LINCOLN — Forever arrived on Wednesday.
It fell out of the late September sky. At 9 a.m., there was an announcement of a press conference. By 11:40 a.m., Tom Osborne was walking to the elevator, waving to the cameras and well-wishers.
Osborne is as Nebraska as the rich soil, as Husker as the color red. You thought he would be here forever, coaching, or leading, or perhaps sitting in his office, taking appointments from lost souls who sought perspective in their daily lives.
But even icons must hang 'em up eventually. The old fisherman did it the way he did everything, in his wonderfully understated manner. He laid out the reasons like cards on a table. He wasn't going to sort through the accomplishments of a brilliant career, or even tell us what they meant.
He's left that for our microscopes, like he always did.
Osborne is a man of two NU legacies. Two acts. Coach. Athletic director.
The first reads like a storybook. Small-town Nebraska boy grows up to become head coach. Follows a legendary coach. Chases the white whale. Goes for victory over tie. Wins three national championships. Graduates and molds countless young men. Wins with great consistency and honor. Leaves on top.
The sequel as athletic director is far less colorful. Nebraska in turmoil. Osborne rides in to save the day. Fires football coach. Hires football coach. Calms waters. Changes the landscape of athletic facilities. Paves way for historic jump to the Big Ten.
What's your favorite Osborne moment? What's his greatest impact? So much to choose from. Like picking your favorite masterpiece in the Louvre. Or a favorite line from “Caddyshack.”
His body of work is like the Great Lakes. It starts over here and winds around all the way over to there.
Is there a greater Nebraskan than Tom Osborne? Nobody gave more to the state, including three terms in Congress. Nobody meant more.
For me, Osborne's greatest legacy is that he went for two.
No, not that night at the Orange Bowl, although that's a life lesson the national pundits are talking about today.
Osborne went for a second act in his career. After so much winning on the field, Osborne returned in 2007 to show that he had the touch from behind a desk, too.
Like his signature moment in Miami on Jan. 2, 1984, there was a sense of courage and honor in going for it again. He risked the first legacy with the second. Fail as an athletic director and it would be attached to his Hall of Fame coaching career.
But, like with everything else, he did it for all the right reasons.
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The jury is still out on Bo Pelini and Tim Miles and Darin Erstad. But there's enough evidence in to say that Osborne's second career at NU was a grand success.
You can't equate raising money and morale to beating Miami or Oklahoma. But Osborne's second act deserves to stand right next to his amazing first on the legacy shelf.
He won't compare. But this second act must have as much meaning to Osborne. Perhaps even more.
I think of Osborne, in the twilight of his life, as a proud patriarch. He's had a long and fulfilling career and life.
But what means the most to a man as he settles into retirement? What keeps him warm in the winter of his life?
It's not what he did in his youth or middle age. It's not the trophies or the mementos piled up in his office.
What makes an old man's heart full of joy is knowing he is leaving behind something good, something real.
It's knowing that he's set up his kids for life. And their kids.
It's knowing that when he walks away, he's left it better than when he found it.
In this second act, the last five years, Osborne has done exactly that for Nebraska athletics and, hence, the university and the state.
He brought stability to the department. This cannot be underscored enough. It's easy to forget how chaotic and downright scary things were in 2007. Nebraska was getting blown out by Kansas, there was an athletic director nobody liked and a football coach who was foreign to Husker tradition.
Osborne gave credibility back to the department, especially with the big-money set. Steve Pederson had plans for facilities, but by the time he was fired, few were lining up to help Pederson.
Osborne brought that back, at an absolutely crucial time, when NU was in the middle of an arms race in the Big 12 and in college sports in general. This was no time to fall behind.
Expanding the football stadium to more than 90,000. Putting volleyball in position to make money at the Devaney Center. And, certainly, giving basketball a shot at getting out of the quicksand with a practice facility like no other, and that new downtown arena.
Then there was the move to the Big Ten. It may not know how to play football now. But it knows how to make money and put teams on national TV. And in a wacky realignment world, it gave a school in a sparsely populated prairie state membership in the most stable country club in the nation.
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That's called setting up the kids for life.
It's the understated legacy of the understated legend, but it's every bit as big as any victory or Heisman or championship ride.
That he walks away now was a mild surprise. It was assumed by Osborne watchers that the man would clock out a year from now, after the ribbons had been cut on the new facilities.
But one of the consistent themes of following Osborne all these years is that the man wanted to be ahead of the curve, if not the posse. I can't tell you how many times Osborne told the story about Bear Bryant, late in his career, calling for the wrong player, a former player, to go into a game.
Osborne never wanted to be told to leave. It's a ridiculous notion. In 1997, he could have coached for life but made way for Frank Solich. This time, I think he heard the whispers. I heard them, folks around the state wondering if 75 was too old, whether Osborne was overstaying his effectiveness. I bet Osborne heard them, too.
When Osborne's age came up at Miles' introductory press conference in March, the red lights must have gone on inside Osborne's head. He saw that as a theme that was just beginning.
It's a good time to step away. Things are good, things are promising. Oh sure, Pelini is still proving himself and Miles hasn't coached a game and Erstad has the look but not the regional appearance yet.
The second act isn't as black and white as the first. The full report card on the A.D. won't be done for a few years.
But the man has done more than enough to earn a tip of the hat and a big thank-you from his state, his people. And the right to go perform some honey-do's.
“I think my mom is more trepidacious about this than he is,” said Mike Osborne, Tom's son. “He's used to being the boss. Now he's got to fit in at home. He's already started doing dishes the last few years. He'll have to learn to walk the dog, do the laundry.”
How else does a legend keep busy? Osborne said he has a lot of work with his TeamMates mentoring program he can dive into. He said he doesn't have a bucket list, nowhere that he needs to be, except in a fishing boat.
“I want to go find some fish,” Osborne said. “And it's time to go do what Nancy wants to do. It's time for me to follow her.”
It's finally time for Nebraska's first couple to follow the sun. Osborne smiled and waved as he stepped into the elevator Wednesday. Gone, but never, ever forgotten.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1025, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH
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