LINCOLN — Leader. Mentor. Friend.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini on Wednesday used those words in a statement to describe Athletic Director Tom Osborne, the man who hired Pelini as football coach in late 2007 and who announced his retirement effective Jan. 1 — when Pelini hopes to be playing in the Rose Bowl.
In a World-Herald interview after football practice — NU is knee-deep into preparations for Wisconsin — Pelini reiterated those themes.
“Special guy,” Pelini said. “He gave me a tremendous opportunity. I'll be forever grateful. He'll be around here, and he'll always be somebody who will lend me a helping hand. I wish him well.”
Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad echoed that sentiment Wednesday. Erstad, who punted on NU's 1994 national title team, knew he'd see his former coach walk away eventually. Erstad could look around his own new baseball practice complex and the other building projects on campus and know that Osborne was putting a “final stamp” on his Husker legacy.
But Erstad didn't expect Osborne to sit in the guest chair of Erstad's office Tuesday and deliver the news. Quick. To the point. Not much sentimentality — at least from Osborne.
“That was completely awkward,” Erstad joked at Haymarket Park. “It was an emotional experience. Of course, he doesn't get emotional. But it was a tough day. I surely didn't think what he was coming over for that.”
Osborne told Pelini on Tuesday, too, and the fifth-year coach wasn't shocked.
“I knew it was coming,” Pelini said. “I had a feeling he was getting tired of it.”
And Erstad, heading into his second year as NU's baseball coach, said he didn't need a reason.
“At 75 years old?” Erstad said. “He's put his time in at the university. He wants to go fishing every day. Knock your socks off.”
Reactions poured in on Osborne's announced retirement, with expressions of surprise, a dash of sadness and a lot of admiration — even from the guy Osborne fired as football coach just two months into the A.D. job.
Some members of the current Husker football staff sat on the third floor of Memorial Stadium on Wednesday listening to Osborne deliver the news.
“I had a tear in my eye,” said offensive line coach Barney Cotton, who added he doesn't go to every staff meeting, but “my gut told me” this one was too important to miss.
Cotton, who met Osborne in 1973 as a junior at Omaha Burke High School and played for Nebraska from 1975 to '78, called Osborne “the smartest, classiest man of integrity I've ever met.”
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“He's very well-studied. Smart. Thinks it out before he makes a decision. Cares about the feelings of people — but yet can demand an awful lot out of people without the harsh motivation that probably some of us use.”
Said running backs coach Ron Brown, who coached under Osborne: “Almost man for man, there's tremendous respect for him.”
NU basketball coach Tim Miles also attended one of those meetings, and he even posted a photo to Twitter of Osborne speaking to the staff. Miles said no Husker program benefited more from Osborne's five-year stint as A.D. than men's basketball because of the Hendricks Training Complex and new Pinnacle Bank Arena opening in 2013. Introduced last March, Miles will be the last coach Osborne hires. He was also the coach who fielded a question about working for a 75-year-old boss.
Osborne referenced that question to the media Wednesday while vaguely discussing his reasons for retirement. Miles said it would have been just fine to work for Osborne.
“Even if you only work for him for one year, it's going to be a great year,” Miles said.
Volleyball coach John Cook said he's “really going to miss” working for Osborne.
“I just feel privileged,” Cook said. “I really want to win him a national championship.”
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez — who played at NU and helped the Huskers land in the Big Ten — said the last five years under Osborne have been fruitful for Nebraska.
“Tom Osborne has been a steady and stabilizing presence as athletic director at Nebraska since he moved into the position five years ago,” Alvarez said in a statement. “Everyone knows about Tom's football coaching legacy, but he has really helped guide Nebraska through some significant challenges in recent years and he was, obviously, a key figure in the school's transition to the Big Ten.”
And then a quote came in from Dallas, where Bill Callahan — fired by Osborne in late November 2007 — serves as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator.
“The old coach did retire. He's paid his dues,” Callahan told an Associated Press reporter in Dallas. “He's got such a great love for Nebraska that I thought he was going to probably be there forever.”
Not quite. But Erstad still expects to see Osborne around NU athletics for years, perhaps just as a fan. Erstad said he'll use his former coach as an object lesson for his players: That athletes are role models to children whether they realize it or not. Osborne did realize it, Erstad said, and carried himself accordingly.
“It's powerful to be in a position like that,” Erstad said, “and what you choose to do with that is either positive or negative for the kid, and he focused on the positive.”
World-Herald correspondent Jeff Sheldon contributed to this report.
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