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Lincoln is not a bad place to be stuck in if you care about family values, hearty food and truck-stop philosophy. The earth there is dark and as flat as a coffee table. Somewhere a train whistles. The girl at the five-and-dime rings up a roll of Lifesavers and adds the sales tax, saying, "That'll be 35 cents, plus the government." It's a town where you can disappear into your own thoughts for 31 years—a perfect place for Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a shy, deeply private man whose apparent goal is to be invisible. "There are times when I'd like to evaporate," he says.
Sometimes it seems that he already has. His face is as white and starched as his shirt. His eyes are blue and kindly but distant, like something reflected in a storefront window. "Some fella the other day called me a bowl of Cream of Wheat," he says, and he attempts to laugh. His mouth twists into an awkward smile, then folds back into its natural expression, which is rueful.
"Tom has never rolled up his britches and danced on a tabletop," says Iowa State coach Jim Walden, an old acquaintance. Instead of dancing, for more than three decades Osborne has jogged three miles a day, five days a week, around the same Nebraska track. "I guess I'm in a rut," he says.
Some rut. For 21 straight years the Cornhuskers have won at least nine games and gone to a bowl. And on Oct. 7 Osborne, 56, reached the 200-victory mark, joining only two other active coaches, Joe Paterno of Penn State and Bobby Bowden of Florida State. But the true reward of his profession has always eluded him: He has never won a national championship.
A Nebraska victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 would give Osborne that missing title and, in a single stroke, transform his career from workmanlike to brilliant. The Cornhuskers (11-0) are No. 1 in the coaches' poll and the bowl-coalition rankings, while Bowden's Seminoles (11-1) are No. 1 in the AP poll. About this apparent slight, Osborne lapses into characteristic silence. "He doesn't really [complain] out loud," linebacker Trev Alberts says. "I guess because the subject frustrates him."
It was for just such reticence that Osborne was nicknamed Yak in high school in Hastings, Neb. But in a rare burst of eloquence he has called the national championship "my albatross." Indeed, his failure to win the title has colored his career and rendered his relationship with Nebraska fans "uneasy," he says. For while Osborne has never brought the Cornhuskers to grief, he has never raised them to the heights they reached with back-to-back national championships in 1971-72 under Bob Devaney. Osborne has won only the games he was supposed to win, losing to a lower-ranked team just twice in 251 games. But Nebraska has lost its last six bowl games, and it has beaten a Top 10 team just once in its last eight attempts.
Osborne doesn't need his doctorate in educational psychology to realize that some people regard him as the guy who always loses the big one. He also understands that no one wants to hear about the mitigating circumstances, such as: In five of those six bowls Nebraska's opponent was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2; and three of the losses were to either Miami or Florida State, in Florida. Osborne isn't one to argue. He simply tells his secretary to screen out the hate mail, and he simmers in his own mild fashion. "Our obsession with Number One in this country tends to drive us toward the conclusion that you have to reach the top of the hill, and everybody else is a loser." he says.
The truth is, Osborne considers himself the possessor of an unofficial national championship. On Jan. 1, 1984, at the Orange Bowl, a Cornhusker team regarded by many as one of the best ever to play college football suffered an excruciating upset loss to Miami, 31-30, when Osborne chose to go for a two-point conversion and a victory in the final seconds. Kicking an extra point for a tie would have given Nebraska the title. Osborne doesn't second-guess his decision; he just consoles himself with the idea that the pursuit of a national championship is as rewarding, he says, as "the actual achievement." But this New Year's Day the pursuit may be uphill: The Cornhuskers are 17½-point underdogs to the Seminoles.
One of Osborne's staunchest defenders is Devaney, who gives much of the credit for his titles in 1971 and '72 to the young assistant who was his chief play caller. Devaney believes that Osborne demonstrated long ago that he has the fire to win the championship. "He's not a person to irritate," Devaney says. "He will take only so much pushing around." He can launch a locker-room tirade so furious that it leaves him trembling. "He gets so mad, his eyes kind of water," says kicker Byron Bennett. But the strongest word this Sunday-school teacher employs is dadgumit.
No, Osborne is not funny, but he has a weakness for irreverent players like Bennett, a mouthy Texan who takes the astonishing liberty of calling Osborne "Yakkety" to his face. And although Osborne is a teetotaler, he enjoys a party. "I don't know anybody who doesn't like him," says Husker running back Calvin Jones.