people often ask about is my favorite memory from
my 25 years as Cornhuskers coach. Three moments stick out. The
first is the 1995 Orange Bowl, in which we beat Miami 24-17 to
win the national championship. This was Nebraska's first title in
23 years, and it was especially fulfilling because we'd had so
much trouble over the years playing Miami in the Orange Bowl, in
front of their home crowd.

The second memory that jumps out is of the 1984 Orange Bowl. We
lost to Miami 31-30 after we failed on a two-point conversion
with less than a minute to play. To this day I still think it was
the right decision to go for the win--even though we probably
would have won the national title if we had settled for a tie. In
football you never should play for a tie.

My last favorite memory is of our 17-14 win over Oklahoma in
Lincoln in 1978. Barry Switzer had taken over the Sooners the
same year I'd become Cornhuskers coach (1973), and this was the
first time we beat his team. Looking back, I think that win
elevated our program to a new level. I'll never forget how happy
our fans were afterward--they stormed the field and tore down the
goalposts. But as wild as they were that day, all reports I
received said that they remained respectful. That's another thing
about Nebraska fans: They are probably the nicest group of
supporters in the country. People who come to Lincoln to watch a
game are always treated well. It's something our fans take pride
in.

What's the future of Nebraska football? I'd be lying if I said I
wasn't disappointed when Frank Solich was fired last November.
He's a good man and a great coach. I've met with new coach Bill
Callahan. He seems like a fine person, and I'm sure he is very
capable. Like everyone else in the state, I'm hoping for the
best. When Nebraska takes the field in September, you can be sure
that all Big Red fans--myself included--will be watching closely.
After all, in terms of big-time sports, the Cornhuskers are all
we've got.

U.S. congressman Tom Osborne had a 255-49-3 record and won three
national titles in 25 years as Nebraska coach.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

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