LINCOLN — Tom Osborne turned 75 on Thursday. What do you give the legend who has everything?
For one thing, more birthdays.
"I've had a lot of practice at having them," Osborne said. "It's better to have birthdays than to not have them."
This is an amazing specimen, this Nebraska athletic director. And he gets more amazing every day.
Osborne works out 45 minutes every day. His routine is 30 to 40 minutes on an elliptical machine and 10 to 15 minutes on a stair climber. Twice a week, he lifts weights for "an hour or so."
"I feel good," Osborne said. "I still weigh the same (195 pounds) as I did in college."
Osborne still works, period. He conservatively estimated his load at 60 hours a week, give or take a basketball game or Big Ten meeting that goes into overtime.
He'll get on an airplane four or five times a month for work trips. That doesn't include one or two trips to Omaha each week, plus driving around the state of Nebraska for meetings and events.
Osborne was in Sacramento, Calif., this weekend for a speech, then on to Chicago for Big Ten business on Monday and Tuesday. To secure an interview with him, make sure to call at least two days in advance and his assistant, Anne Hackbart, might be able to get you a specific 10-minute window with him.
Sound like any 75-year-old you know?
"Tom must have 5-hour energy injected in him, I think," joked Howard Hawks, an Osborne friend and a member of the NU Board of Regents.
Osborne is Osborne. But when the patriarch and highest-ranking official of the NU athletic department turns 75, even his biggest fans in the state have questions.
How much longer can he go?
What happens next? Is there a succession plan in place?
These were once sensitive topics around Osborne. Bring them up and risk making the man feel like he's being pushed out. Nobody's trying to do that.
After speaking with Osborne on Thursday, I had the impression he has a timetable. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And, for the first time, he said he would be glad to help pick his successor — if asked.
Osborne doesn't have a contract. He says he works "at the prerogative" of Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who loves the job Osborne has done since Steve Pederson was fired in October 2007. Why wouldn't he? Osborne has been tremendous.
He's tackled the tasks he set out to accomplish: re-set the culture and revive morale in the department, make the student-athlete experience better and upgrade facilities across the board, and make all sports competitive. Yes, men's basketball needs help. The job isn't done until that's been dealt with.
But when projects like the East Memorial Stadium, downtown arena and Devaney Center renovation are done in 2013, it's easy to see Osborne saying his work here is finished.
"I was asked to do a job," Osborne said. "To straighten things out that weren't necessarily broken but weren't working very well.
"There are a few things left that I want to accomplish and see through. Then it will be time to step aside."
Should NU be planning for that day? Yes. There should be a process, with Osborne's blessing and help.
That doesn't necessarily mean have a replacement in the on-deck circle. That's doable if the choice is in-house or in-state. But what if you decide to go outside, hire from another school?
Ever since he was hired, Osborne has indicated he wanted nothing to do with selecting his successor. He's correct that he shouldn't make the selection alone. But should Tom Osborne be involved in shaping NU's future? Who else would you want in that important process?
Perlman was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
"There's no (succession) plan that I know of," Osborne said. "That will be Harvey Perlman's hire. But I'm glad to be of help in the process or stay completely out of it.
"The thing I would like to have is for our coaches to feel good about who is coming in to take over. Again, it's Harvey's decision. He'll try to make sure there's a fair consensus on it."
This is a topic Hawks can relate to. The co-founder of energy giant Tenaska Inc. retired as CEO two years ago at age 75, but is still active as chairman. Hawks said he had a succession plan, formed by several leaders in the company, and he said NU should have one, too.
"I'm not privy to whether there's a plan or not," Hawks said. "But I can tell you it's important to have a succession plan. We're all vulnerable to unexpected surprises. If you don't have a succession plan, if something unexpected takes place, that isn't going to end well.
"For example, look at what happened when Steve Pederson had to be fired. What would we have done if Tom hadn't been available at the time? I hate to think what would have happened. We were reeling then. We were divided as a state. Tom pulled us together. Who would we have turned to if he hadn't been there?
"I think there should be a plan and the people who hold the highest positions at the school should be involved in making that plan, but it shouldn't be limited to just them."
There's no textbook way to retire. Some work into their 70s because they love it. Some do because they're afraid they'll be bored, or whither, without staying busy. Some retire in their early 60s and regret it. Some retire and never look back.
College football is full of stories of old lions who stayed too long because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they quit. There aren't many happy endings. Joe Paterno stayed too long. Like Bear Bryant, he died not long after he left the field.
Osborne knows all of these stories. He was one of the lucky ones, the smart ones. His retirement from coaching was calculated. So will his retirement from the A.D.'s chair. There will be a tangible goal, an end game — perhaps get the facilities built — and that will be it.
"I saw that (Paterno) with some sadness," Osborne said. "Joe had been sick, too. Coaching is a very demanding, high-energy endeavor. I realized that when I left. I had made promises to people, too. But I also knew I wanted to be offensive coordinator and head coach. That takes so much more time. That's not for someone in their 60s to do. But I also knew I didn't want to be a CEO coach, just do the game plans and oversee everything.
"I'm not working because I have to. I wanted to do this. What you don't want is to overstay your welcome. You don't want to be in the way. You don't want to be told to leave. I don't want people talking behind my back about me, how I won't leave, how I'm being stubborn.
"I'll know the time when it comes. It's not like I won't have anything to do at home. There's a lot going on with Nancy and the grandkids. At least for the time being, this is where I'm going to be. But nothing lasts forever."
Seventy-five years is a pretty good clip. Happy Birthday, Tom. Here's to many more.
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