LINCOLN, Neb.: It was homecoming 1991. Ninth-ranked Nebraska was favored by 35 points over Kansas State, still thought of as a woebegone program at the time and whose best days were still far on the horizon.
A quarterback named Paul Watson was shredding the Huskers’ secondary, and the Wildcats led by a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Rob Zatechka, a redshirt freshman who later played on Nebraska’s famed “Pipeline” offensive line, remembers pandemonium on the sideline. Teammates were yelling at each other, assistant coaches were yelling at players and other assistants.
Then Zatechka caught sight of coach Tom Osborne, the picture of calm as he chewed his Big Red gum and spoke through his headset, seemingly removed from the chaos around him.
“I was taken aback by it,” Zatechka said. “I thought, ‘He’s not panicking. If he’s not panicking, we shouldn’t panic, either.’
“Someone asked Osborne why he never cut loose emotionally. I remember Osborne making the point that if the players see you losing emotional control, whether good or bad, they’re going to lose emotional control, and that’s where you see games spiral out of control.”
Nebraska won 38-31 thanks to a last-minute goal-line stand. More than the result that day, Zatechka remembers Osborne.
“Sometimes if you maintain an outward sense of control over a situation,” Zatechka said, “it has an amazing effect on the people around you.”
Osborne will retire as Nebraska’s athletic director Jan. 1 and end an association with the university that began in 1962. He turns 76 in February and will stay at the school through July 31 as athletic director emeritus to ease the transition of new athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
Perhaps as much as anything, Osborne’s 25-year hall of fame coaching career and five-year run as a can-do AD are characterized by his strong and steady leadership, often in difficult circumstances.
Chancellor Harvey Perlman asked Osborne to return in 2007 to stabilize an athletic department whose flagship sport was in a free-fall under coach Bill Callahan and whose staff was burdened by low morale under Steve Pederson.
Osborne’s first acts were to fire Callahan and hire Bo Pelini, who has won no fewer than nine games in his five seasons and led the Huskers to three conference championship games, and mend fences with boosters and former players who felt alienated by Pederson.
In addition to guiding the school’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten two years ago, Osborne saw through key building projects.
The Student Life Complex, which opened in 2010, houses the academic support arm of the athletic department and has been voted the best facility of its kind in college athletics.
The Hendricks Training Complex, which opened in 2011, is one of the nation’s top basketball practice facilities. The men’s and women’s teams will play in the downtown Pinnacle Bank Arena beginning next fall after four decades in the Devaney Sports Center.
A Memorial Stadium expansion, to be completed for the 2013 season, will increase capacity to more than 90,000.
“In my mind, he took us to a whole new level,” 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers said. “He took us to the most prestigious conference, more television time than ever, which will help us in recruiting. And there are more academic dollars for university and more prestige.”
Trev Alberts, an All-America linebacker for the Huskers in the early 1990s and now the Nebraska-Omaha athletic director, said some people might be surprised at how much Osborne accomplished in his five years running the athletic department in Lincoln.
“It goes back to his experience as a coach,” Alberts said. “He recognized that if he had gone back with the plan to just be a caretaker, there would have been a significant slide. He loves to solve problems and move forward.”
Each of the 25 Nebraska football teams Osborne coached won at least nine games, and three of his last four teams won national championships. He left coaching after the 1997 season with a career record of 255-49-3, an .836 winning percentage that ranked fifth all-time among Division I coaches, and 13 conference titles.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.