Tom Osborne is one of those rarities in college sports where a school’s identity is strongly tied to a singular figure.
When you think of Alabama, Bear Bryant comes to mind. Florida State? Bobby Bowden.
In today’s game, it’s Kansas State and Bill Snyder, Virginia Tech and Frank Beamer.
But Osborne’s association with Nebraska runs deeper than any. He not only served as an assistant and head football coach but also athletic director for his university. And congressman for his state.
The association won’t end, but his employment at the university will, officially on Jan. 1, 2013, with Osborne’s announcement in Lincoln, Neb., on Wednesday that he’s stepping down after five years as athletic boss. Osborne said he’ll remain on campus for an additional six months to help with the transition.
“At some point, whether you’re able to function or not, the perception that you’re getting old gets in the way,” said Osborne, 75.
For most of the past half-century, Osborne was directly involved in Nebraska’s biggest moments, as a university and a state.
Offensive coordinator for the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, head coach for the 1994, 1995 and 1997 title teams, athletic director who spearheaded the transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, Osborne has been, well, Nebraska.
Any one of those accomplishments would have made Osborne a hero. Together, they’ve made him a legend.
College football thought so much of Osborne that its hall of fame waived a three-year waiting requirement, inducting Osborne less than two years after he retired his whistle.
Nebraska erected a statue of Osborne that stands outside the athletic complex named for him and his wife, Nancy.
Osborne never seemed comfortable with any of the tributes. And he wasn’t on Wednesday when asked about his legacy.
“The legacy question is a tricky one,” Osborne said. “I don’t have any particular thoughts on that.”
Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman does.
“He’d done an extraordinary job,” Perlman said. “He’s stabilized the department. He’s a real treasure.”
Osborne’s first mission upon becoming athletic director in 2007 was to fix a football program that had become broken under Bill Callahan. Osborne had been on the job for about five weeks when he fired Callahan and brought in Bo Pelini, who had spent a season as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in 2003.
Pelini’s teams have won nine or 10 games in each of his four seasons, but Nebraska still seeks its first conference championship since 1999.
Nebraska was in the Big 12 then, and Osborne’s national championships were fresh in the minds of Big Red fans. There would be one more big push for a national title under Osborne’s hand-picked successor, Frank Solich, in 2001. The Cornhuskers lost in the title game to Miami, Fla., that season and haven’t been back to a BCS bowl since.
But Osborne believes things are moving in the right direction, in football and athletics in general, saying he has “confidence in the trajectory of the athletic department.”
Now in its second year in the Big Ten, Osborne moved athletics out of what he believed was a shaky Big 12 in 2010. The Cornhuskers ended century-old relationships with such neighbors as Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri. When the Big Ten offered a more stable environment, Osborne and Perlman led the transition.
Osborne endured his share of controversies, most notably the trouble with running back Lawrence Phillips, who had assaulted his girlfriend. Osborne gave Phillips a second chance, believing he was better off in a team environment. But Phillips’ troubles continued.
There was the famous Orange Bowl loss to Miami in 1984, when Osborne passed up an extra-point attempt that would have given the Cornhuskers the national championship for a two-point conversion try that failed and cost Nebraska the title.
Osborne was frustrated enough as a coach in his early years that he interviewed at Colorado, turning down that offer in 1978.
As a head coach, he went out on top, winning the championships three of his final four years before turning over the program to assistant Solich after the 1997 title.
Osborne went into politics in 2000 and was a landslide winner in three congressional elections but was a surprise loser to Dave Heineman in the Republican primary in his run for governor in 2006.
The state government’s loss was the university’s gain. Osborne returned to campus as a faculty member and athletic consultant before becoming athletic director the next year, replacing Steve Pederson. At the time, the proud football program was in a tailspin.
Now, it will be the task of the next athletic boss to guide the program toward the standard set by the old one.