Hall of Fame football coach, athletic director, congressman. Teacher, mentor, visionary leader.
Tom Osborne has tackled many duties during his 75 years. And while becoming synonymous with Husker football, the Hastings, Neb., native has meant more to the University of Nebraska — and the state — than just what happened on the gridiron.
Osborne enhanced his already-indelible imprint during a remarkable five-year run as NU’s athletic director. Shortly after he was hired as “interim” AD to restore order to a foundering football program, it soon became apparent that Osborne’s stay would not be brief. His broad impact at the state’s largest university quickly expanded beyond any caretaker role.
When his retirement takes effect on Jan. 1, Osborne will leave the university on strong footing in many respects. He helped guide the transition to a new conference that will bolster the university’s athletic brand and increase its academic research potential. His vision greatly shaped unprecedented growth in campus amenities and athletic facilities. He continued the Huskers’ long legacy of athletic excellence combined with academic achievements.
At an age when most folks tend to slow down a bit, it has been full speed ahead for the NU patriarch at every turn:
>> In ensuring that Memorial Stadium will never become out-of-date, Osborne engineered expansion of the stadium’s east side that by 2013 will add about 6,000 seats and increase capacity to more than 91,000. The project embraces the new and preserves the old, keeping the historic exterior of the stadium unaltered. The plans also include two 20,000-square-foot academic wings: The Nebraska Athletic Research Facility will focus on injuries and ailments related to athletics. The Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior will provide one central location for researchers currently spread across campus.
>> Osborne has put mechanisms in place to transform the Huskers men’s basketball program and raise its national profile, including state-of-the-art facilities that have turned heads among rival coaches and prospective recruits alike. The new sports and entertainment arena, a City of Lincoln project under construction in the Haymarket district, will be home to the men’s and women’s NU basketball teams.
>> The basketball facilities aren’t the only impressive additions. A remodeled Bob Devaney Center will eventually serve as the new home for the Huskers volleyball team, long a national power. Osborne also oversaw the development of the Hendricks Training Complex and development of the Student Life Complex in the West Memorial Stadium; the Haymarket Park Indoor Practice Facility for baseball and softball; and the Alloy Strength Complex.
>> Along with Chancellor Harvey Perlman, the mild-mannered Osborne led aggressive negotiations when conference realignment threatened the Big 12’s long-term viability. The move to the more stable Big Ten Conference has meant a financial boost for NU athletics and provided new momentum for the university’s academics, with the potential for more students, graduates, faculty and research funds.
>> When Osborne retired as a coach in 1997, his football record was well-known. But he also had coached more football Academic All-Americans in his 25 years than any other program had produced in its history.
>> Osborne rightly took a stand against the advertising effort to tie beer to the University of Nebraska. This “More Than Winning” approach set the proper course for the university and the battle against college students’ drinking.
>> He has persevered despite a health scare, an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, criticism over the Lawrence Phillips case and other off-field incidents, a seven-game bowl skid, fan frustration, agonizing defeats to Oklahoma and the 1983 Orange Bowl loss when his Huskers were considered perhaps the greatest college team ever. Through it all, Osborne has never wavered in representing so much of what is good about Nebraska. His three national championships, .836 winning percentage and College Football Hall of Fame induction are testaments to his desire to win the right way.
>> The playing field isn’t his only focus. He and his wife, Nancy, started the TeamMates mentoring program in 1991, when he realized how the influence of drugs, gangs and violence was changing the culture among young people. Some two decades later, the program has expanded to more than 100 communities in Nebraska, Iowa and California, serving more than 5,200 students in grades four through 12. Osborne plans to be more active in TeamMates upon his retirement.
>> During three U.S. House terms, his blend of character, intelligence and political independence made him especially suited to represent his state.
Osborne’s steady leadership, strong faith and bold initiatives have forged an impressive legacy, so it is only fitting that he assist with UNL’s transition to a new athletic director. Who else would know better the demands of the job in this football-crazy state and what kind of candidate is best suited to lead the university’s athletic program?
The new year will mark a new beginning for the university. Before that day arrives, generations of Nebraskans — from athletes and students to the nation’s most loyal fans to TeamMates program graduates and volunteers — can say together: