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Shortly after the Nebraska Cornhuskers kicked off their 1997 season, Tom Osborne requested a meeting with university Chancellor James Moeser and Athletic Director Bill Byrne. And one September day, the three met privately around a coffee table in Moeser's office in Canfield Hall.
Dressed in a coat and tie, the football coach swore them both to complete confidentiality. And then he dropped his bombshell.
“I want to retire at the end of this season. This is going to be my last season,'' the 60-year-old Osborne said. “I don't want to make any announcement yet. I want to wait until the end of the season. But the other thing I'm asking you to do is name Frank Solich my successor.''
Tom Osborne was finally ready to let out his most closely held secret. In the midst of one of the greatest runs of success in college football history, with the gray hair only just beginning to push out the red atop his head, he was set to retire.
Moeser and Byrne immediately tried to talk Osborne out of it. He was in the prime of his career, they argued. Even that day, Moeser sensed some reluctance on Osborne's part to step away. But Moeser and Byrne would both recall that Osborne made it clear: He felt duty-bound to step aside now. Because he had made a promise to Frank Solich.
“I don't think Tom wanted to retire,'' Moeser said in an interview earlier this year. “I don't think he was ready to retire. But he felt ethically bound to a promise he had made to Frank. ... He did make it clear, it was a promise to Frank.''
Some 15 years after Osborne's retirement, the secret is finally revealed.
Whenever Tom Osborne has been questioned since 1997 about why he decided to hang up his whistle at the pinnacle of his career, he's always related it to a promise he'd made that he felt obliged to honor — a pledge that he would coach five more years and then step down.
But he steadfastly refused to say to whom he'd made that rock-solid promise. It was most often speculated that it had been his wife, Nancy. Or perhaps Solich, his longtime loyal assistant. Or to God. But Osborne wasn't saying.
A new book The World-Herald published this fall resolves that mystery and reveals countless other new stories and details about Osborne's final seasons on the Nebraska football sidelines.
“Unbeatable: Tom Osborne and the Greatest Era of Nebraska Football'' tells the back story of Osborne's final five years as coach — a period in which his teams won three national championships and compiled a sterling 60-3 record.
The publication also serves as a bookend to Osborne's career at Nebraska. Just as the book was nearing completion in late October, the 75-year-old Osborne announced he would be retiring after having served the last five years as Nebraska's athletic director.
The book reveals other new aspects of Osborne's retirement from coaching, including this eye-opener: Osborne wasn't even supposed to be on the sideline during 1997, when he capped his 25-year coaching career with his third national championship in four years.
Under the original terms of his pledge to Solich, 1996 was to have been his final year coaching. But Osborne ultimately asked for, and received from Solich, a one-year extension. The reason: He wanted to coach defensive standouts Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter during their final year as Huskers.
Even in a series of interviews this year for the book, Osborne had remained reluctant to say to whom he made the retirement pledge. But after he was read the subsequent accounts of Moeser and Byrne, he finally acknowledged the truth: The promise was to Solich.
“It's pretty well documented,'' he said of his former bosses' recollections. Osborne even seemed a little relieved to be finally freed of the burden.
Osborne could not recall exactly when he made the five-more-years pledge to Solich. But he said its intention was simple: to keep in the Husker fold the man he planned to succeed him. Osborne had long been grooming Solich to follow him, giving the former Husker fullback and longtime running backs coach the title of assistant head coach in 1991.
And Solich had turned down other coaching opportunities in hopes of one day coaching the Huskers.
Barry Alvarez, Solich's good friend and former Husker teammate, in 1990 had offered Solich the chance to join him at Wisconsin as his offensive coordinator.
Under Alvarez, Solich would have been able to draw up the offensive game plan and call the plays. That was something he'd never been able to do under Osborne, who always served as his own offensive coordinator.
It had seemed, going into the final year of the five-year agreement, that the 1996 season would be a great way for Osborne to go out. The Huskers had won back-to-back national championships in 1994 and 1995 and were favorites to make it three in a row.
In the end, the season didn't turn out the way anyone had hoped: A loss to Texas in the inaugural Big 12 title game denied the Huskers a chance to face Florida State in a potential national championship game.
But shortly after the season ended, Wistrom and Peter came to Osborne and told him they had decided to forgo entering the NFL draft to come back for their senior season.
They told him they didn't like how the past season had ended and wanted to come back and take a shot at a third national championship.
That got Osborne to thinking. He admitted to himself he felt a little as they did. He, too, wanted the chance to end this thing right.
And it especially didn't feel right to be jumping ship on two key players who had made their commitment to come back with the expectation Osborne would be there.
Osborne sat down with his coach-in-waiting. “These guys are committed to coming back. I feel I should play out the string with them,'' he recalled telling Solich. “I want to go one more year.''
If Solich had said a deal is a deal, Osborne said, he would have stuck with his retirement plan. But Solich agreed to the request, and that was the only reason Osborne was on the sidelines for the 1997 season.
Of course, Osborne, Peter, Wistrom and the Huskers did go out champions. Nebraska demolished Tennessee in Osborne's final game to win the school's third crystal national title trophy in four years. Peter said in a recent interview he was surprised — and humbled — to hear he and Wistrom had played a role in Osborne coming back to coach a final year.
“It's something to be told that now and to know he believed in us enough to do that,'' he said.
Solich, who still harbors hard feelings about how his tenure at Nebraska ultimately ended, declined to be interviewed for the book.
At the time Osborne got his one-year extension from Solich, Osborne said he also made another promise to Solich: that he wouldn't be coming around again the next year asking for another season. That is what brought Osborne to Moeser's office in September 1997.
Osborne knew from personal experience what it was like to be in coaching limbo like that. Bob Devaney, Osborne's predecessor, had first asked him about succeeding him as Husker coach in the fall of 1969. But winning national championships in 1970 and 1971 had Devaney delaying his retirement plans.
It wasn't until prior to the 1972 season that Devaney finally announced it would be his last. Even then, Osborne said, Devaney at times wavered.
Osborne would delay publicly announcing his own retirement plans until Dec. 10, 1997, just weeks before the Huskers' game with Tennessee. Osborne didn't want to make a big public announcement before the start of the season, believing it would be very distracting to the team and what it was trying to accomplish.
“I wanted it to be business as usual,'' he recalled. “We had Wistrom and Peter who decided to stay and dedicated themselves to win them all. I wanted to give us every chance to do that.''
But by secretly telling his bosses, Osborne figured he would be making it firm and official: 1997 would be his final year.
Even with the extra year tacked on, Osborne found keeping the promise extremely tough. He wasn't ready to just go fishing. He was enjoying the Huskers' recent success as much as anyone. And as the years ran down on his self-imposed deadline, the time had not in the least diminished his love for the game, the process or, especially, his players. He knew all along that it would be extremely tough to lose the daily interactions that brought so much meaning to his life.
Even as he went to Moeser's office that day in 1997, it was hard just thinking about it coming to an end.
“But I also think a promise is a promise,'' he said recently. “You don't go back on your word.''
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