It’s not easy to do better than winning three national championships and thirteen conference titles. But Tom Osborne’s accomplishments as Nebraska’s athletic director were more important to the athletic department and the football program than his legendary success on the sideline.
On Wednesday, HailVarsity.com broke the story that Osborne would be retiring as of January 1, 2013. Osborne took over as interim athletic director on October 16, 2007, after then-AD Steve Pederson was fired. He took the position on a permanent basis in December of 2007.
The Pederson era seems like a lifetime ago for Nebraska fans, and much of that goes down to the remarkable success Osborne was in running the athletic department. It’s easy to forget just how toxic the atmosphere had become under Pederson.
Pederson, and his disciple Bill Callahan, jettisoned Nebraska’s history in an attempt to create a “new Nebraska” in Pederson’s image. Everything from the ham-fisted handling of Frank Solich’s dismissal as football coach to Callahan’s description of his offense as “too technical” for the average person created deep divisions with the Nebraska fanbase.
Into that breach stepped Osborne, coming out of retirement to rescue the athletic program. Osborne was the only person who could, on the day of his hiring, mend the wounds and divisions Pederson had inflicted on the Nebraska fanbase. By hiring Bo Pelini to replace Callahan, Osborne further healed those divisions and helped Nebraska’s football program arrest its decline.
It’s easy to forget just how bad things were in 2007. Kansas had just beaten Nebraska for the second year in a row in Lawrence, hanging a school record 76 points on NU. School records and streaks were falling by the week. Nebraska would miss out on a bowl game for the second time in four years, something that hadn’t happened once in the previous 35.
On that autumn afternoon in Lawrence, Nebraska’s past glories seemed light years away. It felt like it would be years before Nebraska could even think about being nationally ranked, much less nationally relevant.
And for a program like Nebraska, an extended stay in the wilderness is so dangerous. Nebraska is unique amongst football programs with national appeal in that Nebraska does not have any natural advantages to put it amongst the elite. There are no beaches or mountains or warm weather to attract the best recruits. There are no high schools nearby bristling with game-changing talent waiting to play in Lincoln. There are no oil wells fueling billionaire donors to build palaces for Nebraska’s athletes. There are no national networks and armies of faithful Catholics to keep Nebraska’s coffers full year after year.
Nebraska survives as a national program because of its history, because of its legacy of greatness started by Bob Devaney and continued under Osborne. But legacy, unlike beaches or mountains or talent pools or rich alumni, fades with time. If the gravitation to mediocrity that was Pederson’s legacy continued, Nebraska ran the risk of becoming a historical footnote, a once-great program like Army, Harvard or Colgate whose time for greatness had past. Minnesota claims six national championships in football—the most recent in 1960. Had the Pederson death-spiral continued, it’s not inconceivable that Nebraska football could have ended up in a place similar to where the Golden Gophers find themselves today.
That’s why Osborne’s return to Lincoln as athletic director was so critical. Unlike any other person could, Osborne united Nebraska fans and set the table for Pelini to right the ship in football. The fact that Nebraska fans in 2011 were complaining about a 9-4 record is a testament to Osborne’s success. In 2007, a 9-4 Nebraska seemed like a pipe dream.
But it wasn’t just his rescue of the Nebraska football program from Pederson that is Osborne’s enduring legacy as athletic director. In the summer of 2010, the conference realignment winds began to swirl around college football. The Big 12, always a dysfunctional marriage between the Big 8 and remnants of the Southwest Conference, looked ready to burst at the seams. Texas offered Nebraska an ultimatum. Nebraska had to make a legally-binding long-term commitment to the conference—a commitment that Texas was unwilling to make—or Texas would join the Pac-10 and take five other Big 12 schools with it.
We know how this story ends, with Nebraska joining the country’s most stable, historic and financially secure conference in the Big Ten. But in the summer of 2010, there was no guarantee of a happy ending.
Think about what could have happened if Texas carried out its threat. Nebraska would be left without a conference. Sure, maybe the Big Ten would still have been interested. But in such a weakened position, there is little chance Nebraska would have had the strength to negotiate its entry as well as it did.
And maybe the Big Ten wouldn’t have been interested in Nebraska. Maybe a 16-team superconference on the west coast would have forced the Big Ten in a different direction with Notre Dame and the Big East. Maybe something else would have happened to leave Nebraska without a conference home.
The point is, much like in 2007, Nebraska was facing an existential threat to its position as a nationally-relevant program. And it was Osborne’s leadership as athletic director, along with university president Harvey Perlman, who guided Nebraska through those dangerous waters and into the safe harbor of the B1G.
So, on two separate occasions, it was Osborne that protected Nebraska from a threat to its very existence as a national program. In addition, Osborne has overseen dramatic upgrades in Nebraska’s training facilities, the establishment of a basketball practice facility and access to a new arena, and a significant expansion to Memorial Stadium.
Osborne’s accomplishments as a coach are the stuff of legend, and nothing in the discussion of his tenure as athletic director should be taken as a slight against them. But Nebraska as a football program was already established on the national stage when Osborne took over. Even now, when asked for an iconic Nebraska image, you are as likely to get a Johnny Rogers punt return against Oklahoma or a Jerry Tagge goal-line dive—images from the Devaney era—as you are to get a Tommie Frazier or Eric Crouch run.
But as athletic director, Osborne was able to do more than just put trophies in the cabinet. He was the man responsible for rescuing the entire Nebraska program from a threat to its status amongst the nation’s elite. And he did it twice. And he’s improved the state of Nebraska’s facilities and coaches as well.
Saying that Osborne’s accomplishments as an athletic director outweigh his accomplishments as a coach isn’t a slight of his greatness on the sidelines. It’s an acknowledgement of the incredible importance his leadership of the program has been as athletic director.
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