BOSTON — I met Nebraska coach Tom Osborne in 1991 - one of my first interviews as a reporter - and I'd read two cartons of books and clippings on college football to prep for it. His secretary said that I would have 15 minutes (Sports Illustrated got 20), and that the interview was over when Osborne moved the rock on his desk.
My husband, a Nebraskan, had also briefed me on classic moments in Nebraska football, such as Osborne's decision to go for a win instead of a tie in the closing seconds of the 1984 Orange Bowl. (The pass bounced off a shoulder pad onto the ground, along with Nebraska's hopes for a national championship.)
Outside the coach's office, my husband offered a final suggestion: "Don't talk about football," he said. "Talk about something you know. Talk about education."
It was good advice; the rock never budged. Fifteen minutes became 30, then an hour; finally, his secretary broke in to say that the team meeting was about to start. "Start without me," Osborne said, now deep into a discussion about why college football owes players a good education. It's this side of his coaching record that doesn't figure in most sports commentary, as Osborne heads into his final game as head coach in the FedEx Orange Bowl on Friday.
Tom Osborne is retiring earlier than other football legends of his generation, such as Penn State's Joe Paterno or Florida State's Bobby Bowden. Nonetheless, experts say that his record on the field will stand up well in comparison. That record (254-49-3) includes 25 bowl appearances in 25 years, back-to-back national championships in 1994-'95, and a ranking in every weekly Associated Press poll since 1981.
He's known for a plain-vanilla, uh-huh style. When things get really tough on the field, he chews gum a little faster. His teams win points the old-fashioned way - on the ground, one bone-crunching yard at a time. In recent years, he has taken hits for lenient treatment of athletes who get into trouble off the field.
But at a time when most college programs are run like National Football League clubs, his record in the classroom is at least as noteworthy. From 63 to 74 percent of his players graduate, compared with 53 percent nationally, and Nebraska leads the nation in about every academic honor available to athletes.
Although Nebraska's athletic staff members don't like to put it this way, what they've done is to create a university within the university for athletes, including 100 special tutors, night classes on note-taking, small-group review sessions, practice exams, laptops for road trips, daily monitoring of classroom attendance, and a 30,000-sq.-ft. academic facility for athletes, alongside their signature weight-training complex. Along the corridors, the trophy cases for academic All-Americans (44 under Osborne) are as prominent as those for on-field honors.
All this effort may be because these kids are big and strong, run fast or block hard. And it could be argued that universities should do the same for all their students. But Osborne's program at Nebraska proves that you can educate students who often get lost in other schools. And he's doing it on principles that are still discussed in national school reform movements: Meet students where they are, hold them to high standards, help them get there, and don't count anyone out.
His stump speech to new football recruits is a withering attack on the myth of the big pro career, a major obstacle to academic achievement for athletes. "It's a bad career choice," he says. "Careers are short, and most players wind up injured or broke no matter how much money they've earned. Use football to get an education," he adds - blunt, to the point, vintage Osborne. The students look bewildered, but their parents are listening.
In many ways, Osborne is the quintessential Nebraskan. Like his father and grandfather, he attended hometown Hastings High School and, later, Hastings College, just south of the Platt River and west of Lincoln's Memorial Stadium stadium, which during home games is still the third-largest city in the state.
After three years playing in the pros, Osborne returned home as an unpaid Nebraska assistant coach, offensive coordinator, and later head coach. He could have taken another offer, but he stayed. Now, Osborne says he's quitting to spend more time with his family and serving his church. But many Nebraskans could echo Bobby Bowden's comment on Osborne's retirement: "I'm surprised and saddened and I just hate it."