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SI FOR KIDS
Yes, you can call Tom Osborne bland, but now you can also call him national champion
by Sally Jenkins
From: SI Presents 1994 Nebraska Special Issue
Lincoln is not a bad place to be if you care about family values, hearty food and truck-stop philosophy. The earth there is dark and as flat as a coffee table. Somewhere a train whistles. The girl at the five-and-dime rings up a roll of Lifesavers and adds the sales tax, saying, ''That'll be 35 cents, plus the government.'' It's a town where you can disappear into your own thoughts for 33 years a perfect place for Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a shy, deeply private man whose apparent goal is to be invisible. ''There are times when I'd like to evaporate,'' he says.
Sometimes it seems that he already has. His face is as white and starched as his shirt. His eyes are blue and kindly but distant, like something reflected in a storefront window. ''Some fella the other day called me a bowl of Cream of Wheat,'' he says, and he attempts to laugh. His mouth twists into an awkward smile, then folds back into its natural expression, which is rueful. ''Tom has never rolled up his britches and danced on a tabletop,'' says Iowa State coach Jim Walden, an old acquaintance. Instead of dancing, for more than three decades Osborne has jogged three miles a day, five days a week, around the same Nebraska track. ''I guess I'm in a rut,'' he says.
Nebraska's victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl gave Osborne that missing title and, in a single stroke, transformed his career from workmanlike to brilliant. It also redeemed years of criticism that he couldn't win the big one. In retrospect, Osborne's characteristic silence in the face of perennial skepticism and Monday-morning quarterbacking now looks like quiet grace.
''He doesn't really complain out loud,'' former Cornhusker linebacker Trev Alberts once observed. ''I guess because the subject frustrates him.''
It was for just such reticence that Osborne was nicknamed Yak in high school in Hastings, Neb. But in a rare burst of eloquence, he once called the national championship ''my albatross.'' Indeed, his failure to win the title colored his career and rendered his relationship with Nebraska fans ''uneasy,'' he says. For while Osborne had never brought the Cornhuskers to grief, neither had he ever raised them to the heights they reached with back- to-back national championships in 1971 and '72 under Bob Devaney. Osborne won only the games he was supposed to win, losing to a lower-ranked team just twice in 268 games. Until the victory over Miami, Nebraska had lost its last seven bowl games and had beaten a Top 10 team just two times in its last nine attempts.
Osborne didn't need his doctorate in educational psychology to realize that some people regarded him as the guy who always loses the big one. He also understood that no one wanted to hear about the mitigating circumstances, such as these: In six of those seven bowl losses, Nebraska's opponent was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2; and four of the losses were to either Miami or Florida State in Florida. Osborne has never been one to argue. He simply told his secretary to screen out the hate mail, and he simmered in his own mild fashion. ''Our obsession with Number 1 in this country tends to drive us toward the conclusion that you have to reach the top of the hill, and everybody else is a loser,'' he said last season.
One of Osborne's staunchest defenders has been Devaney, who gives much of the credit for his titles in 1971 and '72 to the young assistant who was his chief play-caller. Devaney believes that Osborne demonstrated long ago that he has the fire to win the national title. ''He's not a person to irritate,'' Devaney says. ''He will take only so much pushing around.'' Indeed, Osborne can launch a locker room tirade so furious that it leaves him trembling. ''He gets so mad, his eyes kind of water,'' former kicker Byron Bennett once observed. But the strongest word this Sunday-school teacher employs is dadgumit.
Hardly anybody other than Osborne's wife, Nancy, and three children claims to know him. His best friends, he says, are ''fish guides.'' Osborne's idea of a vacation is to cast a line into a pond on his working farm in Valparaiso, Neb. He likes fishing because it offers him unbroken solitude. He tried golf for a while but discovered that even on the links Nebraskans tried to talk to him about the national championship.
Still, he protests, ''I'm not the shrinking violet people think I am. I'm not a recluse. But what I do for a living is such an open book. It happens in front of 75,000 people every week. So I try to hang on to something.''
One thing Osborne finally let go of was the pressure he had been under since he took over from Devaney, who was not only wildly successful but also famously charming. By comparison, Osborne seemed bloodless. Comparing him with Devaney, in fact, became a joke on Osborne's first team, the '73 squad. One day during a quarterback drill someone suggested that Osborne, a former receiver who played three seasons in the NFL, run a route. He cheerfully sprinted out for a pass. Quarterback David Humm fired a bullet, and as Osborne caught it, a defensive back speared him in the back, upending him and knocking the ball loose.
As Osborne slowly got to his feet, Humm said, ''Devaney would've hung on to that one.''
Being undervalued has been the story of Osborne's life at Nebraska. He spent his first three years there working for no pay. In 1962 Devaney grudgingly gave the 25-year-old Osborne a job as an unsalaried assistant while he took postgrad courses in psychology. Devaney assigned Osborne a dormitory room and told him he could eat his meals at the training table, but that was all the coach offered. ''I didn't treat him very well,'' Devaney says.
Devaney and his staff were a backslapping bunch who spent their time on the golf course or in bars when they weren't coaching, and they viewed the studious and churchgoing new assistant with skepticism. ''He was different from the other guys,'' says Walden, who was on that staff, ''but he didn't look down on anybody.'' Devaney figured Osborne would probably quit after a year or two. ''I thought he'd be a schoolteacher,'' Devaney says.
But it gradually became apparent to all those around him that this quietest assistant had a galvanic touch with the offense and a steadying influence on troubled players. One of Osborne's least-likely relationships was with Johnny Rodgers, the searingly fast wingback whose brilliant career as a Cornhusker was largely attributable to Osborne, even though the two of them rarely agreed on anything but football. Rodgers, who led the Cornhuskers to the national title in 1971, became Osborne's personal charge. Osborne devised schemes to get the ball to Rodgers, and away from the field the coach and player ran together every day, talking about football and the world in general. ''We talked and we ran, we ran and we talked,'' says Rodgers, who eventually left school with the Heisman but no degree.
Today Rodgers is a 44-year-old undergraduate at Nebraska majoring in broadcasting. He returned to school in the fall of '93 under an NCAA community-service program that allows schools to put former players back on scholarship so that they can earn their degrees. Osborne helped Rodgers gain access to the program.
''We don't see eye to eye on many things,'' Rodgers says of his former coach. ''He's always disapproved of my lifestyle. I took chances, and Tom was more settled. But one thing we agree on is that we're friends. He's treated me the same way for 20 years: honestly.''
Like Rodgers, Osborne is an impassioned defender of the athletic scholarship as an agent of social change. Osborne has bucked the NCAA's attempts to raise academic standards for athletes, arguing that the standards are elitist and that college entrance tests are racially biased. He believes that many underprivileged athletes will be shut out if they can't qualify for admission as athletic exceptions. To bolster his arguments, he notes that his players who have completed their eligibility have had an 81% graduation rate, that 42 of them have been designated first-team Academic All-Americas and that 155 have been named to the All-Academic Big Eight team.
The coach puts his money where his mouth is. Several years ago he started a grassroots youth program in Omaha to help children who are in danger of dropping out of high school. Every year he adds $10,000 of his own money to the effort.
''Tom does his duty,'' says Nebraska associate athletic director Don Bryant. ''When he retires there probably won't be a lot of great, hilarious stories about him. But there will be some poignant ones.''
Why did greatness elude Osborne for so long? One widely accepted explanation is that he relied on a one-dimensional option offense and on big, corn-fed linemen who could dominate their Big Eight counterparts but were too slow for the opponents they faced in the bowls. Lately, however, Osborne has added more passing schemes and recruited smaller, swifter linemen and linebackers. The Cornhuskers served notice that they were a changed team in '93 with one of their quickest and most ambitious teams in years. An unbeaten squad went into the Orange Bowl against top-ranked Florida State as 17 1/2-point underdogs. Instead the Huskers played the Seminoles, supposedly one of the best offensive teams in college football history, to a draw before losing in the final moments on Scott Bentley's field goal.
Another chapter in the book on Osborne reads that he is too boring to uplift a team. ''He is not a motivational-type guy,'' says Rodgers. ''He's not a general.'' But does a great coach have to be larger than life? Perhaps not. The statesmanlike Paterno is revered, and the colorful Bowden (who, no one needs to remind Osborne, was also without a national championship until the '94 Orange Bowl) is beloved. Osborne is unapologetically ordinary. Title in hand, he may never leave Nebraska.
''There's no place I'd prefer to get to,'' he says.
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