Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79
Thirty-five years into practicing my craft as a journalist in my home state of Nebraska and I finally got to interview and profile state icon Tom Osborne. I mean, when it comes to the most famous living Nebraskans, there is Osborne, Warren Buffett, Alexander Payne and, well, that’s about it, unless you want to include Dick Cavett, Roger Welsch, Ernie Chambers, Pete Ricketts, Cathy Hughes, Bob Gibson, Johnny Rodgers, Tom Mangelsen, Nick Nolte, Marg Helgenberger and Gabrielle Union. I’ve interviewed them all with the exception of Nolte (long to do so) and Ricketts (don’t really care to). So it was satisfying to get this opportunity to take the measure of Osborne, especially since I grew up on Nebraska football and for most of that time he was the undisputed face and architect of the program. There is nothing groundbreaking in my cover story appearing in the November 2016 issue of the New Horizons (it should hit newsstands and arrive in mailboxes by October 31-November 1). But I believe I did achieve what I set out to do, which was create a humanistic portrait of this genuine living legend that keeps in proportion the fact he is a man, not a monument. His legendary status is not for anything heroic he did, after all, it’s for doing his very public job at a high level over a long period of time. In that sense, he’s just like hundreds of thousands of other Nebraskans who get up and go to work each day, most of whom never get their name in the paper until they die because their work isn’t covered by the media and obsessed over by fans. That’s how it goes in this game of life. When I followed Nebraska football more closely during its glory years, it was often hard for me to get a bead on Osborne through media reporting and television-radio interviews he gave. It took me a long time to appreciate his gifts because they are the subtle gifts of someone who is at his best in private, intimate moments with a player or coach or parent. He is all about the quiet communication, relationship building, intense analysis and unconditional love that happens one on one. That studied yet intuitive skill set is very personal and when combined with his naturally introverted demeanor it doesn’t pop out like the extroverts of his profession and their loud, over-the-top, folksy antics or mannerisms that sometimes seem a facade or a put-on. I believe I have captured in Osborne’s own words and in the words of those close to him some of the qualities that have come to define who he is and what he represents. I portray a man who has settled very comfortably into the role of elder statesman. He wears the mantle well.
Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2016 issue of New Horizons (a free monthly published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging)
Right man for the job
What do you say about a living legend that’s not already been said?
When it comes to former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, aka T.O. or Dr. Tom, his whole life story and career is already delineated in print and online. That exposure comes with the territory from being a College Football Hall of Fame coach at a big time legacy program like Nebraska’s.
Next fall marks 20 years since he last patrolled the sidelines as coach. He misses some aspects of it and others not so much.
“I miss the game, I miss the strategy, but the main thing was the relationships,” he said, still looking fit and ruddy-faced at 79. “It didn’t mean winning wasn’t important because if you didn’t win a fair amount you weren’t going to stay employed, so that was something always in the back of your mind.”
NU couldn’t have found a better fit than Osborne. The native son grew up in small town Nebraska as a star athlete at Hastings High and Hastings College, where his grandfather captained the football team more than a half-century earlier, His father loved athletics and vicariously enjoyed his son’s exploits. Osborne won both state high school and college athlete of the year honors. He played three years in the National Football League as a wide receiver before joining the University of Nebraska football staff as a grad assistant under Bob Devaney. He earned a master’s and Ph.D. in educational psychology while serving in the Nebraska National Guard.
Osborne’s intelligence and mastery soon showed itself. In less than a decade on the full-time staff he moved from position coach to offensive coordinator and then to head coach when Devaney hand-picked him as his replacement. The 36-year-old successfully followed the winningest coach in school history and eventually surpassed his achievements.
“He knew that Tom was the right guy for the position,” said Frank Solich, the man whom Osborne passed the baton to when he stepped down as coach. “He had a great deal of trust in him and just turned the program completely over to him. I think there remained a great relationship between the two and it made it an easy working relationship for Tom.”
There was a symmetry to Osborne’s leaving. Just as Devaney retired on top, so did Osborne. He followed precedent by handing the reins to his longtime assistant, Solich. The former Ohio prep star played at NU and after finding success as a high school coach he led the Husker freshman team before joining the regular NU coaching staff.
Osborne said he meant for the 1996 season to be his last. He’d promised Solich five years earlier he was quitting. But when top players he expected to declare for the NFL draft instead returned for their senior season, he felt obligated to stay. He did and the rest is history. He had NU on such a roll then it was hard giving it up, but there was that promise he made to Solich.
“I kind of felt like I couldn’t back down from what I told him – that was the primary reason I left. Also, I developed atrial fibrillation that year, which I thought was a little bit of a physical sign. But even if I hadn’t had the atrial fib, I felt at that point I had to turn it over to Frank at that point.”
Unlike Devaney, who stayed on as athletic director, Osborne made a clean break. He refused at least two opportunities to remain near or in the game.
“When I retired from coaching I was given the chance to go on the radio and be a color commentator and I refused simply because anything I would say could be interpreted as critical of Frank Solich or as somehow overboard in his favor, and I didn’t want to be put in that position.”
He could have coached again if he wanted.
“When I got out of coaching, Michigan State offered me the job up there. I knew the president of the school. I was tempted. It would have been quite a bit more money than I made here. But my grandchildren were here. I knew Nancy’s heart was here. And I just didn’t know if it would be a good idea. So I stayed here. I felt I needed to end my career as Nebraska coach.”
Besides, Osborne in anything but black, scarlet and cream just wouldn’t do. He “decided to do something different” by entering an entirely different competitive field – politics. He ran for and won Nebraska’s 3rd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his six years in office he made an unsuccessful bid to be Governor of Nebraska. He returned to NU as athletic director following the Bill Callahan debacle and hired Bo Pelini, whose character issues he later lamented.
Just as Devaney didn’t meddle when Osborne led the program, T.O. took a hands-off role with Pelini.
Osborne appreciated Devaney giving him free reign.
“I’m sure he had thoughts on who ought to be playing and what plays we ought to run but he never made public his speculating or criticizing, so I’ve pretty much taken that approach. Unless you’re in every meeting and you know the injury report and you’re at every practice you really don’t have enough information to intelligently comment on what’s going on. I have views on things but it’s something I wont necessarily talk about.
“It’s about respecting the coach’s right to be able to function without somebody like me looking over their shoulders and commenting, so I kind of stay away from that.”
What makes him tick
Today, three years removed from his AD duties, Osborne’s a Husker icon with no official active ties to NU, The respected patriarch and beloved former CEO is held in high esteem by administrators, athletic officials, coaches and fans. He’s been a model of “values, consistency and integrity” said one of his favorite players, Turner Gill.. True to Osborne’s deep Christian beliefs, football was always more about the journey, not the won-loss record. He even wrote a book titled More Than Winning that took its cue from an earlier coaching treatise.
“I read a book by John Wooden (the late UCLA hoops coach)years ago and he talked about the fact he never mentioned winning to his players – he always talked about the process, How you put your socks on so you didn’t get blisters, how you bend your knees on free throws, and those kinds of things. We kind of broke the game down to the fundamentals we felt you needed to accomplish each day. The main emphasis during the week was on how we prepared, it wasn’t so much on winning games. So if we did the little things and the details correctly, the winning would take care of itself.”
That formula worked to the tune of 255 wins in 25 seasons. He was under enormous stress to win and he did.
He weathered the pressure and arm-chair critiques that come with the territory. He endured under heavy fire from 1973-1979 when he went 1-7 and 3-4 against chief rivals Oklahoma and Missouri, respectively. It got so bad he seriously considered bolting for Colorado. But he stuck it out and finally got over his OU and MU nemesis and can’t-win-the-big-one albatross.
During that rough stretch he was befriended by an important figure in his life.
“(D.B.)’Woody’ Varner was the chancellor at UNL when I was starting out as a head coach. We had good teams but we lost to Oklahoma the first five years and that was wearing very thin on people. It wasn’t just a matter of having a winning season and going to a bowl game, it was ‘Did you beat Oklahoma?’ and if you didn’t beat Oklahoma you didn’t have a good year, no matter how many you won.
“But Woody was always very supportive. Quite often he’d come over after one of those tough losses. Here he was wanting to spend time with this young guy. He probably had a lot of other things as chancellor he could have been doing, He was a very good friend and mentor.”
What Osborne misses least is the win-at-all-costs mentality.
“Just the fact there were times when it became a one-game season and some of the public reaction. You know, if you win a game you’re the greatest and if you lost a big game then people were mad at you and you’d get all kinds of crazy mail. So the unevenness of the experience – you’re either up or down and not too much life in the middle. Most people live most of their lives somewhere in the middle and in coaching sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of middle.”
The pressure to keep up with the competition invites scenarios where some coaches are willing to cut corners.
“I remember one of our coaches came to me and said. ‘You know, if we cant beat ’em, maybe we ought to join ’em.’ He was referring to some things happening in recruiting that weren’t entirely ethical. Schools were bending the rules and on occasion we were losing players to those schools.
I said, ‘No. We may get fired, but we’re going to go out of here with our heads up by doing things the right way.’ I felt essentially in coaching your primary duty is that of a teacher and if you were conveying to young people that bending the rules was the way to get ahead, you weren’t really fulfilling your academic mission. I wanted to be consistent in what we were saying and what we were doing.”
The big money, recruiting excesses and unrealistic expectations that surround college football give him pause.
He finds much of the business side “unpleasant.”
Like any good teacher, Osborne took the most satisfaction in helping young people develop.
“I remember Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys coaching legend) telling me one time he didn’t feel he made a difference in any player he coached in the NFL in regards to their character because by the time they came to him at 23-24 their character was pretty well formed. I didn’t feel that way in college. I saw a lot of players come to us as one person at 17-18 who left a somewhat different person at age 21-22. That was one reason why I was never that interested in going into professional athletics because I felt there was more going on in college in terms of education and culture and those kinds of things.”
Frank Solich, the man Osborne selected to succeed him and the current head coach at Ohio University, said, “Tom was way ahead of the game in terms of looking after our players academically. It was as important to him that we had success in the classroom as well as on the football field. He wasn’t just after the wins. He was also after doing what he could to help his players get ready for what was out there in the real world. He was able to cover both of those bases and his players appreciated it and his coaches appreciated it.”
The buttoned-down Osborne has always played things close to the vest in public but he’s regarded as a warm person in private.
“He’s a very caring person,” said Solich, “I think there’s no question his players as well as his coaches knew he cared for them beyond just playing the game and coaching the game. That came across all the time. He’s a very loyal guy. He developed loyalty within his players and especially his coaches. Aa lot of us hung around a long long time and obviously there were reasons for that. Number one was how Tom treated people.
“He looked after his players and coaches. He wanted people to succeed and reach their highest potential and did everything he could in order to help us reach our individual goals. He developed such relationships that those players and coaches would do anything for him. He’s just a special guy that I think would have been special in anything he went into. He’s still helping people now with the Teammates program. I think that’s embedded in him – to help people – and so he continues.”
Solich said he tries emulating his old boss.
“Just as you could always go to him, I have an open door policy here for my players, for my coaches. They can always come to me I hope and feel comfortable in doing that and be able to really discuss anything. Tom was very much that way for the people that worked for him.”
Turner Gill quarterbacked Osborne’s 1981-1983 high-octane teams that contended for three straight national titles. Now a veteran coach at Liberty University, Gill said, “He always told people their value. He has a unique way that whenever he meets anybody, even for the first time and for a few minutes, he makes them feel like they’ve know this man for a long time. He has that presence about him. He has that unbelievable way of being able to touch people and make them feel valued.”
Gill felt such a kinship with Osborne that he asked him to be a groomsman in his wedding.
“I just wanted him to know how I really believed in him and felt about him for me to ask him. If he’d had said no it would not have been a disappointment, but I was pleasantly surprised he accepted. It’s just a fond memory and special moment not just for me and my wife but for all the people there who witnessed it.
“We’ve known each other in a deep way and continue to value each other. I feel privileged and honored to continue our relationship to this day.”
On being a servant leader
Osborne said as coach he practiced transformational leadership, where “the leader essentially serves – your main objective is to have the best possible outcome.” His best teams so bought into it that they became unstoppable forces.
He said, “If people know you care about them and value them then they are much more responsive because they feel whatever you’re asking them to do is to promote their long-term interests. It’s important the leader be able to model the behavior and be consistent. If somebody has to take the hit for something negative that happens, you don’t point the finger at somebody else, you accept responsibility.”
Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers recalls Osborne as always “doing what he was saying.” “It was clear what his values-base was.”
Osborne said effective communication is key to leadership. His subdued personalty didn’t fit the popular coaching stereotype.
“You do a lot of listening. You try to understand what it’s like to walk in people’s shoes. You can’t be telling or ordering people around. You have to have good communication skills. Being positive is important because the best way to change behavior is to catch somebody doing something right and reinforcing it. So often people equate coaching to hollering, screaming, swearing. When you’re constantly on people’s backs, they begin to tune you out, so I tried not to coach that way.”
When he saw a need to correct, he did it subtly.
“People want to be treated with respect. They want to be given a clearly defined job and then the autonomy within that area to operate. I don’t think I ever walked around and interfered with a drill or second-guessed a coach in front of the players. If I had something I felt I needed to talk about, I did it privately.”
As Osborne’s teams often demonstrated, character, hard work and love can trump talent.
“There’s no question maybe the most important thing your team can have is good team chemistry and unity of purpose and that essentially is a very spiritual act. You focus on physical skills, you focus on the mental side – knowing assignments and making sure you understand what it is you have to do in an actual game. But I think there’s also a spiritual side, too, and the transformational leadership develops that”sense of people caring for each other and for the shared the task at hand.
He said it’s about moving people away “from thoughts that it’s all about me to making this organization, program or team the best it can be.”
He said his longtime offensive line coach at NU, Milt Tenopir, “was a really good teacher and a good representative of the kind of things I’m talking about.”
Osborne acknowledges he picked up traits from Bob Devaney that helped make him a better coach.
“I learned something from Bob about good people skills and a good sense of humor. He had a good feel for when to lighten up on the players and tell them a joke or whatever and when he should bear down on them a little bit. So it wasn’t always grinding and it wasn’t always the same all the time. He had a good touch with people.”
Devaney and Osborne
Building a culture
Osborne inherited the walk-on program and expanded it. He saw how the work habits of hungry student-athletes motivated to be Huskers could rub off on scholarship players.
“I think every organization develops its own culture and some of that depends on the values system and principles of the leadership. But I think in a very real sense the walk-on players had an awful lot to do with shaping the culture of Nebraska football because these guys constituted about 50 percent of our football team. They were mostly from Nebraska, so they grew up wanting to play at Nebraska. Most of them would give up scholarships at other schools, usually smaller institutions, to come play. Almost by definition they were overachievers. They would go the extra mile, work a little bit harder, be a little bit more loyal, be willing to sometimes be on the scout team for three or four years just to have a chance to get a letter and maybe rundown on a kickoff and be part of the program.
“As a result I think the attitude of these walk-on players began to permeate those who came from outside of Nebraska or maybe came for other reasons. Sometimes players came to be part of a high profile program, be on TV more and maybe get a faster avenue to the National Football League. But I often talked to those guys and they would mention that the work ethic and attitude of the walk-ons really began to affect them.”
Many walk-ons came out of obscurity, buried deep on the depth chart, to work themselves into the starting lineup, even stardom.
“In every case they had a great deal of determination, a great work ethic and good character,” Osborne said, “and I think that made all the difference. Character is always a big ingredient.”
Make no mistake, Osborne not only knew how to motivate and lead, he knew Xs and Os as well as anyone. He was an offensive innovator and risk-taker. He called memorable trick plays in critical situations. He boldly converted from a pro style to an option-based spread attack with dual-threat signal-callers who are now all the rage today. Rather than settle for a tie and probable share of the national title, he went for two points and the win in the heartbreaking 31-30 Orange Bowl loss to Miami.
Leaving it all behind
As surprising as those moves were, his sudden announcement he would retire following the 1997 season shocked most everybody. That’s because it came in the midst of a historic five-year run of excellence. Counting what his final team did in going 13-0 and winning a share of the national championship, he led the Huskers to an unprecedented 60-3 record and three national titles in that 1993-1997 span. Though a head coach 25 seasons, he was still only 60 years old. Many of his veteran peers went on to coach into their 70s. Yet here he was calling it quits just as NU became the dynasty program of an entire era.
In his usual pinched way, he articulated well-arrived at reasons for stepping away. None of them eased the pain of Husker fans losing the man who brought Nebraska to the pinnacle. But he methodically, dispassionately explained his decision to leave was the result of fulfilling promises he made. He also assured the program would be handed off to trusted colleagues who would maintain the carefully developed culture there.
One of his biggest disappointments came when Solich was unceremoniously fired after six seasons.
“I left the program in good shape and in good hands and we had good teams under Frank. He had some injuries that first year, then two 10-win plus seasons, played for a national championship, won the Big 12. He won 76 percent of his games, which is what some of the great coaches of the game did. Frank’s teams played at the top level, went to several BCS bowl games, played for a national championship. If you/re around for only six years and you do that, you’re a good coach, so it was unfortunate he was let go.”
One that got away
Besides losing a beloved former player, Brook Berringer, to a fatal plane crash shortly after his senior season, perhaps Osborne’s greatest disappointment was Lawrence Phillips. The tragedy that became his life and death haunts the ex-coach.
“Lawrence had some issues, primarily with rejection and abandonment. Somehow his mom had chosen a boyfriend over him and he was kicked out of the home when he was 10. He was pretty much homeless for two years. Then he got put in a group home. It was a pretty rough place. Everyone was there for criminal activity. He was 12 when he went in and I think there was some abuse.
“He was pretty well crippled. He didn’t have a lot of trust for people. We knew Lawrence had a difficult background but we also knew the people at the group home said that he had not committed any crime, that he was very adamant against drugs and alcohol and gangs. The coaches at his high school were very complimentary of him, too. He completed two years of school in his senior year because he missed most of two years. He tested out as academically gifted. He had the characteristics of a very good player – unselfish, great work ethic. So we weren’t necessarily out there recruiting a problem.”
Osborne said when Phillips was charged with two misdemeanors for entering a female student’s apartment and dragging her down three flights of stairs, he was kicked off the team with conditions for possible reinstatement.
“He met all the conditions, including going to counseling. When he went to the NFL I told his agent he needed to stay in counseling.”
Phillips stopped going to counseling and between the lack of mental health support, the big money and the rejection of being cut and suspended several times, he spiraled downward.
“He attracted a certain group of hangers-on, most of whom were from that group home, and I don’t think they did him any great service,” said Osborne, who remained in contact with Phillips.
“One thing led to another. Primarily he experienced rejection. He had a lot of that going on and he didn’t handle it well, so he went to prison.”
In prison, where Phillips killed someone and later committed suicide, prison officials ignored his insistence that he not be given a gang member for a cellmate.
“There was a fight and the other guy died.” Osborne said. “Lawrence got the feeling there was no way he was going to get out of prison, so he took his own life. It’s a very sad story because he had a lot of things going for him, but he just wasn’t able to overcome his previous experience.”
Phillips was not the first or last NU player from a troubled past. Osborne earlier helped Johnny Rodgers stick to the straight and narrow after a hold-up he was charged in came to light. “We ran a lot of laps together,” Osborne wryly noted. Osborne was his position coach and by the time he was assigned to shepherd the player, Rodgers said “we were already hooked at the hip and then we had to get a little deeper because things got a little bit more complex.” “He gave me direction. He was my mentor and he’s been one of my mentors ever since.” Rodgers added.
Osborne wrote the foreword for a new book by Rodgers. Reading the book, Osborne said, “there were some things in his background I had not realized he went through.” “He came up from a difficult circumstance – pretty much without a dad and with a very young mother,” he said. “Johnny sometimes required a little discipline but we stayed with him and it’s been a journey. But he’s certainly made considerable strides in his lifetime and done some good things.”
Osborne went into some rough hoods after recruits.
“I went to a lot of inner city areas and there would be times when the mother would make sure the player was down at the curbside to walk me up because if I walked up into the housing project unaccompanied it could be a pretty dicey situation. But you did what you had to.”
The longer he coached, he saw more products of broken homes.
“We began to see a lot of changes in family structure. In the ’60s you very seldom ran across a player who didn’t have both biological parents living under the same roof with them and by the time the ’90s began to unfold you began to see more and more kids who were in families that had split up and a lot of them that didn’t have fathers. Some of these young persons quite often were not familiar with discipline and how to relate to authority and those kinds of things.
“Many of them had mothers struggling just to keep their head above water financially and not always able to devote a lot of time to their kids.”
Other societal-cultural trends added to the challenges.
“Talk radio and social media started to come along. With the influence of technology a lot of kids don’t have the same emotional intelligence. So much of their communication is electronic anymore. It used to be when you got on an airplane or a bus there was a lot interaction, people talking, and now it’s sometimes dead silent. People have headphones on or else they’re texting someone maybe three-four feet in front of them. That kind of communication doesn’t have the emotional content. It’s very much scripted and as a result some people don’t have the ability to carry on a conversation or understand where somebody’s coming from, what they’re feeling, so they’re blunted emotionally.”
Osborne’s interest in giving young people a solid emotional footing led him and his wife Nancy to form the Teammates Mentoring Program for at-risk youth.
“We feel you can’t always legislate strong families but you can provide a mentor. In many cases it’s the difference between life and death and some pretty serious outcomes. We’re in our 25th year.”
Of the program’s first cohort of 22 students, 20 graduated on time and 18 went onto higher education – trade school, community college or four-year universities. One even went to Oxford.
“We thought, well, maybe there’s something to this, so we expanded the program, first here in Lincoln, and we began to mentor young men and young women from third grade through high school. We ended up last spring mentoring 8,000 kids. We’re in 45 school districts across Nebraska, into iowa and some in Kansas. So it’s grown a lot and that’s where I spend most of my time.”
He actively recruits mentors and more are needed now than ever he said, “because we’re growing and trying to get over 12,000 matches over the next few years.” He added, “You always lose some mentors every year. Some have been with their mentee for years and want to do something else. We try to re-engage them but some don’t come back. There’s always people that move or get transferred. Just to stay at 8,000 we’re going to have to replace about 800 to a thousand mentors and then try to add another thousand on top of that.”
Tom and Nancy Osborne
Purpose and meaning
He strongly advocates volunteering for retirees who have some time on their hands.
“Retirement is tricky. Some people don’t last very long after they retire. I think you’ve got to feel that life still has purpose and meaning and you still can make contributions. Most people can in some way until the day they draw their last breath. It can be as simple as making a few phone calls to people who are hurting, delivering meals on wheels, teaching Sunday school or mentoring a young person. And yet we’ve been having trouble with the Baby Boomers. Some of them are responsive but not to the degree you would think you would see.”
He said he’s learned some things about retirement.
“You always hear stories of people who look forward to retirement and then they find out it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. Playing golf every day and traveling is okay for awhile but then at some point you wonder does this mean. Making a contribution and living with meaning and purpose is important. It think it’s really important if you retire that you have some hobbies and a willingness to engage in something that requires service and sacrifice for somebody else. Otherwise it becomes a very self-absorbed lifestyle, which i don’t think is particularly healthy.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Gerontology professor and chair Julie Masters often taps his experience by asking him to speak about aging and end of life.
“I asked him to share his thoughts with the death and dying classes I teach for our department at UNL. I also have him share the benefits of serving as a Teammates volunteer. Each semester he wows the students with his wisdom and insight about life and living and meaning and purpose.”
She likens his sage advice to that of the late Morrie Schwartz in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. “Students see this required book come alive in Dr. Osborne’s words. I greatly admire him for his wisdom and compassion. He is an extraordinary example of someone who is aging with grace and dignity. Indeed, he is a role model for young and old alike.”
The old coach walked away with few regrets and appears quite satisfied with the quiet place he’s landed after so the limelight.
He still talks regularly with former players and coaches and enjoys catching up with their lives.
“We talk about a little bit of everything,” Turner Gill said.
What impresses everyone who knows him is his constancy.
“If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it – he’s not going to vary off of it.” Gill said. “You don’t have to write it down, you can just count on it, because he understands his true purpose each and every day.”