Nebraska's Wizard of the Prairie
One afternoon in the autumn of 1994, as his team steamrolled toward its first national championship in 23 years, Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne explained the Cornhuskers' muscular offense thusly: "Oh, you know, same old thing, run up the middle, pass every 10 plays." Then Osborne squinted into a low prairie sun and let the corners of his mouth rise to form the barest approximation of a smile. Have a laugh if you want, he seemed to be saying, ever so politely, but I get the joke better than you do, and I'll be laughing last.
He is. And maybe now that Osborne has announced his retirement (effective following Nebraska's Orange Bowl date with Tennessee) after 25 years at the helm of a modern college football dynasty, we'll finally get it.
Nebraska teams of the Osborne era were an easy target. From 1973, the year Osborne took over, until 1994, the Cornhuskers were ridiculed because they couldn't win the Big One, failing to add to the two national championships that predecessor Bob Devaney's teams had won in 1970 and '71. At one point Osborne lost seven consecutive bowl games and nine straight games to opponents ranked in the top three. He was accused of keeping his offense in the dark ages, clinging to a beefy ground game with no hope of beating more creative opponents. Then after Nebraska won its second consecutive national title, on Jan. 2, 1996, Osborne was painted by many as the paradigm of the coach who turns his program over to talented criminals in pursuit of victories. Through all of this he spoke in the measured tones of a small-town doctor and dressed like a Sunday-school teacher, inviting the venom of an increasingly cynical public.
Yet while his program was so often being held up as an example of some socioathletic malady or universal football shortcoming, Osborne piled up a staggering record. In 25 seasons he won 254 games, more than any other college football coach over such a span. His record for the last five seasons: 59-3. Memorial Stadium, whose capacity of 72,700 is more than the population of all but two cities in Nebraska, has been filled every time he has stood on its sidelines. He coached 46 Academic All-Americas, far more than any other football coach in history, and was on NCAA probation just, once (for a year beginning in October 1986, after his players were caught selling complimentary tickets). The '95 squad, a lethal combination of speed, power and attitude that trampled Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl, must be included in any discussion of the greatest teams in history.
Further, the Cornhuskers' walk-on, strength and nutrition programs are so advanced that other coaches no longer even mention Nebraska as the standard for success, attaining efficiency on the Osborne level being an unrealistic goal.
The criticism Osborne received as a strategist was often unfair and occasionally wrongheaded. Opposing defensive players and coaches marvel at the number of sets from which the supposedly unimaginative Cornhuskers run their basic plays and the creative ways in which they use their offensive line. When Osborne called the plays for Devaney, he was considered a young offensive genius. As he leaves a quarter century later, he deserves to be called an old one.
When he attempted a winning two-point conversion, instead of a tying point-after kick, in the 1984 Orange Bowl against Miami, he also became a gutsy genius. He failed, and Miami won the game 31-30, but everybody learned that Osborne didn't play for ties.
Osborne's name is inextricably linked to that of Lawrence Phillips, the gifted running back whom the coach let return to the field in 1995 after Phillips pleaded no contest to assault for a vicious incident in which he dragged his former girlfriend down a flight of stairs by her hair. Phillips's contributions were essential to both of Osborne's national championships. Osborne's overly lenient handling of Phillips, and of several other Cornhuskers of the title era who were booked and fingerprinted, was understandable if not defensible: He believed, as other coaches have believed, that he could save their souls.
Someday Phillips's shameful Nebraska tenure will be forgotten, and freed from the constraints of social commentary and sports-bar humor, Osborne's reputation will grow. He wasn't stupid, he was smart. He wasn't simple, he was complex. His record will look more remarkable with each passing year.