Published Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 10:41 pm / Updated at 12:23 am
Shatel: In world, Osborne all about #Perspective

LINCOLN — Imagine the reaction on Twitter after Jack Thompson and Washington State took victory from Memorial Stadium in the 1977 season opener. #firetomosborne.

Think of the message boards after the 38-7 loss to Oklahoma, Tom Osborne's fifth straight loss to the Sooners.

How long would the “Big Red Overreaction” postgame show have been after the Huskers lost to Missouri in 1978 and blew a shot at the national championship?

Would the Osborne Era have been cut short by the constant noise?

Not by Osborne's doing.

“I wouldn't have handled it much different,” said Osborne, when asked how he would have dealt with today's relentless media. “I didn't read the papers, didn't listen to the radio. I just focused totally on what I was doing.

“I suppose once in awhile I got upset about something somebody wrote, but for the most part, I was nice to reporters, because I didn't know what they had written."

It's Wednesday morning. Osborne, with just more than two months left as athletic director, has some time to talk between meetings.

Time to offer some perspective. That's a good thing.

Perspective is a precious commodity in today's world. Knee-jerk reactions, we got. Instant emotional commentaries are in abundance.

Nebraska is 5-2. After the last game, a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback win at Northwestern, some people weren't exactly thrilled.

Anger. Anxiety. Fire-the-coach websites sprouting up. All after a win.

The negative quotient is way up around Nebraska football. Do the media contribute? Guilty as charged.

It's not that all of the “concern” is unjustified. Take the inconsistencies, mix them with a fan base that was starving when Bo Pelini was hired and throw in the general tenor of anger in today's world.

You get an atmosphere around NU football that I've never seen or heard. Anger after a win? Fire the coach who wins nine and 10 games a year?

Is this the loud minority? Or the new normal? Where are the expectations and standards of Husker football headed? And what does the man who has defined Nebraska football for so many decades think about what he's leaving behind in a few months?

Told the topic ahead of time, Osborne was willing to go there. I'm always anxious to hear what Osborne, the E.F. Hutton of Nebraska, has to say on any subject.

He didn't disappoint here, unless you expected him to push a panic button he doesn't own. He'll tell you that criticism is part of the job. He's heard some of these voices before.

“I think our fans are better than most fans anywhere,” Osborne said. “Very knowledgeable. They watch football closely.

“But I do also remember back in 1968, the second of two 6-4 seasons, we lost our last game to Oklahoma 47-0.

“There was a petition in Omaha to get rid of Bob (Devaney). That wasn't taken too seriously. But there was a serious effort to have Bob shake up his staff. At the time, I was 32 and had three kids. I was kind of interested in what happened.

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“Most people would have liked to have seen Bob get rid of some coaches. But get rid of Bob? Not so much. He'd won some championships. He was the one who turned it around.”

Then there were the 1976 to '78 years. Back then, there were no call-in shows, but the voices from coffee shops, and regents, spoke loudly enough. Some folks thought that the guy named Osborne was a coordinator only, not a head coach.

“The year we played in the Bluebonnet Bowl (1976), there was a reception put on by the regents,” Osborne said. “One regent pulled me aside and said it was fortunate I had won the bowl game because if I hadn't I was going to be fired.

“Whether that was true or not, I don't know. Bob would not have been in favor of that.”

Osborne knows that there are going to be loud voices and petitions and websites. That's the game, and that part of the game has never been more accessible.

But he knows that the game is changing, too. Coaches are fired after two or three seasons. A guy who won a national championship at Auburn two years ago is on the hottest seat imaginable right now.

Nebraska used to be insulated from that world. Nebraska also used to win at unthinkable rates. Most coaches today aren't given several years to develop, the way Osborne was.

As he prepares to leave the program and standard he built, Osborne preaches perspective. But he also knows firsthand that patience and a tradition of winning big are a tough balance. NU has fired its last two coaches, and Osborne fired the last one.

Could NU develop a firing mentality? “I sure hope that doesn't happen,” Osborne said. “It takes time. I just see enough positives here right now that it would be a mistake to start talking about that or even thinking about that.

“It was really difficult for me to let (Bill) Callahan go. I didn't dislike Bill. I just saw there was enough dissatisfaction from the fans and enough turmoil, I was just afraid we were going to start seeing empty seats. And that would make things really hard.

“That attendance streak, which we are going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of on Saturday night, is a very big thing, for recruiting, for a lot of things. With that interest comes a lot of scrutiny and, to some degree, high expectations.

“It's a balance. It's good that people care, that they want us to be good. I think the fans here are somewhat like the Packers fans, in that they feel an ownership in the team. But on the other hand, perspective is good, that you can't press a button and all of a sudden win a national championship.”

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Osborne brought up a good point that gets lost sometimes: Pelini came close to winning the Big 12 championship in 2009 and '10. Had he won just one of those, the waters today might be calmer.

But the old coach knows that, around Nebraska, once you do something, people want to know when you'll win it again. Or win something bigger.

He chased the big fish for 22 years before he caught it; won a league title in six years. Osborne wouldn't compare Big Eight to Big 12 or Big Ten, or today's college football to the '70s when there were fewer league threats and restrictions but not nearly the TV exposure. Fair enough. It's an apples and oranges debate.

But he made himself a tough act for generations to follow. He won so much that it was easy to take it for granted, easy for fans to dismiss a comeback win over Northwestern.

What Osborne hopes, however, is that his run in the 1990s isn't used as the high bar for Nebraska coaches to be judged on.

“Probably the last four or five years of my career were an anomaly,” Osborne said. “People didn't realize that if I had coached another five years, the odds were overwhelming that we wouldn't be that good.

“We had a lot of great players who kind of showed up here at the same time (in the '90s), and we had great chemistry and great leadership. We probably wouldn't be able to duplicate that or anywhere close to that.

“But I went through a little bit of that. His last three years, Bob (Devaney) won two national championships and only lost two games. Fair or not, those 9-3 seasons I had early on weren't very good by comparison. A lot of people were upset.”

He was given time to figure it out, to restructure his staff, remake the way he played offense and defense and recruit. Of course, Osborne earned that patience with more than occasional Big Eight flags and major bowls. Along the way, Nebraska was known for continuity and perspective. In college football, there was no place like Nebraska.

One of Osborne's biggest wins (1978) came when Oklahoma fumbled several times. You wonder if any Husker fans were angry about winning that way. Probably not.

Is an angry Nebraska the new Nebraska? Don't be so sure, says the man.

“I think perspective is good,” Osborne said. “I can get 15 emails here, but that probably only represents the thinking of two or three percent of the fans. Sometimes those people lost a bet.”

It's hard to have perspective in today's world. It will be even harder when Osborne leaves the building.

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Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.



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