Osborne’s Legacy Defines a Generation
Beginning in 2013, Tom Osborne will no longer have an active role in Nebraska athletics. It took me an exceptional amount of time to just write that one sentence, let alone consider its implications for the Cornhusker program and its fans. His legacy is bigger than his record on the field, though that record is truly remarkable. He defined what it meant to be a competitor. Osborne's tenure as Nebraska's football coach, and later as its athletic director, defines an entire generation of Husker fans - multiple generations, really.
If the old adage of "You are what your record says you are" is really sports' ultimate truth, then Osborne was truly great. As head coach at Nebraska, he was 255-49-3, an .853 winning percentage. He won conference titles and multiple national titles. He was the conference coach of the year, the national coach of the year, he was the coach of the decade (1990s), and he is in the Hall of Fame. His greatness is not in doubt.
Defining Character, Competition
Tom Osborne is actually considerably bigger than his sterling record as a coach. He defines character and competition. For an entire generation of Husker fans, his choice to go for two in the 1984 Orange Bowl is a formative sports moment for many. It was a choice that was so reflective of the man's character. For him, there was never any question but to go, even when a PAT and a tie game would have ensured him a national championship. Does anyone today have such courage of conviction, that will to compete? To me, and for many, that is the root of all things Osbornian.
Dominating, Perfecting "Process"
That courage of conviction, that will to compete was on full display toward the end of his coaching career. His 60-3 record and three national titles from 1993-1997 was unheard of at the time. I defy anyone in major college football to match it. Perhaps more importantly was Osborne's commitment to the process.
This same almost mystical competitive team sport "process" that coaches like Nick Saban, and yes, Bo Pelini, speak of constantly - it's something Osborne created, innovated and nearly perfected. Academic support? Check. Off season training? Check. Nutrition? Check. Team accountability structure? Check. Sports psychology? Check. Nationwide recruiting? Check. Had his coaching tenure included an age of new media, I am willing to bet he could have managed it too. Osborne committed to "the process" before Saban was in Junior High school.
Righting the Ship
Tom Osborne left coaching and served his country in the House of Representatives. But, he couldn't stay out of athletics. He may be remembered as much for his actions as Athletic Director as his actions as NU's coach, and that's saying something. He righted NU's football ship by firing Bill Callahan and hiring Bo Pelini. He and Chancellor Perlman then steered the entire program in a bold new direction with the choice to join the Big Ten conference. Those are massive, legacy building, choices. Could anyone else have navigated NU to those points? Who else had the credibility?
Getting Off the Stage
With a sterling coaching resume and a massive legacy intact, Tom Osborne exits the stage. As with his coaching exit in 1997, he's doing so in a timely manner. He didn't want things to languish, didn't want people "wringing their hands" over what to do with him. Of all the aspects of leadership, knowing how and when to exit might be the hardest for people to do.
It's easy to wonder what might have happened if Osborne had stayed in coaching just a bit longer. Could he have won at the same rate and therefore eclipsed the victory counts of his contemporaries Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno? It's impossible to know and easy to make conjecture. But, considering how each of them exited their respective programs amid some amount of acrimony or heartache, it's easy to appreciate Osborne's choice now in hindsight.
The same may prove to be true in his choice to stop as the athletic director. It's better now than when his body or mind fails him and the Husker program, diminishing all he has accomplished. Who will step in? What will their record be? That's impossible to know and easy to make conjecture.
But there will be no doubt as to what body of work that current and future coaches and AD's will be compared. For a generation of adults who grew up seeing grown men in tears over a choice to go for two in a bowl game, who saw unprecedented domination on the field, who saw the same guts and determination impact the direction of the entire athletic program - Nebraska's sports culture is without a doubt an Osbornian sports culture.
That's Tom Osborne's legacy. I salute him, and he will be missed.