Published December 24, 2012
LINCOLN, Neb. – Though he's most recognized as Nebraska's longtime Hall of Fame coach, Tom Osborne's record extends far beyond the 255 games and three national football championships from 1973-97.
He served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives after he retired from coaching, founded a successful youth mentoring program and oversaw an ambitious agenda as the university's athletic director the past five years.
Osborne, 75, will retire on Jan. 1. He'll be athletic director emeritus through July 31 to ease the transition to new athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Osborne discussed Nebraska's 2010 decision to move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, the state of the football program and the state of college athletics, among other topics.
AP: When you announced your retirement in September, you mentioned that you sensed there was a perception that your age was beginning to work against you. Do you feel you could stay on longer and be effective, if you chose to?
Osborne: I think the time was probably growing short. We have a lot of projects going on now and I think some people thought I would stay around to cut the ribbons. All these projects are pretty much on auto-pilot now. Once you get past the planning and the financing and the Board of Regents approval, then things are going to happen.
AP: What will you do through the summer to help Shawn Eichorst?
Osborne: Be a resource, and be available should any questions arise concerning any contract negotiations or previous agreements on the building projects, and if coaches have any concerns about any issues that I can help with — recruiting, fundraising. Above all, I want to make sure Shawn Eichorst is as well-positioned and informed as possible. Then I think my job will be done.
AP: How visible do you plan to be around here after July?
Osborne: Probably not very visible. I think I'll really focus on TeamMates (mentoring program) at that point. There is no question Nancy has paid a pretty good price over the years. With things I've done, they've have taken me away from her quite a bit. We'll try to do a few more things on her time schedule and her agenda.
AP: You'll still attend contests, right?
Osborne: I'll still be a fan. Yep.
AP: How much time have you spent with Shawn Eichorst?
Osborne: Quite a bit. We meet fairly regularly, and he's moving around the department getting acquainted with people. I've tried to give him whatever information I can about where things stand on various contracts, on any information I think would be helpful to him.
AP: Do you get a sense of whether things continue the same way at Nebraska, as far as culture?
Osborne: My perception is that Shawn has a good appreciation for how things are here. Obviously, he would be his own person and will have to make his own decisions. Undoubtedly there will be some change. You'd have to ask him about those things. My job is to make sure he's as well informed and as well-prepared as possible, and I think that has happened and is happening. He'll be in a good place, I think, when change comes.
AP: As you look back on it now, did you have to put some personal feelings aside when the move to the Big Ten was made in 2010, just because of your deep ties to Big Eight-Big 12 country?
Osborne: I felt more tied to the old Big Eight schools, so (they) were always in my thoughts. But we had to look where we were, which was in a league that appeared to be on the verge of falling apart. The Big Ten represented stability and some very positive things academically. Geographically it wasn't that much of a stretch.
AP: Is the jury still out on the move to the Big Ten or are you feeling pretty good about it now?
Osborne: The jury is still out, to some degree, but you make decisions based on the information you have at the time. At the time the decision had to be made, the Big 12 gave us a week and said we want to know what your intentions are. We could say we're staying and then have six schools bolt and have no league. So it wasn't a hard decision on my part at that point. It's what needed to happen.
AP: Did you ever see the day when Nebraska would be in the same conference with Maryland and Rutgers?
Osborne: I didn't envision that. I knew there was some conversation in the past about expansion, and you would occasionally hear Rutgers' name come up, but I hadn't heard much about Maryland until recently.
AP: Kind of the new age of college athletics, isn't it?
Osborne: Yeah, the expansion is driven largely by television. People are looking at bigger television audiences, bigger television contracts and more revenue to distribute. So the dollars have progressively gotten bigger. There are some good things about that and there are some things I'm not so sure about because sometimes you attend NCAA meetings and conference meetings and you're not sure you're at an athletic-related meeting or at a bank meeting.
AP: You've always advocated for student-athletes. Where do they fit into the picture?
Osborne: I don't want to pour cold water on the finances and money. I think those things all can be used to great benefit. But on the other hand, it seems to be driving the ship right now to a very large degree. I would hope student-athletes can be put somewhere at the forefront of the agenda. I find it odd that you see the escalation of dollars yet there seems to be a lot of controversy over providing student-athletes with a $2,000 stipend. It doesn't quite compute. It seems to me that the athletic scholarship should be cost of attendance, not just room, board, books, tuition and fees. I don't believe in making athletes employees. I would hope in the process of all this that we don't lose sight of the original purpose of college athletics, which is primarily the growth and maturation of student-athletes.
AP: Do you think the Big Ten is going to stop at 14 teams?
Osborne: I have no idea. I haven't heard any further talk about immediate expansion, but I would say at this point most anything is possible.
AP: How would you evaluate your five years as athletic director?
Osborne: When you're in the middle of the situation, sometimes your perspective isn't as clear as it might be 10 years from now or if you're an outside observer. I know that my being brought here was primarily somewhat of an emergency measure. I think the perception was that the fan base was somewhat split, somewhat disaffected. There was some apprehension in the athletic department. Some things weren't going very well. From my perspective, things have stabilized. I think people here like to come to work and enjoy what they're doing and are competent. I think the athletic programs are in good shape and we have good coaches. We've tried to improve facilities to where they're among the best in the conference. Tried to do some things for student-athletes in terms of the Student Life Center and training table, athletic medicine, those kinds of things.
AP: Did you come in with the idea that you should be more than a caretaker?
Osborne: It wasn't that I came in here with the idea of making great changes. On the other hand, as you go through your day-to-day operations, whatever appears to be a need or something you think will make the thing better, you do it. I felt the first thing that needed to happen was something in the way of facilities that would benefit all our sports programs, and that was the Student Life Center. Obviously, we had to do something for basketball. So the Hendricks Training Facility was next on the radar screen.
AP: You came in at a time when the football program was in turmoil. How do you feel about the state of the football program as you prepare to step away?
Osborne: I feel good about it. People need to understand that if you have a coach who can win nine, 10 games a year — even eight or nine or 10 or 11 — in this day and age, that's pretty good. Where we were when Bo (Pelini) came here — you figure the first year he had a team that was a losing team (in 2007) and wins nine games, wins a bowl game. And he went two years with 10 wins and within a second and maybe a first down or so of winning the Big 12 championship on two occasions and having a chance to play for the Big Ten championship.. He's done very well. I think the team we have coming back next year can be very good. The other thing to remember is that we probably for the last two years have played the toughest schedule we could have played in the Big Ten given the way the divisions are aligned. You end up playing Ohio State and Wisconsin rather than Illinois and Indiana or Purdue. That's the toughest you could get.
AP: You mention that fans need to realize nine or 10 wins a year is good. It was you, during your tenure as coach, that set the bar for high expectations. So does it surprise you that the fans who are so conditioned to nine or 10 wins want more?
Osborne: I remember 9-3 a lot of times was the cause of quite a bit of angst; it wasn't very good. I understand that. I understand how people feel. But it is important to maintain a perspective. Everybody else is putting all their resources into football and basketball and you don't get much of an edge, that somehow just because you're from Nebraska you're automatically going to win. I go to practice most days and I'm around them, I know what they're doing, and Bo's got a good staff and he's doing things the right way.
AP: Do you think the people outside Nebraska appreciate Bo more than people inside Nebraska?
Osborne: I don't know. My feeling is that 95 percent of the people in Nebraska appreciate Bo. But you always hear from some people. We can play a great game and win and I'm still going to get a handful of negative emails on Monday — the seats aren't wide enough. There always is something. But that represents 3 to 5 percent. That's just human nature. We have really good fans, as fans go, and they're knowledgeable. I really appreciate the sportsmanship that they've displayed over the years, the fact this is generally a friendly place to come to. You don't see that very much in college athletics. It's an environment that is fairly wholesome, I think.
AP: How would you like to be remembered at Nebraska?
Osborne: When you're in the middle of the fray, your perspective isn't very good. I would rather let someone else determine that. I know I've done the best I can. That's all I can say. It isn't that I haven't given it an effort. There probably are people who could have done better and maybe some who could have done worse. I've done the best I could.