Osborne even ran for political office and was elected on the premise that he would unfailingly serve the people of his district, that every day as a U. S. Congressman, he would do his dead-leveled best to make life better for the people of this country. No lobbyist would ever get his hooks into this soft-spoken native of Hastings, Neb., where Kool-Aid was invented in 1927.
As a kid, Osborne enjoyed sports and was good enough to play in the National Football League as a receiver for three years with the Redskins and 49ers. He then became an unpaid assistant for Bob Devaney, who literally took the Cornhuskers, perennial bottom-feeders in the old Big Eight Conference, to penthouse status. Osborne would become Devaney’s offensive coordinator and would succeed him as head coach in 1973. Devaney, who won back-to-back national championships in 1970 and '71, had planned to retire. Since the 1940s, no team had won three national championships in a row, so Devaney asked Tom to wait a year to become head coach. Nebraska in 1972 lost to UCLA and Oklahoma, each by three points, and was tied by Iowa State in Ames. That third consecutive national championship was not to be. Devaney stepped aside.
In 1983, Osborne developed a powerhouse team which many were calling the team of the century. With Mike Rozier at I-back, the Cornhuskers steamrolled over everybody on the schedule, scoring 44 points on Penn State, 84 on Minnesota, 72 on Iowa State, 69 on Colorado and 63 on Syracuse. Only Oklahoma State (14-10) in Stillwater and Oklahoma (28-21) in Norman tested the Big Red. Osborne was primed for his first national championship, but had to play Miami, which had home field advantage, in the Orange Bowl.
Georgia upset No. 2-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 1984, which provided an emotional jolt for the Hurricanes who got off to a 17-0 lead against Nebraska. With a commitment from the Orange Bowl for a book project, I flew from Dallas to Miami to see what would be the national championship game. Two things are indelible from that experience. The Cornhuskers were able to rally and scored a touchdown late in the game to pull within one point of the Hurricanes, 31-30. I was standing no more than 15 yards from Osborne who never hesitated. Many think he could have kicked the extra point and backed into a national championship. Here last week to speak to the Athens Touchdown Club, he said prior to the meeting that he never considered not attempting a two-point conversion, which was a failed pass, but just by inches.
“I know,” he said, “I would have never voted for a coach who didn’t go for the win.”
For the longest time, it appeared that Osborne would not win a national title. Finally in 1994 as he began thinking of retirement, he won his one. He then won another in 1995 and his last came in 1997. Fate doesn’t always smile on every coach as it did with Osborne, but no coach was ever more deserving than this introspective and selfless man.
The other unforgettable moment in Miami came at the end of the game. Outside the locker room, overwhelmed with frustration, was Devaney, who had segued from the position of head coach to full-time athletic director. He asked, “Do you think that Tom can still win coach-of-the-year honors?” That was a poignant circumstance. Not often does an athletic director (who was also the football coach) support his successor like Devaney did Osborne.
Today Osborne is serving on the committee which will determine the playoff teams next year when that historic first for college football comes about. Just as he was as a player, coach and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, we can count on Tom Osborne exercising the principles of honesty, integrity and fair play. He didn’t want to serve on the committee but didn’t know how to say no. If the others on the committee are as qualified as Osborne, the playoff committee will get it right.
Loran Smith is an administrative specialist for the University of Georgia sports communication department. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.