LINCOLN — Late Wednesday morning, Tom Osborne entered skybox 637 on Memorial Stadium's west side.
He'd just come from a meeting of athletic department staff, where grown men shed tears.
Now Osborne, carrying a pad full of scribbled notes, wanted a few moments alone before going public with his plans to retire as Nebraska athletic director, effective Jan. 1, 2013.
He is 75 years old. His service to the university began 50 years ago, when he wrote Bob Devaney a letter requesting a job. He coached 25 years, winning three national championships.
Osborne does not consider himself nostalgic. But even he can't escape time.
As his scheduled press conference crept closer, Osborne gazed across the field at a construction crew working above the east balcony. Raising Memorial Stadium even higher.
“That's kind of interesting to watch that — all the building that's happening,” he said.
Osborne is responsible for the foundation.
Five years ago, he fielded a Sunday afternoon phone call at home from NU Chancellor Harvey Perlman. He accepted Perlman's appointment and lifted Husker athletics out of the rubble.
And just before 11 a.m. Wednesday, he left the skybox and moved toward the crowd, walking down a long hallway, past framed photos of legendary Huskers. The last photo is Osborne accepting a hug from Jason Peter after the coach's final game in 1998.
Osborne greeted Perlman and cracked a joke about being “a dead man walking.” He stepped in front of a podium and made another quip about aging. Then he revealed his decision.
“At some point, whether you're able to function or not, just the perception that you're getting old can get in the way. So I don't want to be one of those guys that everybody's walking around wringing their hands trying to figure out, well, what are we gonna do with him?”
The more appropriate question: What will they do without him?
“It's like Master Yoda putting his light saber down,” said Jamie Williams, associate athletic director.
“We all love him,” said Ron Brown, Husker running backs coach. “He's been here a long time, but he's never grown old to us.”
Perlman has already begun the search for Osborne's successor. He has hired a nationally known search consultant to assist him. He has even interviewed multiple candidates.
The next A.D. needs experience, Perlman said. He needs to understand Nebraska tradition and culture.
Osborne will play an advisory role in the search process but said it would be “really out of place for me to comment on candidates at this point. It's Harvey's hire, and he has to drive that ship.”
Osborne plans to be around for an additional six months — after Jan. 1 — as athletic director emeritus. He'll help the new A.D. make the transition. He'll help in recruiting prospects, as he usually does. He'll make sure major building projects stay on schedule.
After that, Osborne intends to spend more time orchestrating his TeamMates mentoring program.
Osborne, who had double bypass surgery in 1985, said health was not a factor in his retirement.
So why now? Why wait until three days before Nebraska's Big Ten football opener to go public?
In order to coordinate an announcement, Perlman said, they had to match their schedules. But there's another reason: Perlman had made a request.
Before you call a press conference, give me a few months to start searching for your replacement. The chancellor wanted to minimize the public “circus.” Osborne informed Perlman of his intentions in August.
He considered retiring this past summer, but he had just made three major hires: Williams, men's basketball coach Tim Miles and compliance director Jamie Vaughn. He wanted to stay for a few months to help them get comfortable.
Osborne also wanted one more shot at winning big, especially in football and volleyball.
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“If you've been in athletics a long time, you always are tempted to take one more grab at the brass ring.”
The biggest weakness of Osborne's tenure as A.D. has arguably been his trophy haul. The Huskers haven't produced many signature moments.
Osborne fired Bill Callahan in 2007, and while Bo Pelini has won nine games every season, Nebraska hasn't won a conference title.
Osborne fired baseball coach Mike Anderson in 2011 and men's basketball coach Doc Sadler in March. Those programs are just beginning to rebuild.
Unlike most athletic directors, Osborne's A.D. legacy isn't tied to on-field performance.
He helped orchestrate Nebraska's conference change in 2010. He spearheaded a facilities boom. And, perhaps most important, he stabilized an athletic department in turmoil.
Perlman isn't sure the Big Ten move would've happened without Osborne.
“When Tom Osborne walks into a room, he represents something,” Perlman said. “It's not just three national champions. That's what people in Nebraska don't understand. ... It's the sustainability of excellence over a long period of time. It's integrity.”
John Ingram, associate athletic director for capital planning and construction, recognized quickly that Osborne's era wasn't going to be status quo.
Osborne's second day on the job, he told Ingram to prepare for some heavy lifting. Osborne wanted to renovate the academic center in West Stadium. He wanted to build new basketball facilities.
“It wasn't very far after that that we laid out the remaining five-year plan,” Ingram said.
The East Stadium addition, which will bring capacity to 92,000, is due for completion in 2013. Same for Husker basketball's new home court, the Pinnacle Bank Arena, a city project that Osborne supported.
“People look at facilities,” Osborne said. “They think, you ought to have this building and that building. They look at finances. But it's really the people that make it work.
“We had some pretty good things happening here without extravagant facilities for a long time. Most of that had to do with culture.”
Culture is what prompted Osborne's return five years ago. When Perlman offered him the job on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 14, 2007, Osborne wasn't sure it was a good idea.
“Life was good,” he said. “I could have a long weekend when I wanted to.”
But he felt an obligation to help. The football program had lost back-to-back games by a combined 66 points. The fan base — and the athletic department — were fractured. It was a time, Perlman said, of “considerable anxiety.”
Osborne walked into his first meeting and knew something was wrong. Two or three mental health counselors were talking to his executive team about stress reduction.
“I thought, well, this is odd. I wouldn't say things were awful, but things were pretty fragmented. Some people had quit and some people were thinking about quitting.”
Osborne's presence stabilized the scene. Ingram described the vibe like this: “Oh, Tom's here. Everything's gonna be better.”
Osborne said Wednesday that things are in place for Nebraska to succeed without him. Three or four years from now, he predicted, “a lot of great things will have happened.”
He'll have plenty of time to reflect. On his 255 coaching wins. On his three national championships. On his first day as athletic director, when he was 10 minutes late to work. Traffic, he said.
On that day, Osborne parked his car, walked past a statue of himself and into a building bearing his name. Then he asked the security guard where he could find his office.
Starting Jan. 1, Osborne won't have to worry about alarm clocks or traffic jams or 8 a.m. meetings. Just his wife, Nancy, who's been waiting with a honey-do list.
“She keeps reminding me that the garage has not been cleaned for about three years. And I can see a whole list of things popping up.”
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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