It would take pages of copy to chronicle Tom Osborne’s accomplishments as the head football coach at the University of Nebraska. A shortened version of that history would reveal his three national championships (1994, 1995 and 1997), his 13 conference championships, his 255-49-3 overall record, and his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
But to attempt to describe Osborne’s impact on the game would take even longer. For decades, he has been a pillar of integrity and faithful Christian service. Osborne has profoundly made a difference in the lives of countless players and coaches, not to mention the college football fans in Nebraska and across the country.
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Osborne talks about his faith, his controversial decision to go for two in the 1984 Orange Bowl, his first national championship team, and the tricky topic of legacy:
Bonham: Tell me about your spiritual journey.
Osborne: I was a nominal Christian growing up. I went to church and Sunday School. My parents went to church. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. But that FCA conference during the summer of 1957 made a big difference in my life. That was between my sophomore and juniors years of college. I drove out to Estes Park, Colorado by myself. It was the second conference ever held. There were probably about 300 guys there. They were mostly college athletes and some professional athletes. I formed some friendships there and at some point I heard Christianity articulated in a way that I could relate to. During that week, I made a commitment that this was what I was going to do as a mature person. I was 19 years old at the time. That was a very meaningful moment for me.
Bonham: Everyone always brings up the 1983 season and how you went for two in the 1984 Orange Bowl instead of going for the tie against Miami.
Osborne: We got blitzed pretty badly in the first quarter. Miami was ahead early on. Bernie Kosar hit some passes and then we made a comeback. Mike Rozier hurt his ankle and he was out. With about 30 or 40 seconds left, we scored to make the score 31-30. At that time there was no overtime, so the question was whether we should kick the point for the tie or go for two and the win. In my mind, there wasn’t any great agonizing over it. It wasn’t a heroic decision. I had a ballot on the coach’s poll and I knew I wouldn’t vote for a team that settled for a tie. So I figured the only thing we could do to win a national championship was go for the win. One of their guys dove and got a finger on the football and we didn’t convert the two-point play. We knew they’d be man-to-man. We thought we had a good play. But it just didn’t work out. I was really proud of our team. There had been a lot of national championship game over the years yet people keep bringing up that game because of the circumstance at the end. Whether they agree with the decision or not, they remember it. So I thought our team played well and our objective was to play as well as we could and come as close as we could to being the best that we could be. That’s how I define success. We had a team that was good enough to play with anyone and win most of the time. Even though we didn’t win the trophy, I was good with it because we had played at a very high level.
Bonham: Talk about the 1994 season and how the team overcame adversity to win your first national title.
Osborne: We lost Tommie Frazier after the third game and Brook Berringer got hurt in the second game he played in with some cracked ribs and a collapsed lung. At one point we started our third string quarterback against Kansas State. We also played without Mike Minter that year. I think that team probably had more resolve and a stronger will to win than any other team I was around. No matter what happened that year, no one was going to take it away from them. They had a tremendous amount of commitment. That wasn’t our most talented team, but it was probably the team that was the most determined.
Bonham: How would you sum up your coaching legacy?
Osborne: When coaches die or retire, usually the first thing people talk about is the win-loss record. Somehow that defines you. I hope that isn’t the sole definition of what I did as a coach. Relationships are the most important thing and hopefully I was consistent in my spiritual walk and that players saw that. I’ve maintained a good relationship with lots of players over the years. Some of them are strong Christians. Some of them aren’t. The fact that I cared about them not just as players but as people was important to them. I tried to make sure that they had the best academic support and that they graduated. The great majority did and hopefully we started them on a good path in their life. I think in most cases we did. All of those things are the most important things.
Read much more from Coach Tom Osborne and other Nebraska football legends in the book Husker Legacy.
(Photos: University of Nebraska Athletic Department)