Huskers' Osborne to retire as coach 25 bowls in 25 years, 2 national titles leave lasting mark

December 11, 1997|By BOSTON GLOBE

The rumors had spread throughout Nebraska for days, and as usual, Tom Osborne dismissed them with an inscrutable shrug, a few cryptic words that left the slightest opening for escape.

"No," said the longtime Nebraska football coach when asked if he was going to announce his retirement at Tuesday's media day news conference. "I'll be here."

So he was. But a day later, Osborne stepped to the podium for another news conference and confirmed the rumors, as the entire state went into shock. After 25 seasons, two national titles and bowl appearances every year, Osborne indeed announced his resignation yesterday, effective after the Cornhuskers' Orange Bowl date with Tennessee on Jan. 2, though perhaps he will stay around until the end of the recruiting season. He'll be replaced by longtime assistant Frank Solich.

"I tried to soft-shoe some questions," said Osborne, which is about as close to an apology as he would make for misleading anyone. "But I hadn't yet talked to some people [his players]. Essentially, I'm going to step aside after the bowl game.

"I think it's wise to back off before you leave feetfirst or somebody tells you it's time to go."

Pure Osborne. Low-key. Not a whole lot of public emotion. Almost matter-of-fact, as if he were announcing a switch of quarterbacks.

But it is more than that, of course. Osborne -- whether you liked him or not, whether you agreed with his Father Flanagan approach to disciplining his players, whether you agreed with his sometimes holier-than-thou attitude about the problems on the Cornhuskers' radar screen in recent years -- is and was a great football coach, a legend of the game.

Consider only the record in his 25 seasons at Nebraska: 254-49-3. Sixth-highest victory total in Division 1-A history, trailing only Bear Bryant, Pop Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.

And he's going out on top, or awfully close to it. Over the past five years, Nebraska, which is 12-0, ranked second, and has a shot at another national crown, has compiled a 59-3 record and won at least 11 games each season.

Osborne, 60, offered a few reasons for his decision. His health, he conceded, was a factor. After the Huskers' 77-14 win over Iowa State on Nov. 15, he was hospitalized overnight for tests related to an irregular heartbeat.

Osborne maintained at the time it was no big deal. But yesterday he said, "They had to put me out for a little while to get it going right again."

Osborne had problems with his heart before, undergoing bypass surgery in 1984.

He says he's fine but that he understands the time was rapidly approaching when he could no longer put in the normal seven-day work week required of someone who for the past two decades has doubled as head coach and offensive coordinator.

"I wasn't sure if I could sustain the pace," he said. "You always ask, 'When is the right time?' I feel this is the right time."

Osborne has always been a hands-on coach. On the field and off the field. The off-field incidents involving sexual assaults by Christian Peter and Lawrence Phillips in recent years cast Osborne in a controversial light because he served as judge and jury in meting out punishment to two of his more talented players. This was tough to swallow for Osborne and Nebraska, which had always regarded itself as a clean program, an industry model.

Osborne felt he would miss the relationship with his players and the coaching staff, something that had been part of his very fabric dating back to 1973, when he was Bob Devaney's hand-picked successor to preserve Nebraska's eminence.

Now Osborne, who grew up in Hastings, Neb., and has never left the state for any extended period, turns the program over to Solich with complete confidence.

"I have a lot of confidence in the people who are here," he said. "To me, continuity is the important thing. The people of Nebraska can afford to lose me, but they can't afford to lose this staff."

After 25 seasons of almost unparalleled success, the people of Nebraska are about to find out if that is true.

Osborne file

Career record: 254-49-3 (.835)

Years: 25

National championships: 2 (1994, '95)

Unbeaten regular seasons: 5

Bowl record: 11-13

Other achievements:

His 254 victories rank sixth on all-time list of Division I coaches.

His team is 59-3 over the past five years with five straight 11-win seasons, an NCAA record.

Nebraska's bowl appearance this season will be his 25th, third on the all-time list behind Bear Bryant (29) and Joe Paterno (28).

Has 11 bowl victories, fourth on the all-time list behind Paterno (18), Bobby Bowden and Bryant (15 each).

His teams have been ranked in all but three of 399 Associated Press polls during his 25 years. Of those rankings, 327 have been in the Top 10, including a current streak of 86 weeks.

His teams have finished in the Top 10 of the final AP poll 17 times.

His teams never lost more than three games in a season and never won fewer than nine.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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