When he succeeded Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne didn’t imagine he would spend 25 years as Nebraska’s head coach. He figured the best-case scenario was maybe five years.
“Bob always had a built-in grace factor because he turned the program around,” Osborne has said. “I wasn’t going to have that opportunity because I was more of a caretaker.”
Osborne was a native son, a Nebraskan who had been a multi-sport athlete at both Hastings (Neb.) High and Hastings College. He hadn’t planned to pursue coaching. Rather, it was going to be a means to an end. After a brief professional football career, he sought a job on Devaney’s first staff at Nebraska while working on a post-graduate degree. Devaney offered room and board, and he accepted.
After earning a doctorate in educational psychology, however, Osborne chose coaching over the classroom, a choice that produced remarkable results. Every one of his teams won at least nine games and played in bowl games. The 25 consecutive bowl trips made by his teams are an NCAA record for a coach; Bear Bryant is second with 24. And Osborne coached the Cornhuskers to three national championships in his final four seasons, compiling a record of 60–3 in his final five seasons, all with 11 or more victories.
His teams won or shared 13 conference titles, and his winning percentage of .836 (255–49–3) was the nation’s best among active coaches before he retired. His percentage ranked fifth all-time in Division I.
Osborne emphasized the journey rather than the destination, and his philosophy was expressed in the title of an autobiographical book he wrote, More Than Winning. He stepped aside after the third national championship — becoming the first coach ever to retire after winning a national title — for health and personal reasons. The field at Memorial Stadium is named in his honor. And he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998, after the Hall’s three-year waiting period was waived.
Five years ago he was named the school's athletic director, and yesterday the 75-year-old Osborne announced he would be retiring on Jan. 1, 2013.
In recognition of his career at Nebraska, we look back at five great moments that helped define Osborne's legacy.
Osborne Finally Beats OU
Nebraska 17, Oklahoma 14
Nov. 11, 1978
Senior monster back Jim Pillen recovered a Billy Sims fumble at the Nebraska 3-yard line with 3:27 remaining to preserve Osborne’s first victory against Oklahoma. The Sooners, undefeated, untied and ranked No. 1, fumbled nine times, losing six. Sims, the Heisman Trophy winner that season, lost two of the fumbles in the fourth quarter, as top-ranked Oklahoma tried in vain to overcome a 24-yard Billy Todd field goal with 11:51 remaining. Sims, who had rushed for 200 or more yards in three consecutive games, scored both of the Sooner touchdowns, on runs of 44 and 30 yards. Nebraska countered with touchdown runs by Rick Berns and I.M. Hipp, in the second and third quarters. The victory put the Cornhuskers in position to play Penn State in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. But a week later, Missouri upset Nebraska, also in Lincoln, leading to an Orange Bowl rematch with Oklahoma.
No Guts, No Glory
Miami 31, Nebraska 30
Jan. 2, 1984
Osborne almost certainly could have had his first national championship had he been willing to settle for a tie. That was the consensus, anyway. The Cornhuskers, ranked No. 1 throughout the season, would have remained undefeated with a Scott Livingston extra-point kick. But Osborne opted for a 2-point conversion attempt that would have meant victory. Miami’s Ken Calhoun deflected Turner Gill’s pass enough that it glanced off I-back Jeff Smith incomplete. Nebraska rallied from a 31–17 fourth-quarter deficit, with Smith, who was playing for an injured Mike Rozier, scoring two touchdowns in the final 6:55, the second with 48 seconds remaining. Miami had built a 17–0 first-quarter lead, but the Cornhuskers battled back to tie less than two minutes into the second half. Their first touchdown came when guard Dean Steinkuhler picked up an intentional fumble and ran 19 yards. Nebraska didn’t leave the Orange Bowl with a national title, but Osborne and his team left with national respect for playing to win. Said Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger: “This was a championship game, and (Osborne) went after it like a champion.”
Osborne Gets His National Title
Nebraska 24, Miami 17
Jan. 1, 1995
At halftime of the Orange Bowl game, Osborne reminded the Cornhuskers that if they kept “hammering” away, Miami’s defense would wear down. And so it did, though there were some anxious moments among Nebraska fans when the Hurricanes increased their lead to 17–7 less than two minutes into the second half. They wouldn’t score again, however. The Cornhuskers got two of the points back quickly, when rush end Dwayne Harris tackled Miami quarterback Frank Costa for a safety. But the offensive persistence didn’t begin to pay off until midway through the fourth quarter, when fullback Cory Schlesinger scored two touchdowns in a span of 4 minutes and 52 seconds to give Osborne his first national championship. Tommie Frazier, who had been sidelined by blood clots throughout Big Eight play, returned to start at quarterback. But Brook Berringer got Nebraska on the scoreboard with 19-yard pass to tight end Mark Gilman in the second quarter, after Miami had jumped out to a 10–0 lead on their home field.
Frazier Frustrates Florida
Nebraska 62, Florida 24
Jan. 2, 1996
The play didn’t appear all that special at first. On second-and-5 from his own 25-yard line late in the third quarter of the Fiesta Bowl game against No. 2-ranked Florida, quarterback Tommie Frazier faked a handoff to fullback Brian Schuster and for a split-second appeared to consider a pitch to I-back Clinton Childs. He kept the ball, however, and ran 75 yards for the touchdown that defined his Cornhusker career. He broke seven or eight tackles during the first 20 yards, after which he was untouched by a Gator defender. “They kept contacting me, but I kept my legs going,” Frazier explained following the 62–24 victory that gave Nebraska a second consecutive national championship and established the 1995 Huskers as perhaps the greatest team in college football history.
Nebraska 45, Missouri 38 (OT)
Nov. 8, 1997
Everyone remembers the final play in regulation, Matt Davison’s touchdown catch of a ball thrown by Scott Frost that deflected off the foot of Shevin Wiggins. But what preceded the catch at Missouri’s Faurot Field was dramatic as well. With 1:02 remaining, Nebraska took over at its own 33-yard line. Nine plays later, without benefit of timeouts, Frost had directed the Cornhuskers to the Missouri 12-yard line. Only seven seconds remained. The tying touchdown came on third down.
Nebraska lost the coin toss and had the ball first in overtime, scoring in three plays, the third a 12-yard run by Frost for his fourth touchdown. He finished with a career-high 141 rushing yards, and I-back Ahman Green rushed for 189 as the Cornhuskers rolled up 528 total yards. Missouri gained 386 yards, with quarterback Corby Jones accounting for 293 passing and rushing. The Tigers went ahead 38–31 with 4:39 remaining.
Spurred by the Missouri Miracle, the Huskers sent Osborne out with a share of a third national title, completing an unbeaten season with a 42-17 Orange Bowl win over Tennessee.