He wanted to disappear. He wanted everyone to show up at work sometime in May and simply find him gone. That way there'd be none of the hugging, the wet eyes, the searching glances by friends and staff and players wanting to see if he was all right. Better, there'd be none of those invasive questions from reporters trying to tunnel under his reserve and unearth some sense of loss: What are your emotions, Tom? How do you feel? No, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne would've given plenty to avoid what the 1998 Orange Bowl became last week, an uppercase event—OSBORNE'S LAST GAME!—that was at once a tribute to his career, justification of his system and a long, sweet goodbye. Nothing, to a shy man, could be more distasteful. "This has been a difficult week," Osborne said before the game. "I would have much preferred to have gone away."
Yet, in his last game, typical Osborne self-effacement was exactly what Nebraska didn't need. What the Cornhuskers, undefeated but ranked No. 2 and derided because of a suspect win over Missouri, needed was any and every attention-grabbing ploy that might edge them into the title picture—a lopsided score over No. 3 Tennessee, sentiment for Osborne, shameless campaigning. For one night a Nebraska football game needed to be what it rarely is: a spectacle.
So it was. Rendering Volunteers legend Peyton Manning useless and grinding up the Tennessee defense with a spectacularly punishing running attack, the Cornhuskers swatted aside the Vols 42-17, dared to dump a bucket of ice on their coach and then acted just as aggressively in the postgame press conference.
"If anybody can honestly find it in their heart not to vote us Number 1, that's their problem," said senior defensive end Grant Wistrom. "If you're just going to give it to Michigan because they haven't won in 45 years, then we don't want it anyway."
It all worked. Last Saturday the coaches who vote in the USA Today/ ESPN poll declared Nebraska No. 1, handing Osborne his third national championship in four years—a feat accomplished only twice before, by Minnesota's Bernie Bierman (1934, '35, '36) and Notre Dame's Frank Leahy (1946, '47, '49). Once ridiculed as a loser in big games, Osborne went out a winner without peer: the first coach since Knute Rockne in 1930 to win a national title in his final game, a 49-2 record over his last four seasons and the highest winning percentage (.836) among active Division I-A coaches.
"I can't think of a better way to go out," Osborne said, his voice set at the usual monotone after the win. "I'm just pleased the players played how they played." The next morning, when he heard the news of the national title, Osborne again said he was pleased and looked about as excited as a sleepwalker. He came off the way he had all week—as Dr. Tom, analytical and cold. As always, it was easy for the world to walk away from him frustrated, sure that he was devoid of passion, wondering how a man like this could be, of all things, a football coach.
Yet it was in football—and nowhere else—that Osborne found himself years ago, and it was only in football that anyone looking for his emotions would find them last week. In 1962 Osborne was studying for his doctorate in educational psychology and working as a graduate assistant coach at Nebraska to support himself. He wanted to be a teacher. But "when it came time to make the final decision, I just could not pull away from the game of football," he said last week. "It surprised me."
For a quarter century, the surprises continued. Osborne became so entranced with the game that his wife, Nancy, and their three kids, Ann, Mike and Suzi, often found themselves left out. Even this year, after Osborne had all but decided that his age (60), ailing heart and desire for continuity in the Huskers program were reason enough to retire, he missed Nancy's birthday last fall. "That's terrible," Osborne said. "I forgot about it. But one day's like another when you're coaching, and I went right on through.
"The sacrifices have been made not by me. My wife has had a lot of solitary moments, a lot of solitary times...as have my children. That's bothered me. One thing I've thought about is that I might coach until I'm 65 or 70 and then go out of this game halfway feet first, but what would be left for them? I don't know if you ever make up for what you've lost. I probably never will."
On Dec. 10 Osborne announced he was retiring. But he admitted he still would've loved to coach another season. "Every night I'll be tired and say I'm going to go to bed at 10, and then I start watching one of those crazy games and it's 11, 11:30—and I'm still watching," he said. "I just really love football. But there's more to life. I'll move on. I'll be fine."