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Osborne steps down at Nebraska
Coach ends 25-year tenure; assistant takes over
Posted: Wed December 10, 1997 at 7:54 PM ET
LINCOLN, Nebraska (CNN/SI) -- Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, faced with failing health and unwilling to continue with the rigors of coaching, announced his retirement Wednesday.
Osborne, whose teams won back-to-back national titles in 1994 and 1995, announced his retirement after 25 years at the school. He has the highest winning percentage of any active coach (.828).
"I thought it was probably wise to back off," Osborne told a packed news conference in Lincoln, "before someone tells you you have to go."
Osborne will coach the No. 2 Cornhuskers against No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl on January 2 and said he may stay on until February 4 to help with recruiting.
Osborne's longtime assistant, Frank Solich, was named his successor. Solich, a former Huskers star, is the team's running backs coach.
Osborne, who will turn 61 in February, said his health played a role in his decision. He had heart bypass surgery 13 years ago and was diagnosed with an irregular heart beat this year.
He said he has the energy to do something else at this point but he does not know what it will be. If he wasn't going to be the head coach, Osborne said, he didn't want to be a figurehead.
Osborne weathered criticism in recent years over his decisions to allow players facing criminal charges to stay on the field. He came under sharp criticism in 1995 for his decision to reinstate star tailback Lawrence Phillips to the team even after Phillips pleaded no contest to charges of assaulting a former girlfriend.
Osborne spent 25 seasons as head coach at Nebraska. He reached his 250th career victory on November 1 with a 69-7 defeat of Oklahoma.
He leaves at the top of his game. The Cornhuskers are 59-3 over the past five years with five straight 11-win seasons, an NCAA best.
The No. 2 Huskers (12-0) face No. 3 Tennessee (11-1) in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2 and may have a shot at a third national title in four years -- if top-ranked Michigan loses to Washington State in the Rose Bowl.
Osborne led Nebraska to back-to-back national titles in 1994 and 1995 and served as an assistant coach to Bob Devaney's team that won back-to-back titles in 1970 and 1971. Devaney picked Osborne as his successor as head coach in 1973.
Although an athlete himself, who played briefly in the NFL, Osborne has faced health problems.
In 1984, he underwent bypass heart surgery. After Nebraska's 77-14 win over Iowa State on November 15, Osborne was hospitalized overnight for tests for an irregular heartbeat. He said he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a varied heart beat that can cause strokes or heart attacks.
But Osborne, who had high cholesterol before his heart surgery, has insisted that he feels fine although he has changed his diet. He still works out -- running or lifting weights -- about 30 minutes daily. A few weeks ago, he even jokingly challenged reporters to a three-mile run.
After Nebraska's 54-15 victory over Texas A&M on Saturday in the Big 12 championship, rumors swirled that Osborne would retire and hand the reins to Solich.
In announcing his retirement, Osborne stressed the importance of continuity and consistency. He said he would be leaving but the program would not change.
"That's not my job," Osborne said when asked how important it would be for him to select his successor.
"I have a lot of confidence in the people who are here," Osborne said.
He said the difficult part about retiring was telling his players. "I care very, very much about those guys so that's what's been most difficult," he said. "I hope at some point they will realize that I'm trying to do what's the best thing for them."
He said he did not think his decision would affect his players' resolve or desire to win in the bowl game.
He also said he would try to talk with some of the players he has recruited.
Osborne, who is his own offensive coordinator, said he was in relatively good shape but a time was coming in a year or two when he would have to stop working seven days a week.
He said he did not have anything in mind for the future, but he also expressed a wish to spend more time with his family.
Osborne grew up in Hastings, the son of a minister. He showed athletic ability in a number of sports -- football, basketball and track. After his 1959 graduation from Hastings College in 1959, he played three seasons in the NFL -- two with the Washington Redskins and one with the San Francisco 49ers -- as a wide receiver.
He returned to Nebraska as a graduate assistant to Devaney in 1962. He became a part-time coach in 1964, full-time receivers coach in 1967 and later offensive coordinator under Devaney, who said he saw something special in the tall, thin, mild-mannered assistant.
"To me, Tom Osborne is the best football coach in the country," Devaney, who died this year, often said.
Following the fiery Devaney was not easy for Osborne, whose quiet personality shows in his intense but calm face on the sidelines, whether his teams are leading or trailing.
Osborne had trouble beating rival Oklahoma early in his career, drawing the ire of some Nebraska backers. He ended a five-game personal losing streak to the Sooners and coach Barry Switzer in 1978, only to have Oklahoma selected as Nebraska's Orange Bowl opponent. Switzer won the return match 31-24.
Osborne later used his early experiences with Oklahoma to reflect on struggles to win bowl games against some of the nation's top teams like Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Michigan. Seven straight bowl losses from 1987 through 1993 gave him a label of being unable to win the big games.
That ended January 1, 1995, with the Huskers' second-half dominance of the third-ranked Miami Hurricanes on their home field at the Orange Bowl.
The win completed a 13-0 season many observers believed was the finest job of coaching in Osborne's era. He had to deal with the loss in the second game of his star safety Mike Minter, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Then in game four, star quarterback Tommie Frazier was diagnosed with blood clots that sidelined him the rest of the season.
Untried redshirt junior Brook Berringer took over the signal-calling and suffered a partially collapsed lung in his first start against Wyoming. He finished that game and started the next against Oklahoma State, only to leave at halftime after it was found his lung had collapsed again.
A walk-on from Wahoo, Oklahoma, Matt Turman, started against nationally ranked Kansas State. He put the Huskers in the lead the first half and handed the reigns back to Berringer in the second half of the game that also saw the arrival of what Osborne later would call the best defensive team he has coached.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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