Tom Osborne revived the lost art of the graceful exit with his retirement announcement this week that essentially boiled down to a few simple thoughts: Hope I helped, time to go, thank you and so long.As Nebraska’s athletic director, Osborne had accomplished the most important task, stabilizing the football program that was running off the rails — although work lies ahead for coach Bo Pelini if the Cornhuskers are to succeed at a level expected by a fan base that remembers what it was like to win national championships.The announcement and that expectation prompted a “what-if” thought and its impact on the national college football scene.The past 15 years of Osborne’s life have been active, serving three terms in Congress, running for governor, five years as athletic director with some teaching and counseling tossed in. We should all be that productive.But that’s also 15 years of not doing the job where he was considered the best in his profession — coaching football.What if that had been Osborne’s course? He has said in interviews and books that he was ready for his post-football life and felt the program was in great hands with successor Frank Solich, from his staff.Still, because Osborne stepped down at age 60, it’s natural to wonder how the Cornhuskers would have fared in the game’s shifting landscape, in the Big 12 and nationally.Consider what’s happened since his dramatic announcement in 1997, after Nebraska had won the Big 12 title and were preparing to meet Tennessee and Peyton Manning in the Orange Bowl.The Cornhuskers, who won 13 Big Eight and Big 12 titles in Osborne’s 25 years, have won one since then. In that time, Oklahoma has won seven.Nationally, since the Huskers split the national title with Michigan in 1997, giving the program its third championship in four years, power has shifted dramatically to the Southeast.Of the last 14 championships, 13 have been won by schools in states that essentially don’t have long, cold winters. The exception is Ohio State in 2002.The post-Osborne champions hail from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, California, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They’re also some of the nation’s top prospect producing states.Nebraska was able to recruit top talent — speedy athletes who benefit from outdoor activity for long stretches on the calendar, like quarterback Tommie Frazier from Florida — but more of those athletes are staying South.Counting back from Nebraska’s last title for 14 years, national champions came from all corners of the nation. The South, sure. Miami was still kicking up a storm and Florida State and Florida broke through.But you could win from the Northeast (Penn State), Rockies (Colorado, BYU), Midwest (Nebraska, Notre Dame, Michigan) and Northwest (Washington).Success in the South, and specifically the SEC with its six straight titles, has endured to a point that it doesn’t appear cyclical but a new normal. In breaking down the 2012 national championship race, with the exception of Oregon, we look first at SEC schedules to see where and when its top powers clash.Osborne publicly has never second guessed his decision not to coach, but after the adjustments he made over the final years of his career, it’s tempting to suggest his program might have best suited to battle the Sooners and Longhorns in his own neighborhood and the SEC on a national scale.Remember, Nebraska had lost seven straight bowl games starting in 1988, some in embarrassing fashion. The Cornhuskers couldn’t beat the powers at Miami and Florida State so they joined then, or at least started to match them athletically.What happened next was the stuff of legend. A five-year stretch produced a 60-3 record and three national title seasons, one of the greatest runs in the game’s history.With Nebraska’s unique strengths — the enormous and devoted fan base, an expectation of success, a walk-on program that fed the state’s pride — Osborne sold the program to a level of athlete that put the Cornhuskers over the top. The combination of talent and chemistry was extraordinary.Would the same formula have worked in the new millennium, an Osborne 2.0 version of the Cornhuskers?To see the sport pulled firmly in one direction, it would have been fun to see him try.
Posted on Thu, Sep. 27, 2012 06:50 PMShare Email Print Order Reprints
What if Osborne had remained a coach?
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.