LINCOLN — Is that about it?
That was always Tom Osborne's signal. He would say, “Is that about it?” or “Well, there's not much else to say,” or “We've beaten this dead horse to death.” That last one is my favorite.
These were Osborne's favorite exit lines, his signals that he was tired of talking and wanted to hit the eject button on the press conference as soon as possible. Of course, with Tom, that moment came as soon as the press conference began.
He was actually one of the smartest press conference coaches in history. There were times when he would begin by reading the Nebraska football depth chart, going over the individual traits, good and bad, of each of the 22 players, and into the second team, if he really wanted to eat into the clock. Osborne knew that the press conference was over by a certain time. This was his stall game, his way of treating us like Kansas State, pounding us relentlessly into submission with minutiae. By the time he was finished, our time for asking questions was almost up.
I always found it comical, part of Osborne's underrated sense of humor. But as I grew to know the legend, I found myself wishing he'd opened up more. There was so much substance to this man, so many messages to hear. When he wanted to say something, he was like E.F. Hutton. Everyone listened.
Osborne's brilliant career at NU is over on Tuesday. And though I've interviewed him hundreds of times, I wanted one more while he was still on the job. An exit interview, if you will. I wanted one more dose of perspective, maybe unearth a newsworthy nugget that he occasionally lets fly (did you know he was offered the Seattle Seahawks job in the early 1980s?). Also to hear one more time: “Is that about it?”
Thankfully, he agreed. He welcomed me into his office and joked, “I don't know what else there is to say at this point.” I joked, “I promise, this is the last interview. This is it.”
He delivered, one more time.
Q: What will college football be like in five years, 10 years?
A: I suspect that we're going to see four or five 16-team conferences, that are major schools. There will be some type of modified playoff system. We may stay with a four-team format for a while, but there will always be pressure to go beyond that.
I am concerned about the amounts of money involved. There are various federal laws that allow you to regulate a lot of things, such as salaries, and we do see professional teams with salary caps. We may see something like that at some level. But the thing that continues to be disturbing to me is when you look at all of the money that has been generated and you still have resistance to providing a $2,000 stipend to the people who are really drawing the crowds. I don't believe in players trying to be salaried, but I think something like the cost-of-attendance stipend is reasonable and shouldn't be tied to family income or need-based.
Q: Are you concerned that college sports will become too expensive for Nebraskans?
A: I think we're reasonably well-positioned. The loyalty of our fan base is amazing. For the number of people in our state, we're doing well. We've been conservative and haven't lived beyond our means. We're competing in a league with three schools that have stadiums over 100,000. We'll be at 92. I think we'll be very competitive with those schools. But if it continues to escalate, I could see a time when, like a lot of schools, you could get priced out of the market.
Q: What will offense in college football evolve into?
A: I think you'll always have to run and control the ball. To some degree you see teams like Alabama and Georgia that are a little more traditional. They don't run the zone read, don't spread you out all over the field, (they) play good defense and hang their hat on ball control. The principles are still the same, if you have a great running game and control the ball, it's the best thing you can do for your defense.
You still see a lot of offenses today that are isolating defensive players, so it's almost one-on-one — can you cover this guy? The biggest change in football is the use of hands on offense. At one time, you had to keep your hands in. I ran into Jerry Kramer (former Green Bay Packer guard) in Houston a week ago. He was talking about how they had to keep their hands right to their chests and try to block. If you tried to do that with today's players, the quarterback would get killed. The use of hands has been liberalized tremendously.
Q: What advice would you give Nebraska fans for the future?
A: By and large our fans are probably as well-educated and well-behaved as you're going to find and reasonably patient. I think if you look around the country, if you have a coach who can win eight, nine and 10 games a year, pretty consistently, you probably should hang with that guy a long time, because there's going to be some years where you jump and be 11-1 or 12 and 13-0.
Q: Will the sellout streak ever end?
A: I think the market always comes into play. Our premium seating is based on demand; now we're expanding our seats available. I'm guessing that the premium seats in some areas of the stadium may be reduced. Our waiting list probably won't be as large as it has been. I don't know how that's going to go. But it may also depend on the economy. I hope it goes another 50 years, but nothing lasts forever. I think Nebraska fans are about as loyal as you're going to get, so I'm very hopeful that it will last a long time.
Q: Is Bo Pelini close to winning a championship?
A: I think Bo will win some championships. I know there's a lot of discussion about not winning a conference championship since 1999, but three or four years ago, we were about as close as you could be to winning a championship without winning it. A division championship today is almost like what winning a conference championship was when you had eight teams.
Q: What would you have done if you hadn't gone into coaching?
A: I didn't come back to the university in 1962 with the idea of being a coach. I got my degree in educational psychology with the idea of being a college administrator. The chancellor at that time called Gene Budig and myself in and said I'd like to get you guys on track to be college administrators, maybe presidents. I was honored. Of course, Gene took the idea and ran with it, ended up being chancellor at the University of Kansas. I was attracted to football. I enjoyed teaching and the college community, but I just couldn't get football out of my blood. I was treading water for a couple years, teaching, coaching. Finally I went up to Bob Devaney and said, 'I'm making $10,000 a year as a professor, but I'd like to be a coach. Would you pay me that much?' He said, yeah, he would. At that time, there were no limits on the number of coaches on your staff. I said, that's a good deal. That's how it started.
Q: When you became head coach in 1973, how long did you think you'd be here?
A: I remember when I became a full-time (paid) coach in 1966, I figured I would give myself seven years to become a head coach. I figured I would be 35 and pretty old. If I wasn't a head coach by then, I would go back to academics. When I took over for Bob, I felt like I'd be fortunate to last five years because I knew what the history book was, people following successful coaches. it wasn't very good. ... The contrast between Bob and me was fairly substantial at that time. I don't think they would have been happy with me (even) if we'd gone undefeated.
Q: Besides the interview at Colorado in 1978, did you ever come close to leaving?
A: The Colorado thing was not really me wanting to leave, you just kind of wondered how much longer you could last. To people in Colorado, a 9-2 season looked pretty good, around here it didn't look very good. But on the plane ride back, I just couldn't figure out how I was going to tell my team, 'Well I told you guys to come here, told you it was a great place, and I need to go coach against you.' It just didn't seem right. I couldn't do it.
I did have a job offer from the Seattle Seahawks, sometime around 1982 or 1983, which was somewhat tempting at the time because I liked to fish. The Pacific Northwest I could handle. I had a couple other college offers, from LSU and Arkansas, somebody called, but I never interviewed. I assume there would have been offers, but it never got that far.
What it ultimately came down to was I wanted to be here and not knowing how to break the ties with the players. I don't think coaching professional is a really good idea for a lot of people. It's all about winning. Here, at least you saw players graduate, saw some guys mature, saw some guys turn corners. There was a lot of satisfaction beyond the wins and losses.
Q: If you could have one do-over for your career, go back and change anything — a game, a call, anything — what would you change?
A: I don't think that way much. There might have been an assistant or two that I hired. I only fired two guys in my (coaching) career. I always thought every guy had a strength, if things weren't going well we'd try to move them around a little bit and get people where they maximize their ability. Some guys that the fans wanted fired are folk heroes today. It's kind of amazing.
I would say maybe a couple guys I wouldn't have hired, but certainly none of the guys who stayed with me a long time.
Q: So there wasn't one call or play you would want again?
A: You know, hindsight is perfect. In terms of what I knew at the time I made the call, we were pretty good at doing our homework. I never went into a game that we hadn't looked at all the possibilities.
Probably the one game that stands out would be the 1995 Orange Bowl. We really wanted to play Penn State (at the end of the 1994 season). I would have done anything to arrange that game. Instead, we were sent down to play Miami on their home field again. That team in 1994 got as much out of it as they could. They had a tremendous resolve to win.
Q: Favorite Barry Switzer story?
A: I remember we beat them (in 1982) when Scott Strasburger intercepted a pass. The crowd came onto the field. I went out to shake Barry's hand and I never saw him. To this day, I don't know what happened to him, if he got knocked down, or what.
One time we went out fishing, for a fishing show. And it was colder than heck, it was down near the Oklahoma-Texas border. Barry liked to fish, but he wasn't really into it. After about two hours, he pulled the plug on it. I think we had a terrible show. He didn't want to stay out there anymore.
Q: Do you still get mail or hear anyone who brings up Lawrence Phillips?
A: Once in awhile, people will write and reference that. I probably get fewer harsh letters about that. The perception back then was I did it to win. As Ahman's career developed, it was apparent that we had a pretty good player. (Ahman Green was Phillips' backup.) We had a lot of good backs back then. One player wasn't going to make the difference.
Q: I remember back then, in the middle of all that, you told a writer from Philadelphia that you were either way ahead of your time or way behind, on how to handle Lawrence. Which do you think it was?
A: I don't know. You learn over time that everybody makes mistakes. No one's infallible. The difference between someone who has done very well in life and someone sitting out on the street is one really rash decision in the heat of the moment. I knew a lot about Lawrence's background, and there were a lot of things there that a lot of people didn't have to deal with.
I'm sure with some people the first thing after my name comes up, they think of Lawrence Phillips. That's just the way it goes. We had a players council, with a point system for discipline, and Lawrence committed two misdemeanors, and they applied that system to it. I didn't think I could violate what the players had laid out on the code.
Q: A lot of people will write your legacy. How would you write it?
A: Everybody has to decide what they remember somebody for. To me, the relationships are most important and most lasting. The wins and losses get all the focus, they're written down somewhere, but they fade pretty fast. There's not a week that goes by that former players don't drop by or call. It's amazing to me how many of them will mention something that was said or done, and I don't even remember, but it was a big deal to them at a certain time in their life. Those are the things that are most important to me.
Q: Has Nancy told you what you're doing the first day of retirement?
A: I told her I'd like her to plan a trip around what she wants to do. She's always been tagging along to bowl trips and fishing trips. It's time to go where she wants to go. I haven't got an answer yet.
Q: One more thing. Thanks for everything, coach. Allow me to say it: That's about it.
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