Editor's note: This is a column by Tom Shatel taken from Aug. 14, 1999 — the day after Tom Osborne was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — He's got that highway named after him (You know the joke: No passing allowed on the Tom Osborne Expressway). He's been named Great American and Distinguished American and coach-of-the-year and man-of-the-year for many, many years. For 25 years, he had the biggest title a Nebraskan could hold: head football coach.
But on Friday night, former Nebraska Football Coach Tom Osborne picked up a new title.
Hall of Fame Coach.
On his first trip to the land of the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus and "The Gipper" bar and grill, Osborne had a full day. He flew in from Alaska, put on a coat and tie and got inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. It was one of the easiest things he's ever done.
It took Osborne five years to beat Oklahoma and 23 years to win his first national championship, but he was never faster than in gaining acceptance by his college football brethren. The year after Osborne retired, in 1997, the college hall's Honors Committee waived the normal three-year waiting period for induction. Former Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson is the only other inductee to have the waiting period waived.
On Friday night, surrounded by 21 other inductees, Osborne waved back. He signed autographs. He posed for snapshots. He seemed to enjoy himself. Why not? This was a ceremony Osborne could appreciate. It was as understated as the man.
The baseball and pro football Hall of Fame ceremonies are like mini-Woodstocks, set in outdoor amphitheaters filled with thousands of fans who dress in uniforms and hoot and holler and overtake the town. The College Football Hall of Fame ceremony, held before an intimate group of 1,000 people, was pure Osborne. Simple. Nice. Direct.
It was a lovely evening, held in a huge ballroom decorated with bright, colorful flags of the different college football teams hanging from the ceiling. All 22 inductees sat at a head table, but only 10 were allowed to speak, including former San Diego State and NFL coach Don Coryell, who made a tearful, emotional admission that he grew up with dyslexia.
It was that kind of night — when the legends of granite melted to butter. Even Osborne, who spoke last, got a little misty-eyed during a short but touching speech.
The coach had thanked and recognized his wife, Nancy, and kids Mike and Susie, who all were seated at a table in front. He talked about how awards are "for those people who coached with you," and mentioned Bob Devaney giving him a head start and how the "work ethic from the walk-ons and the kids from small towns and farms seemed to infect our program." But it was when he talked about the two things he'll take from the game — relationships with players and coaches and with God — that Osborne teared up.
"Some of the players tried you, stressed you, " Osborne said. "But it's gratifying to see them at 22 or 27 or even 35 do a U-turn. Whether or not they end up doing well ... they were still your players ... they're still your young men, and you have a responsibility to them, no matter what happens."
It was pretty obvious to all that Osborne was referring in particular to former Husker Lawrence Phillips. It was a rare, but appropriate, show of emotion from a stoic man trying to sum up a brilliant career in five minutes. Which is what he did. Osborne was saying he cared about his players. Nothing more about his career needed to be said.
Afterwards, he looked tired. Osborne flew here from an Alaskan fishing trip with his brother, Jack. He had slept only two hours.
As usual, he was more excited than he showed.
"He won't say it, but this is something he's proud of," Mike Osborne said.
He should be. Osborne has always quietly chased approval, whether it was from his father or the horde of Nebraska fans who compared him to Devaney for so long. By slam-dunking him into the Hall of Fame without the waiting period, just a few years after his controversial stand with Phillips, the lords of college football gave Osborne the ultimate validation. They seemed to be saying: Osborne did things the right way.
"With no regrets, I leave the game, " Osborne said on Friday night.
And enters college football immortality.