LINCOLN, Neb. — It was homecoming 1991. Ninth-ranked Nebraska was favored by 35 points over Kansas State, still thought of as a woebegone program at the time and whose best days were still far on the horizon.
A quarterback named Paul Watson was shredding the Huskers’ secondary, and the Wildcats led by a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Rob Zatechka, a redshirt freshman who later would play on Nebraska’s famed “Pipeline” offensive line, remembers pandemonium on the sideline. Teammates were yelling at each other, assistant coaches were yelling at players and other assistants.
Then Zatechka caught sight of head coach Tom Osborne, the picture of calm as he chewed his Big Red gum and spoke through his headset, seemingly removed from the chaos around him.
“I was taken aback by it,” Zatechka said. “I thought, ‘He’s not panicking. If he’s not panicking, we shouldn’t panic, either.’
“Someone asked Osborne why he never cut loose emotionally. I remember Osborne making the point that if the players see you losing emotional control, whether good or bad, they’re going to lose emotional control, and that’s where you see games spiral out of control.”
Nebraska won 38-31 thanks to a last-minute goal-line stand. More than the result that day, Zatechka remembers Osborne.
“Sometimes if you maintain an outward sense of control over a situation,” Zatechka said, “it has an amazing effect on the people around you.”
Osborne will retire as Nebraska’s athletic director Jan. 1 and end an association with the university that began in 1962. He turns 76 in February and will stay at the school through July 31 as athletic director emeritus to ease the transition of new athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
Perhaps as much as anything, Osborne’s 25-year Hall of Fame coaching career and five-year run as a can-do AD are characterized by his strong and steady leadership, often in difficult circumstances.
“No matter how crazy things were going on around him, you knew Coach was going to be calm,” said Terry Connealy, who played defensive tackle on the 1994 national championship team. “We weren’t going to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. He’s a calming influence. That’s what the program needed when he came back as the athletic director, with all the perceived turmoil.”
Osborne will get to enjoy more time with his grandchildren and do the things he and his wife, Nancy, put off during his years as a coach, congressman and athletic director.
“He’ll be as busy as ever,” 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers said. “It’s not like he’s going to just go off and fish.”
Chancellor Harvey Perlman asked Osborne to return in 2007 to stabilize an athletic department whose flagship sport was in a free fall under coach Bill Callahan and whose staff was burdened by low morale under Steve Pederson.
Osborne’s first acts were to fire Callahan and hire Bo Pelini, who has won no fewer than nine games in his five seasons and led the Huskers to three conference championship games, and mend fences with boosters and former players who felt alienated by Pederson.
In addition to guiding the school’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten two years ago, Osborne saw through key building projects.
The Student Life Complex, which opened in 2010, houses the academic support arm of the athletic department and has been voted the best facility of its kind in college athletics.
The Hendricks Training Complex, which opened in 2011, is one of the nation’s top basketball practice facilities. The men’s and women’s teams will play in the downtown Pinnacle Bank Arena beginning next fall after four decades in the Devaney Sports Center.
A Memorial Stadium expansion, to be completed for the 2013 season, will increase capacity to more than 90,000.
“In my mind, he took us to a whole new level,” Rodgers said. “He took us to the most prestigious conference, more television time than ever, which will help us in recruiting. And there are more academic dollars for university and more prestige.”
Trev Alberts, an All-America linebacker for the Huskers in the early 1990s and now the Nebraska-Omaha athletic director, said some people might be surprised at how much Osborne accomplished in his five years running the athletic department in Lincoln.
“It goes back to his experience as a coach,” Alberts said. “He recognized that if he had gone back with the plan to just be a caretaker, there would have been a significant slide. He loves to solve problems and move forward.”
Osborne, who was born in the south-central Nebraska town of Hastings, leaves the university as one of the most influential figures in the state’s history.
Each of the 25 Nebraska football teams Osborne coached won at least nine games, and three of his last four teams won national championships. He left coaching after the 1997 season with a career record of 255-49-3, an .836 winning percentage that ranked fifth all-time among Division I coaches, and 13 conference titles.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
After two years away from coaching, voters in the western Nebraska district elected him to the House of Representatives in 2000, 2002 and 2004. In perhaps the greatest upset in Nebraska political history, Osborne lost to popular incumbent Dave Heineman in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Osborne finished his third term in Congress and returned to the university to teach classes in leadership and business ethics before answering Perlman’s call to steady the athletic department.
George Darlington, a longtime assistant coach under Osborne, said he knows Osborne was extremely disappointed to lose the gubernatorial race. But had Osborne won, Darlington pointed out, he wouldn’t have been the athletic director.
“Who would be in place to have those facilities built?” Darlington said. “Steve Pederson, of course, had rubbed so many people wrong that I don’t think he could have gotten it to completion. Someone from the outside wouldn’t have had the clout.”
Osborne plans to devote more time to the TeamMates program that he and his wife, Nancy, founded in 1991. What started as a small youth mentoring program has grown to 120 communities serving more than 4,000 students in grades 4-12. The program matches a student with an adult volunteer mentor to provide one hour of individual mentoring each week during the school year.