The legend has an office in down-town Lincoln, on the fourth floor of an ordinary building less than a mile from the Nebraska campus. It's smaller than his spacious old digs above the south end zone at Memorial Stadium, but a new job brings new quarters, and this is where Tom Osborne now stays busy. It's important to stay busy. In the infancy of his retirement from coaching, he checked with Dean Smith and with former Washington football coach Don James, and part of their advice was to avoid idle time. "I arranged for the fall to be especially full," says Osborne, sitting behind a small desk cluttered with books and papers. "I didn't want to sit around looking at the walls."
In this modest room Osborne works up lesson plans for the two courses he teaches at Nebraska (Sport in American University, and Coaching of Football). He also tracks his speaking schedule, raises money for the university and coordinates the activities of Teammates, the eight-year-old mentoring program for Lincoln teenagers that he and his wife, Nancy, run. Much of his work is quite fulfilling. Still, it's a departure from his previous occupation, in which he coached the Cornhuskers to 255 victories in 25 years and to three national championships in four seasons, overseeing the construction of a modern dynasty before his retirement in January.
"I miss football," Osborne says. "I guess that's not a surprise. You become so wrapped up in what you do that it becomes your identity. Everybody has to find his own way to get through life when that identity is gone. But I do miss it very much."
It's at this point that the story of the legend and his program so often takes a sour turn. It's a story that has been told at Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and more than once at Notre Dame. The legend leaves, and the aura diminishes until a great program falls slowly from its pedestal. Each season becomes an excuse to revisit the deeds of a coach who is no longer there and to challenge the man who is expected to meet an impossible standard. The scenario almost inevitably leads to failure, the pressure building as time passes. Ohio State coach John Cooper, for instance, goes to work every day at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
The story might be different at Nebraska. It has had practice at this sort of thing, having in 1973 replaced Bob Devaney, who won 101 games and two national titles, with Osborne, his dutiful lieutenant. Before Osborne stepped down, he extracted a promise from the school that he would be replaced by Frank Solich, his dutiful lieutenant. Osborne can be stubborn (e.g., Lawrence Phillips, 1995), and on this issue he allowed little wiggle room.
Osborne has changed in the Nebraska players' eyes from a revered, distant authority figure to a grandfatherly retired coach who shows up at the football facility almost every day, either to jog on the artificial turf inside the stadium or to lift weights beneath its west stands. "It used to be you would never just walk up to Coach Osborne and start talking to him because he was Coach Osborne," says fifth-year senior center Josh Heskew. "Now he seems approachable, but I miss those clichés he would tell us in the week of a big game."
Last Saturday afternoon former Cornhuskers quarterback Scott Frost, back in Lincoln during a bye weekend for his NFL team, the New York Jets, stood in a radio booth high above Tom Osborne Field at Memorial Stadium. Down below, Nebraska was dismantling a good—but very young and intimidated, despite its No. 9 ranking—Washington team, en route to a 55-7 victory that improved the Huskers' record to 4-0 and solidified their ranking as the No. 2 team in the country. "I'm not surprised," said Frost. "Credit Coach Solich. Credit Coach Osborne too. Credit the entire program." Indeed, it could have been any afternoon in the Osborne era. A hot wind blew from the south, the stadium was awash in red and white, and a respectable opponent positively froze. "Business as usual," said Frost.
Osborne's objective in choosing Solich as his replacement was to avoid interrupting the assembly line of success that had produced 60 wins in 63 games heading into this season. "I wanted the staff to remain intact and the players to have continuity," says Osborne. That wish has been honored. Cornhuskers, Inc. is still thriving. Daily team meetings still begin at 2 p.m., practice at 3. A staggering 120 players dress for home games and roughly 150 practice each day. The offense is still a diabolical pro option, and the defense is still voracious. The head coach still calls the plays from the sideline. "If it's not broke, we aren't trying to fix it," Solich said last summer, and he has stuck to those words.
In other ways, though, Solich has been transformed from doting assistant to leader. Staff meetings start early and run late. Practices sometimes go longer than they're supposed to. "You can feel a little tension because Frank is trying to make sure he's on top of everything," says offensive line coach Milt Tenopir. "Hey, Tom wasn't the coach at the beginning that he was at the end, either."
Osborne was seldom as fiery as Solich is in addressing the team. Before the demolition of Washington, Solich shouted, "Fellas, they're not ready to play with us! They're not in the condition that we're in! They're not as strong as we are!" Solich was so stoked, says fifth-year senior tight end Sheldon Jackson, "I thought he was getting ready to put the pads on right there."