Shatel: Learning the land with help from Tom Osborne

Tom Osborne said he missed coaching the first three or four years after stepping down, but he didn't want to be a CEO-type coach. "A lot of coaches do that as they get older and they drift further and further from the game. I didn’t want to go in that direction," Osborne said.

LINCOLN — Tom Osborne must go.

That’s how my initial sports column at the World-Herald began on Sept. 1, 1991 — 25 years ago today.

The introductory piece was the sort of “look at me” click-bait column you see from all sorts of people these days, though we weren’t yet online in 1991. So it was “Voice From the Grandstand” bait. What can I say? I was ahead of my time.

As I sit here, 25 years later, I’m still amazed that there have been four coaches since Osborne did go — and I’m still here.

I’m sure some of you share my surprise.

It’s been a glorious 25 years of unemployment. I’ve never worked a day that I’ve been here. That’s how much I love, appreciate and honor this job, my colleagues, readers and this great community.

I still remember the first time I drove into downtown Omaha. Where were the buildings? My interview dinner in the Old Market was at a place called “Doodles,” where you could draw on paper tablecloths. Across from the Red Lion hotel, there was a bus stop with a TV set that played the “Weather Channel” continuously.

I’m serious.

I thought I would be here two, three years tops.

And then, of course, I met all of you. And a particularly gorgeous blonde from Valley, Nebraska.

My initial intention today was to celebrate this landmark by leafing back through the scrapbook of Racers and Lancers, UNO hockey and Dana Altman, CenturyLink hoops and swimming and June memories up on baseball hill.

But there’s one story that I’ve enjoyed the most over this quarter-century. One person whose words and wisdom and moves I heard and watched for so long that eventually it had an impact on my life.

On Wednesday, I couldn’t think of a better way to do an anniversary column than to pay him a visit.

These days, Tom Osborne sits in a small office in the very back of the Union Bank & Trust, at 68th and O Streets in Lincoln.

This is one of two branches of “Teammates,” the mentoring group that Osborne started in 1991. Back then, he had 22 Huskers serving as mentors to local kids. Now, he says, there are 8,000 mentors and the organization is looking to add 1,000 each year.

And this is the hero’s ride into the sunset, age 79, answering emails, making calls on the Teammates’ behalf, recruiting new heroes. An incredible life of service continues.

But with less football than ever.

Osborne’s appointment to the College Football Playoff committee is up, so he won’t be watching 12 games each Saturday, plus 35 hours of film each week. For Osborne, that wasn’t work. That was passion.

He’ll still attend all seven NU home games this fall, sitting up in his box in the North Stadium. But shouldn’t there be more?

Henry P. Iba, the great Oklahoma State and Olympic basketball coach, retired in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He kept an office in Gallagher Hall, the arena, and had his door open in case visitors wanted to stop in. Iba loved talking basketball with visitors.

In a storybook, Osborne would have that same office at Memorial Stadium, greeting visitors, stopping by practice, offering wisdom on command. I’ve always thought of Osborne as the Ward Cleaver of Nebraska, Yoda in penny loafers. When he’s asked, he’ll talk. When he talks, Nebraskans listen.

That scenario isn’t Osborne’s style. He’s not going to hang around. Bob Devaney left him alone and Osborne won’t impose, either.

But I was in an imposing mood. So during our visit, I told Osborne I wished he had kept coaching, that he still had so much to offer. He was a better coach than politician or athletic director. That seemed like the role he was born to play.

Coaches never used to go past 60, but now they go into their 70s. Tom’s good friend Bill Snyder is still getting it done in the autumn of his career.

Does Osborne wish he had kept going?

“I really missed coaching the first three or four years,” he said. “As time has gone by, there are still parts of me that think it would work. But some of that is ancient mythology.”

To his left on the wall hangs a giant team photo of the 1995 Nebraska national champs. There are autographed footballs on shelves and photos of family and friends, fishing trips. On one wall is a famous shot of Ralphie the Buffalo — the real buffalo — charging toward him and Osborne pointing to the animal to take a detour.

It’s always seemed to me that there was room for more photos, moments, championship balls in this man’s career.

He shrugs. He says, “I think I could have.” But he talks about the promise to Frank Solich and how important it was to him to keep that promise. He says he insisted on being the offensive coordinator, and delegation was never part of his plan.

“I didn’t want to be a CEO-type coach, delegating to coordinators,” Osborne said. “A lot of coaches do that as they get older and they drift further and further from the game. I didn’t want to go in that direction.”

I remember a story Osborne once told about Bear Bryant, toward the end of his career, ordering a player to enter the game — a player who had graduated 20 years earlier. Osborne joked he didn’t want to be accused of staying too long, didn’t want folks thinking he was senile.

It was a fun talk. We covered Solich and Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini, and rehashed a lot of stuff. Osborne won’t talk about the current team, other than to say he hopes Mike Riley does well and seems like a mature coach who wants to do things the right way.

Finally, we got around to another question I had come here to ask: what should the expectation be for Nebraska football?

Osborne hemmed and hawed. Some folks, he said, demand championships and top 10 teams every year. Others, he said, are too young to remember those days. The Big Ten is different from the Big 12 or Big Eight. More teams, harder to navigate.

He said, “I really don’t know,” and it was as if he didn’t want to lay down the law, put an unfair expectation on current or future generations of Husker coaches.

The expectation for Osborne was to beat Oklahoma. Then it was to win a national title. Then he was chasing Miami and Florida State and dealing with Colorado. He smiled as he talked about the 2-point conversion in the 1984 Orange Bowl, held up two fingers close apart and said his image was that close to changing that night.

Then I said, for all the national titles and winning, you’re going to be remembered more for the kind of coach and mentor you were. How you lived that life.

“I hope that’s true,” he said.

And then I did something that sports scribes don’t usually do, and it’s probably a violation of a ketchup-stained press box manual somewhere.

I told the coach he impacted my job, my life. I thanked him for it.

And while I’m at it, I want to thank you, my readers.

These last 25 years have been a great ride, covering a lot of cool games, historic stuff, fun characters. At first I stomped on a lot of feelings, sometimes recklessly, and doing it in the name of the funny throwaway line or the bold, fearless column.

I arrived here from jobs in pro sports towns, with a bag packed full of cynicism. Nebraska way? In my first month, Don James’ Washington Huskies scored the final 27 points to leave Memorial Stadium with a win.

Toward the end, the World-Herald press box phone rang. It was Randy Galloway, the columnist at my old paper in Dallas. Galloway yelled, “Fire Osborne! Write it!”

I thought about it.

Through the years of sparring with readers, the people saying, “Go back to Missouri,” all that, the light came on.

I hadn’t been around Osborne much until I came here. I watched how he dealt with people, day by day, with patience, grace, dignity. I saw him beam with pride after the heartbreaking Orange Bowl loss to Charlie Ward and Florida State.

I paid attention to Husker fans in the early ’90s, and even when the run was over, and the shock of losses to Kansas State and then Kansas.

There was anger. There was despair. But it was always followed by hope. People getting off the mat, showing up on 10th Street, balloons ready to be released.

I started listening to them and reading the emails carefully. Championships were the goal. But effort, performance and smart coaching were the demands. Being in the hunt, playing for the prize, even if you don’t always win, was the expectation.

I’ve seen this in other places, in Bruce Rasmussen’s Creighton. The Jays want to win. But how they do it means everything.

That’s most definitely a Nebraska thing. It’s as Nebraskan as hanging out in your driveway or garage rather than the backyard — in case neighbors want to join in.

I love that.

I’ve fallen for the people here, and their take on sports. In these days of hot-take commentators, it’s refreshing. Don’t ever change.

Now our focus is Shawn Eichorst and Mike Riley and whether they get it, whether the place is going soft. I can assure you it’s not. Eichorst fired a 9-3 coach, and that was more about the level of play than personality. Everything you hear about him is the man has an iron fist. Meanwhile, Riley fired an assistant coach after one season. There’s urgency there.

Yes, the league title albatross grows. But it’s my opinion that the expectation here, the desire, is to at least chase the championship if not attain it. And do so with effort and performance that make the people proud. Nebraska football has always represented that, embodied the work ethic of the people.

I could be wrong but I don’t think so. I’m sure you’ll tell me.

And maybe it’s this dad watching his kids grow up too fast, but it really is about the journey. I used to scoff at that Osborne line. But man, it’s true.

“Nothing lasts forever,” says the legend behind his desk. “I know people think if I had stayed three or four more years, we would have kept it going. But that’s probably not true.

“The older you get, the more you realize that no matter how good something is, eventually it will regress toward the mean or the average of the group. Enjoy what you have.

“Who knows? Tommie Frazier could have gone to Colorado or Notre Dame, the Peter brothers could have not come here, Grant Wistrom could have gone to Michigan. We had some really good players back then. But that wasn’t going to last forever.”

It was surreal to hear him say that, but it was his way of saying winning and glory are fragile. Embrace it when you have it.

There’s “More than Winning.” Sounds like a good title for a book.

We shook hands and I left. I miss the coach, these talks. I always feel like I learn something around Osborne.

Now it’s back to the journey. Can’t wait to see what the next 25 years have in store.

Contact the writer: tom.shatel@owh.com, 402-444-1025, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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