Osborne's leaving Nebraska in good shape
He was John Wayne in red, tall and understated, preferring to speak with actions rather than prose.
In the 1984 Orange Bowl, Tom Osborne went for two. That was his statement. It was up to the rest of us to fill in the words.
"We were playing Auburn, and we were not doing well at halftime," Henry Waechter, the former Nebraska defensive tackle, said of his former coach, who announced Wednesday that he was retiring from his position as the Cornhuskers' athletic director, effective Jan. 1. "And he actually got close to cussing."
Osborne didn't cuss. He glowered. But in September 1981, during a home game against the Tigers with the Huskers trailing, 3-0, at the break, his 1-2 squad had finally driven him past the brink. Almost.
"It started to come out," said a chuckling Waechter, who'd later play for the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl XX champions. "And he stopped."
In his fury, Osborne was about to say "shucks" — not really shucks, but you get the idea — when he caught himself, mid-potty mouth.
"Then we split up for individual meetings, and (defensive coordinator) Coach (Charlie) McBride, he said: 'I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to get him more upset than he already is.'"
The Huskers won, 17-3.
"He's just going to be in that legendary status," Waechter said Wednesday.
Coach? Statesman? Administrator?
How will Osborne, now 75, be remembered? How will his legacy be defined?
"He did what Devaney did," ex-Huskers and NFL great Roger Craig told FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "And more."
Like Wayne, The Duke, he was a man of several hats. In 25 years as the Huskers' football coach, he took the roads Bob Devaney laid for the program and extended them, like the highway system of old. Osborne chased Oklahoma's Sooners, then passed them. He got tired of being pounded in bowl games by Florida schools, so he went after more speed and Florida kids.
Like most coaches, Osborne's rose was not without a few thorns. There was the Lawrence Phillips controversy, the seven straight bowl losses. But between 1994 and 1997, Osborne won three national championships, riding off into the sunset with one last ring around his finger.
A native of tiny Hastings, Neb., descendant of homesteaders, he retired from coaching, only to tackle something else: Washington. Osborne wound up getting elected to Congress for three terms, the thoughtful, soft-spoken voice of a thoughtful, soft-spoken state.
A failed run for governor in 2006 left him at a crossroads. Oddly enough, the Huskers were at one, too.
While Osborne was dabbling in politics, Nebraska football fell into disarray. Athletic director Steve Pederson had been fired. A proud fan base was fractured.
Osborne stepped in as athletic director in October 2007, initially as an "interim" role. He knew the first step was fixing the one thing that binds his people, their collective identity, for better or worse: The Big Red football program.
He swept away intellectual Bill Callahan and his West Coast offense and inserted tough-guy Bo Pelini, whose unfiltered passion, physical defenses and monosyllabic news conferences brought the state back from the ledge.
But there were other, deeper fissures in play. A lifelong Big Eight man, Osborne had watched the balance of power in football — and political clout — in the Big 12 shift inexorably to the state of Texas, and to the University of Texas in particular. In 2010, as the league threatened to unravel from within, Osborne went into survival mode, seeking to protect the university with which he would be forever linked.
When the Big Ten — a league awash with television revenue after the successful launch of its own cable network — offered a lifeline, the old coach reached out and took it, eschewing tradition for stability. At the time, one local pundit likened it to a parent or grandparent setting up heirs for life.
"That was a bold move on his part," Waechter said.
Coaches are measured by wins and losses. Athletic directors are marked by bricks and stone. In 2007, Nebraska's athletic budget was reportedly $68.9 million; by 2011, it checked in at roughly $79.4 million. Huskers football reportedly produced a profit of $32 million during the 2009-10 school year.
Osborne oversaw the expansion of Memorial Stadium to a capacity of 92,000 and spearheaded the construction of Pinnacle Bank Arena, a $180 million venue designed to try to level the playing field for Nebraska's perennially underachieving men's basketball program.
"How much it's going to change that job," former Huskers basketball coach Doc Sadler told FOXSports.com in June, "I don't know."
Still, it's one more jewel on Osborne's crown. One more piece of the legacy, a child of love and mortar.
"That legacy question is a tricky one," Osborne told reporters. "I'd rather you write it than me."
Coach? Statesman? Administrator?
"I think he wants to be remembered as a person that helped kids become men," Waechter said. "And good citizens."
He left it better than he found it, twice over. That's legacy enough for anyone.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler
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