LINCOLN — They sat down Wednesday to talk coaching, but it was the wrong place to be if you came for X's and O's or wanted to hear strategy from three former college football greats.
Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden and Grant Teaff spent the hour at Lincoln North Star discussing the role that coaches play in the lives of student-athletes. They shared strong words and opinions about today's issues and how times have changed, but how their influence must not.
“It's important to realize, more than ever, that kids are looking for role models,” Osborne said.
The trio contributed in a roundtable format before a crowd of 1,000 in the event presented by the Nebraska Coaches Association and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The framework for their discussion was based on Teaff's recently published book — “A Coach's Influence: Beyond the Game” — which the former Baylor coach said came about after he heard from coaches “exasperated” by what they were facing daily and feeling unprepared to deal with it.
Off to their left, a video screen shared some staggering statistics that plague student-athletes, with a common denominator being the lack of a father or father figure growing up.
“I'm concerned about our nation,” Bowden said. “I'm concerned about the morals of our nation. And it starts with the breakdown at home.”
Rick Alloway from the University of Nebraska college of journalism and mass communications moderated the event.
Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, surveyed 12,000 AFCA coaches regarding the “negative social issues” that they face. After he narrowed a list of 32 to six, one climbed to the top when members were asked to prioritize: respect.
“When I first started coaching 60 years ago, you'd tell a kid what to do and he'd go do it,” said Bowden, head coach at Florida State from 1976 to 2009. “Not now. Now he wants to know how it's going to benefit him.”
Osborne, the former Nebraska head coach (1973-97) and athletic director (2007-12), said student-athletes come to college lacking the understanding of life basics such as telling the truth, generosity, integrity and compassion for others.
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There is a chapter in “Beyond the Game” on entitlement. The problem with it, Bowden said, comes from a lack of discipline at home.
“The first thing you've got to do is teach them unentitlement,” Bowden said, drawing laughs.
Bowden said discipline and following direction start when a boy is 5, adding: “Boy, if they miss those early years, you've got a job.”
Bowden told the story of growing up in the 1930s and '40s and just taking it for granted that everybody had a dad. The biggest change during his coaching career, he said, was how more and more of his players started coming to him without fathers in their lives.
“Thank God for mommas,” he said, “but where in the world are the dads?”
Bowden then related what that meant to those in attendance Wednesday, whether it be with boys or girls.
“If their daddy ain't their No. 1 idol, then it's their coach,” he said. “If this kid ain't got it at home, I've got to give it to them.”
Bowden used Osborne's time at Nebraska as an example of how a program could provide that structure for a young man — and how it could ultimately change him.
“If a kid goes through Tom's program,” Bowden said, “he's got a chance.”
That ability to influence student-athletes, Teaff told the participants, must include the right example being set from the top.
“You have to believe what you teach, and you have to live what you teach, if you're going to be an effective coach,” Teaff said.
Osborne referenced consistency in everything you do, such as poise on the sideline “when things are falling apart.” And if you're looking for good character and principles in your athletes, you'd better show it in your own personal life and day-to-day actions.
“You have to model the behavior that you want,” Osborne said.
Teaff said that trickle-down effect can go beyond those inside the walls of the program. He recalled how his Baylor team was treated with respect during a visit to Memorial Stadium, which moved him to write a letter to the Lincoln newspaper the following week.
“I have always believed fans are a reflection of a team's coach,” he said.
LOVING YOUR PLAYERS
Osborne once overheard a coach remarking how much “power” he had because of his position, noting that his players would do whatever he told them to do. Osborne thought the man probably didn't see what was really most valuable about coaching.
To Osborne, it was loving and looking out for his players. What he went on to say was “most important” in the job.
“It doesn't mean softness,” he said. “It simply means you care about them, that you have their best interests at heart.”
Osborne, Bowden and Teaff together spent countless years in coaching. They talked Wednesday about the struggle coaches face in finding balance in their lives.
Bowden said keeping your priorities in order is a must.
“Don't make football your god,” he said. “You'll be miserable.”
Osborne acknowledged that the hours can be crazy, especially in major-college football with the ever-increasing pressure to win.
“There aren't any easy answers,” he said. “I wish I could sit here and say my family didn't pay a price, because your family will pay a price.”
But one thing Osborne said he learned from former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was to find the right satisfaction in the job. Osborne said Wooden was always about the message and teaching and not the final score.
Osborne also talked about sitting with Bob Devaney as the former Husker coach and athletic director was dying, and how their last conversations weren't about games or records or championships.
“If your win-loss record is the sole measure of what you're doing, it's going to be somewhat unfulfilling,” Osborne said.
Osborne said when he started coaching in 1962 that he had never heard of cocaine or methamphetamine, and hardly worried about things like gangs. Changes in family structure and media influence were still down the road as well.
Teaff said the genesis of “Beyond the Game” is that the job is harder than ever. The intent was to give coaches the tools to deal with new issues and still remain the positive influence that they need to be.
Teaff and Bowden said much of their respect for Osborne stemmed from how he was able to handle those changes, adhere to his values and still be successful. That's why they agreed to the roundtable and wouldn't accept a dime for coming to Lincoln.
Bowden then looked out at the crowd and said to follow the example set by NU athletics.
“Y'all just keep it up,” he said.