There's no strutting as Nebraska's Osborne finally crosses No. 1 goal line

January 03, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Tom Osborne walked into the interview room at media headquarters yesterday morning with the same purposeful, stoic style that he showed during the week leading up to Sunday night's Orange Bowl.

Then again, it's the way Osborne has been, at least publicly, during his 22 seasons as football coach at Nebraska. There was no hint of what had happened hours before, no clue that this was a man celebrating the most significant victory of his career.

"I'm no better a coach this year than I was last year," Osborne said, referring to his top-ranked team's 24-17 victory over third-ranked Miami on Sunday night as much as to last year's 18-16 loss here to Florida State. "Or even in the last seven when we were 0-7 [on New Year's Day]."

But the perception of Osborne has changed, perhaps forever, just the way it changed for Florida State's Bobby Bowden last year, after the Seminoles beat the then-No. 1 Cornhuskers to claim a national championship and give their popular coach his long-awaited title.

Osborne, 57, never has had the same relationship with the media that Bowden has enjoyed -- few coaches at big-time programs do -- and thus the perception of him has been different. Bowden long was considered the best coach to have not won

a championship, but Osborne was looked upon as a guy who had blown many good chances.

"He understands it was a perception, and it came from people who didn't know him very well," his wife of 32 years, Nancy, was saying in the hallway outside. "He knows that's just the way it happens in this business. But if you understand it, you can deal with it."

Still, it was difficult at times for Osborne. Ever since his decision to go for a two-point conversion backfired against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl, costing the Cornhuskers the game and the national championship, Osborne has been second-guessed constantly.

Despite having Division I-A football's winningest active record (219-47-3), Osborne's resume seemed lacking the one notable achievement. It brought criticism from the media and sympathy from his peers. "The only thing Tom hasn't had is some luck," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said a couple of years ago.

Paterno should know. Despite winning two national championships himself, Paterno's teams have finished the regular season unbeaten three times and won their bowl game, only to be denied a title by the voters. Even yesterday's 38-20 Rose Bowl victory by the second-ranked, unbeaten Nittany Lions over No. 12 Oregon isn't expected to be enough to let Paterno share the stage with Osborne when the balloting is announced today.

But Osborne apparently wouldn't allow himself to think about a national championship -- at least not hours before kickoff in Pasadena, Calif. Nor would he campaign for votes.

"I'm not going to lobby," he said. "But I thought Miami would be our toughest draw being where we had to play them. I told the Orange Bowl committee, before the selections were final, 'Anybody but Miami.' I was down on my knees. I was pleading. But you're not going to get me to say more than that."

The part about begging for an easier opponent was Osborne's attempt at humor. Though her husband has demonstrated a dry wit, Nancy Osborne said: "What you see is what you get. Tom isn't very emotional. But he really cares about the players. It means a lot to him for them to have won a national championship. He's going to be the same with his emotions no matter what happened this year."

It is from the Nebraska players that you get a sense of Osborne's commitment. He is certainly not the pat-you-on-the-back guy that Jimmy Johnson was during his years at Miami. He doesn't usually play the mind games of Paterno and Notre Dame's Lou Holtz, though he could have been accused of that for the way he handled his quarterback situation.

Had the Cornhuskers lost, Osborne would have been severely second-guessed for starting rusty Tommie Frazier over Brook Berringer. He would have been questioned about the pass Berringer threw for an interception on first down from the Miami 4 early in the fourth quarter, perhaps more than the two-point call 11 years ago.

There is no second-guessing Osborne now that he's on the verge of winning his first national championship. Although his emotions hardly changed in the moments after the victory, his players couldn't contain themselves. They were happy for themselves, but even more for their coach.

"I think now he'll get the recognition he deserves," said Donta Jones, a senior linebacker from La Plata, Md. "I think now they'll put him up on a pedestal."

Those who know him even better, including some of his assistants, are a little stronger in their words. They talk of Osborne's being appreciated not so much by the national media, but by fans in his own state.

UI "I think as people will write, it took the monkey off his back," said

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