Tom Osborne 'fortunate' to witness NU turnaround under Bob Devaney

Tom Osborne speaks to the crowd at Thursday's Big Red Today Breakfast.

Tom Osborne had few doubts about his readiness to take over at Nebraska in 1973, having already been around the football program for the previous 11 seasons and serving in an important role for Bob Devaney for the prior four.

“I wasn’t nervous about it,” Osborne said. “I felt capable. I felt I knew the program.”

The reservations came with replacing Devaney, the man who already merited legendary stature by winning national championships in 1970 and ’71 and at least nine games all but twice in the previous 11 years — at a place that hadn’t won much of anything the prior two decades.

“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to follow Bob,” Osborne said Thursday. “That may be sacrilege, as far as you guys are concerned, but I knew what the history book was, and the history book would tell you that the guy following Bear Bryant wasn’t going to last very long. The guy following Woody Hayes ... and on and on and on.

“Because everybody was always looking for that other guy, and they want you to be that person that was before, and you can’t be. You’re different. So I realized that the odds of my being a coach very long here were not very good.”

Osborne shared that memory and more Thursday as the guest speaker at the Big Red Today breakfast. The World-Herald event drew a sold-out crowd of 305 people to Anthony’s.

“I was very fortunate to be there when Bob came because I was able to witness a remarkable turnaround,” Osborne said. “Nebraska had had 20 years of no championships, and I think only two winning seasons in those 20 years, and he took a team that was 3-6-1 and went 9-2 the first year (1962), and I saw what changed.

“He really changed the culture, and a lot of those, I think, persisted throughout the next 42 years, which were pretty good years.”

Osborne was the head man for 25 of them, putting together a 255-49-3 record and winning national championships in 1994, ’95 and ’97.

It could have played out differently.

Not only was Osborne reluctant to replace Devaney, he said Devaney stayed on a little longer than he maybe intended. In the meantime, Osborne was interviewing at places such as Texas Tech — the Red Raiders hired Jim Carlen in 1970, when Osborne believed he had the president’s support — and turned down head coaching overtures from some smaller schools.

Eventually, he decided to give Nebraska’s top job a shot.

“I’m glad I did, and Bob and I had a 31-year relationship, and 19 was with him being athletic director. And that was really good because I always knew that I had a guy there who understood what it was like to have your quarterback go down with a broken leg, or to get shelled 49-0. He understood what it was like.”

Just as Osborne took on the challenge of replacing Devaney, Frank Solich did the same following Osborne in 1998. Solich went 58-19 before being fired after the 2003 season.

In retrospect, Osborne said he had mixed feelings about stepping away at 60 but had told Solich that he would “go a certain number of years.”

“And that time had come, and I always felt you ought to keep your word,” he said, “and so I did.”

Osborne also said that it was good to go out on top and not stay too long.

“Usually the scenario that plays out is there’s a coach who’ll sometimes do pretty well, and then things start to fade,” he said. “Then you want to have a good year to end on, and sometimes that year never comes. ... So I was kind of lucky that way.”

1973 and 1998 were similar in that the head coaching changes weren’t accompanied by major staff overhauls. Osborne said he hoped it created a smooth transition for Solich.

“I don’t know how people feel about Frank, but if you look back on it now, I don’t think those were really bad years,” Osborne said. “When you play for a national championship (2001), when you’re 12-1 one year and one fumble away from a perfect season (1999) ... I think he was a very capable guy, and if you look at what he’s done at Ohio since, he has really resurrected that program.”

Osborne, 78, didn’t intend to go into coaching after a brief NFL career. His plan after graduate school was to teach.

“My wife married me thinking she was going to marry a professor,” Osborne said, “but I just couldn’t leave football.”

Osborne reached out to Devaney as he took the NU job to perhaps be a graduate assistant. Devaney had no openings but gave him an assignment to watch some players in Selleck Quadrangle who were causing trouble.

“He said, ‘I want you to move in over there and ride herd on them, and if you do, then you can have meals free on the training table,’ ” Osborne recalled. “So I did that. I moved in with those guys, I broke up a few fights and one thing led to another. Things went pretty well, and Bob began to decide I should be a coach.”

Osborne moved his way up to offensive coordinator by 1969, and he immediately shaped the offense that would help the Huskers go 42-4-2 in Devaney’s final four seasons.

“When bad things happen, then everything is on the table,” Osborne said. “When you’re rolling and you’re doing well, you don’t change much. Adversity isn’t usually your enemy. If you look at it right, adversity is your friend, and so Bob came to me and he said, ‘You know, I want to change the offense,’ and that was after that 49-0 whooping (47-0 at Oklahoma in 1968) and 6-4 season.”

Some other breakfast notes from Thursday:

» Osborne said the Huskers’ first real dip into junior college recruiting in the late 1960s had as much to do with their success as any schematic changes, mentioning Bob Terrio, Bob Newton, Dick Rupert, Keith Wortman and Carl Johnson.

» Osborne said he appreciated the loyalty of Devaney as much as anything. He recalled 1968, when Osborne remembers “quite a bit of angst in Huskerland.”

“Some people were talking about getting rid of Bob, but they were really serious about getting rid of some assistants, and Bob came out and he said, ‘Look, if one guy goes, we all go.’ And as a guy who was 31 years old and with two kids, I appreciated that very much.”

» Osborne also was thankful for the support of Woody Varner, the former NU president and chancellor, whose sense of humor could always coax a smile. “We’d get beat by Oklahoma, I’d be home with the shades pulled and the phone off the hook, and there’d be a knock on the door and it would be Woody and Paula Varner.”

» Osborne on longtime nemesis OU, which went 8-1 vs. NU from 1973 through ’80: “I guess over time I came to realize Oklahoma wasn’t our enemy. We weren’t going to pull them down to our level. We had to get up to their level, and if we couldn’t do that, we weren’t going to be around very long.”

» His NFL career started with San Francisco giving him a shot at quarterback in 1959. Sort of. “They told me, ‘Well, you can play quarterback if you want to. We have two quarterbacks here; we have Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie, and we’re only going to keep two. Now if you want to beat one of them out, go right ahead.’ I could tell the coaches were giving me a message, and I said, ‘Well, maybe I can be a wide receiver.’ ”

Playing with Washington in 1960 and ’61, Osborne caught 29 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns.

» Osborne on Husker walk-ons: “It wasn’t like we just sent out a letter and said, ‘We’d like to have you walk on.’ I was in their living room, and we were recruiting those kids just as hard as we were scholarship players.”

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