When Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide step onto the field of Sun Life Stadium in Miami next week, all the talk will be about history. Can Saban’s young men win their third BCS Championship Game in four years? Can Saban become the first college coach to win four national titles in 10 years, something not even the great Bear Bryant accomplished? Can we now justifiably call Saban the greatest college coach of all time?
These days, history is made on these biggest of stages, and often by these sorts of big, bombastic men. Saban might be only 5-foot-6, but his personality — and, yes, his ego — dwarfs his largest 340-pound lineman. It can be an aphorism in today’s sporting world that our greatest coaches have outsize personas or higher-plane mystiques that propel them toward history: the genius of the Bill Belichicks, the zen of the Phil Jacksons, the geniality of the Bobby Bowdens, the professorial nature of the Tony La Russas.
But on a recent afternoon in the earnest Midwestern college town and state capital of Lincoln, Neb., the most recent coach to win three national titles is sitting in his office, talking about the fishing and golfing days of retirement, holding your attention despite a voice that hovers barely above a whisper, and belying everything you ever thought makes up the constitution of a big-time football coach.
The secret to Tom Osborne’s success? It’s simple, and utterly not sexy.
Tom Osborne hasn’t been Nebraska’s head football coach in 15 years. After 25 seasons when Osborne’s Cornhuskers never won fewer than nine games a year, he stepped down in storybook fashion, after his 1997 squad won a share of the national title, his third in four seasons. Since then, he’s been around, sure. He’s been a Republican congressman from Nebraska, he’s been a candidate for Nebraska governor, he’s been drumming up statewide interest in the successful TeamMates Mentoring Program he started with his wife, Nancy.
And, most recently, he’s been summoned back to the school he loves, a white knight who rode back to town when Nebraska football was having its first losing season in nearly a half century, when the athletic department was in shambles and when the Nebraska football tradition seemed to have been shoved aside.
They asked Osborne to make things right.
And he has.
In five years as Nebraska’s athletic director, a tenure that ends Jan. 1 as his 16th-ranked Huskers take on seventh-ranked Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, Osborne did nothing less than heal a fractured university. He replaced Bill Callahan with Bo Pelini, who has won nine or more games each season. Osborne eased Nebraska’s transition into the Big Ten, and he helped triple the size of academic space available for student-athletes in 23 sports. He opened an impressive, $18.7 million basketball practice facility to help a program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1998. He spearheaded a $63.5 million stadium expansion project that will add 6,000 seats, 36 luxury boxes and, closer to Osborne’s heart, an athletic research facility that will partner with the academic side of the university and focus on concussions and other athletic injuries.
He was the key in persuading the moneyed folks of Nebraska to pony up for a new $179 million basketball arena in downtown Lincoln that opens next year, and he’s upgrading the university’s successful women’s volleyball team into larger facilities.
And the fiscal conservative is proud to say the university did all this on cash reserves, without mortgaging itself.
In short, Tom Osborne did what he always does: He left a place in a far better spot than when he came there.
And now, at age 75, he’s the last of the old-school football coaches still around. Bowden’s retired and Mack Brown should be, Paterno’s deceased and Lou Holtz is better known as a squawking head on TV than a coach. Osborne is one of the few old-timers who can recall firsthand the massive shifts in big-time college athletics, from when he became an unpaid Huskers assistant coach in 1962 to now, when he oversees an athletic department with an annual budget approaching $100 million.
But the money game and the facility wars that Osborne has begrudgingly participated in isn’t the biggest change he’s seen around college athletics.
The biggest difference between now and then? It’s a typically boring Osborne answer.
It’s about the things that actually matter.
“I began having to deal with more and more kids that were talented that were coming into our program with a fair amount of family dysfunction pulling at their heels,” Osborne told FOXSports.com. “Coaches are often the most important people in the lives of lots of kids, primarily because a lot of them don’t have fathers, some of them don’t have mothers. A coach used to be the one who decided whether you played or not. He was the one who taught you X’s and O’s. But anymore you find that coaches and teachers are assuming roles that at one time parents were responsible for. Coaches have a tremendous impact on our culture.”
Ultimately, that’s where Osborne hopes his legacy lies in the state of Nebraska: Not as the football coach who won 255 games and three national titles, but as the man who used the Spartan game of football to teach young men work ethic and toughness and teamwork and relying on your common man and most of all how consistent practice beats natural talent every time.
No, it’s not sexy, not at all. It’s not a philosophy that today would garner tabloid headlines or folk-hero worship or endorsement deals. It’s simply that consistent Osborne way, a way that resonates so much in the Great Plains that Osborne might end up as one of the five most famous Nebraskans to ever live.
“You can have a guy put on a show, give a fiery speech before you go on the field or at halftime, whatever, but kids know that’s really not true,” said George Darlington, who coached under Osborne for 25 years. “Whereas you have a person who’s calm and under control and says things that make a lot of sense and appeals to them as intelligent people and knows they don’t have to be conned into a fury to play well, just the consistency of daily routines — that’s what makes them play better and learn more.”
There’s a story Darin Erstad tells about Tom Osborne that encapsulates the man’s old-school consistency. Erstad — the only person to win a football national championship, as punter for the 1994 Huskers, and a World Series, with the Anaheim Angels in 2002 — was back at the team hotel in Miami after the Huskers won the 1995 Orange Bowl for Osborne’s first national title. Erstad recalls how the locker room was going bonkers after the game.
And then Osborne walked in. The place got silent.
In his barely audible manner, Osborne told his team he was proud of them. He said they executed very well. He didn’t mention the team had won the national championship moments before.
“It was just the most boring, stoic talk, just like he always does, and somehow he can get everybody to go crazy,” Erstad said. “The weirdest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Later, at the team hotel in Miami, thousands of Huskers fans jammed into the lobby. Erstad left his hotel room and went downstairs to soak in the moment. Osborne was on the same elevator. What was he doing? Not clutching a victory bottle of champagne or gloating about finally getting over that national title hump or holding court with reporters. He was studying a ream of papers, breakdowns of the game and scouting reports of future recruits. No celebrating. Already preparing for next year.
“There’s not, ‘We made it! Here we are!’” Erstad said. “It never stops.”
It worked, because they won the national title the next year, too.
What does 2013 hold for Nebraska? It will have a good football team, like it always does, and with the head coach, Pelini, whom Osborne installed in his own image. It’ll be on far steadier ground than when Osborne was summoned back to rescue Nebraska athletics five years ago. The old football coach will still be around, fishing on the two ponds on his property in Lincoln, giving advice when it’s asked for, but for the most part, he’ll keep to himself.
“He’s the most popular person in the state of Nebraska,” Darlington said. “He’s given himself to the university in a very humble way. He’s not worried about his ego or his legacy. He just tries to do his best for this university.”
Tom Osborne isn’t one to gloat, not in that quiet voice that seems like it ought not come from a football coach. But Osborne knows deep down that he’s left this place better than when he came here, which may not make him the greatest college football coach of all time — though he’s close — but makes him a damn fine human being.