When former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was asked to tell a funny story about Tom Osborne during a tribute Saturday night, he couldn't come up with one.
“Tom didn't hang out at the same bars Bob Devaney and I did,'' Switzer quipped of the famously teetotaling Osborne.
But Switzer did know one thing: He's sure glad he had left college coaching by the 1990s, when Osborne's dominating Cornhusker teams ran roughshod over the college football landscape and claimed three national championships.
“He cast the largest shadow in college football that anyone ever did,'' Switzer said. “What he did in college football will never be duplicated.''
Switzer's words were typical of much of the night, as jokes and laughs mixed easily with tributes in honor of the iconic Nebraska football coach and athletic director who is sliding into retirement this year. Some 1,800 people turned out at the CenturyLink Center Omaha for what turned out to be a true gala occasion.
The event was a fundraiser for two projects dear to Osborne: his TeamMates mentoring program and a new research facility that is part of Nebraska's East Stadium expansion.
Along with appearances by dozens of legendary coaches and players from Nebraska and throughout college football, there were ESPN talking heads (including master of ceremonies Chris Fowler), video tributes, singers, dancers, acrobats and a real-life man in bronze posing as a Heisman Trophy.
Also among those on hand to pay tribute to Osborne were coaches Bo Pelini, Bob Stoops, Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez and Charlie McBride; former Heisman winners Eric Crouch, Mike Rozier and Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska and Oklahoma's Billy Sims; and former Husker standouts Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost and Ndamukong Suh.
A theme throughout the night was not so much what Osborne accomplished during his 25 years as head coach at Nebraska and more than five years as athletic director, but the way he did it: with a quiet dignity, strength, respect for others and humility.
Numerous former players said they wouldn't be the people they are today were it not for Osborne.
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“I love you to death,'' Rozier said in one of many heartfelt tributes. “You're a great coach and a great person.''
“In order for a boy to become a man, he has to see a man,'' said former Husker receiver Irving Fryar. Osborne was that man for him, he said.
There were also a few barbs, with Frost getting off perhaps the biggest zinger of the night. He told the story of how Osborne had told the Husker quarterback not to campaign for the 1997 national championship when Nebraska was locked in a beauty contest in the national polls with Michigan.
Frost said he had always thought Osborne had said that because he didn't think campaigning for a title was appropriate. But as it turns out, Frost said, it was because Osborne was a bad campaigner.
“If he was good at campaigning, he would have been elected governor,'' Frost quipped in a reference to Osborne's failed 2006 political bid.
Since Switzer, the Sooner coach who was Osborne's biggest coaching nemesis early in his career, was one of the first speakers of the night, it was appropriate that among the last to take the stage were current Husker coach Pelini and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
When Fowler asked Pelini whether it was helpful to cut his teeth in coaching under athletic director Osborne, Pelini told a fictional story of how Osborne pulled him aside just before he took the field in his first game as Husker coach. “Just remember this,'' Pelini said Osborne told him, “Don't take any crap from those refs.''
But Pelini also turned serious, talking of how Osborne set the tone at Nebraska for doing everything the right way and with the student athlete first.
“It resonates from him,'' Pelini said, “and because of that it set the football program, athletic department and university up for years to come.''
Osborne and his wife, Nancy, seemed to enjoy spending the night surrounded by so many players, coaches and friends. As he told reporters before the night, the people were what he always loved most about his job.
“People forget about the championships and the wins and the losses,'' he said. “But the relationships persist. That's one of the great things about coaching I'll always appreciate.''
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