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The Quiet Man
Sally Jenkins
December 27, 1993
Even if Nebraska wins the national championship on New Year's Day, coach Tom Osborne isn't likely to dance on any tabletops
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December 27, 1993

The Quiet Man

Even if Nebraska wins the national championship on New Year's Day, coach Tom Osborne isn't likely to dance on any tabletops

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Then again, virtually nobody outside of 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 on the links Nebraskans still tried to talk to him about the national title.

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."

What he would love to let go of is the pressure he has been under since he took over from Devaney, who was not only wildly successful but also famously charming. By comparison, Osborne looked 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 is the story of Osborne's life at Nebraska. He spent his first three years there working for no pay. In 1962 Devaney had grudgingly given 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 back-slapping bunch who spent their time on the golf course or in bars when they weren't coaching, and they viewed the studious, . 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 quit after a year or two. "I thought he'd be a schoolteacher," Devaney says.

But it gradually became apparent that this quietest assistant had a galvanic touch with the offense and a steadying influence with troubled players. One of Osborne's least-likely relationships was with Johnny Rodgers, the searingly fast wing-back 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 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 42-year-old undergraduate at Nebraska majoring in broadcasting. He returned to school this semester under an NCAA community-service program that allows schools to put former players back on scholarship to earn their degrees. Osborne helped Rodgers gain access to the program. "We don't sec eye-to-eye on many things," Rodgers says. "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 29 of them have been designated Academic All-Americas and that 143 have been named to the All-Academic Big Eight team. Osborne proudly points to players such as fifth-year senior Kevin Raemakers, a star defensive lineman this season, who barely gained admission to Nebraska but graduated in four years.

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."

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