The last option run Coach: In Nebraska, they count on two things: The crops will grow and Tom Osborne's teams will win. His 25-year growing season ends Friday.

December 31, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- The rain kept coming down, but the movers and shakers in college athletics were warm and cozy inside the grand Opryland Hotel one January night in 1991.

There was schmoozing to be done at the NCAA Convention in Nashville, Tenn., but the solitary man in his mid-50s was out in the cold, knocking off a dozen or so laps around the parking lot of the budget hotel where he was a guest. He put in his routine three miles, oblivious to the elements and the partying across the highway.

For 25 football seasons, Tom Osborne has been a running contradiction.

The Nebraska dynasty is built around a staid option offense, but the coach gained honor in the 1984 Orange Bowl with a gutsy gamble that failed. The Cornhuskers have produced more Academic All-Americans than any other major-college team, but Osborne has gotten more notice for the number who have been in the Lincoln police lockup in recent years.

The fastest coach ever to 250 wins, Osborne has as many national championships as Joe Paterno -- or Dean Smith, for that matter -- but little of the acclaim. He has spent his entire career in the heartland, far from the big-city media glare, but now he's working on a sendoff that Lou Holtz or John McKay would envy.

Osborne was regarded as a big-game bust for two decades, but how's this for a finale: If No. 2 Nebraska can beat No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl and somehow pass No. 1 Michigan in the polls, Osborne would become the first coach in nearly five decades to claim three Associated Press national championships in four years (the Cornhuskers won in 1994 and '95).

The only man to have a run like that was Frank Leahy, whose Notre Dame teams were No. 1 in 1946, '47 and '49. Nebraska is an unprecedented 59-3 over the past five seasons, an achievement that made it easy for Osborne to announce three weeks ago today that he was retiring and that Friday's game at Pro Player Stadium would be his last.

"I haven't felt any different," Osborne said after practice this week. "It's not like I've been out on the field with tears in my eyes. I really want the focus to be on the players and this game rather than on me. We have 25 seniors in this game. I've had the chance to be in lots of games. I'd like the focus to be on the players and this game."

Forget it, Yak.

That was the nickname some American Legion teammates tagged him with one summer in the 1950s, when Osborne overdid the chatter. In his 1985 autobiography, Osborne told of how he responded by shutting down, to the extent that "I developed some unhealthy emotional patterns in not really talking about my feelings, expressing neither joy nor anger."

Silent joy

Osborne is happiest with a fishing rod in his hands and no words on his lips. Nancy, his wife, and Frank Solich, the assistant head coach who will succeed him, knew when the season began that it would be his last, but they kept it secret from everyone save the Osborne children late in the year, so that they could savor his last games in Lincoln.

Why step down now? He has forgotten too many of his wife's birthdays, and the last few years have been too taxing to keep on.

There is the matter of Osborne's own mortality, driven home by the 1996 plane crash death of Brook Berringer, the backup quarterback who started most of the 1994 season, and the May passing of Bob Devaney, who got Nebraska its first two national titles in 1970 and '71, and handed the reins to Osborne in 1973.

Osborne underwent double-bypass surgery in 1985, when one of his arteries suffered 95 percent blockage. He had an episode of atrial fibrillation in November, and an irregular heartbeat has made him a pacemaker candidate.

"I think it is important in this business to walk away while you can still walk and while you can still function and perform," said Osborne, who acknowledged the physical strain of the job. "I just don't think that it is probably wise to push that hard."

From the beginning

Osborne has been pushing himself and the Cornhuskers since he arrived in Lincoln as an unpaid graduate assistant in 1962.

He has spent all but three of his 60 years in Nebraska, the exceptions being two seasons with the Washington Redskins and one before that with the San Francisco 49ers, where he eyeballed Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie, and prudently decided he would switch from quarterback to wide receiver.

Osborne nearly left Nebraska once, in the late 1970s, when he interviewed with Colorado, but decided that he couldn't bring himself to do it.

"Essentially," Osborne said, "the one thing that held me back was that I didn't know how to tell a bunch of players I had recruited that someplace else was better."

It's fitting that he finish at the Orange Bowl, the game that has defined his career.

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