Originally published Jan. 4, 1998.
The drama of Tom Osborne’s third national championship, the joyous celebrations of a final, perfect season and a No. 1 vote Saturday in the coaches’ poll were a fitting end to the career of a remarkable man.
And to the woman who stood at his side through all the good and the bad.
To Tom and Nancy Osborne, it must not seem so long ago — soon after he became the University of Nebraska’s head football coach in 1973 — that fans at an Omaha banquet gave him a standing ovation.
He looked embarrassed.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that to me,” he responded. “I haven’t won a single game yet.”
That summer, after NU’s first day of practice, he spoke at the Nebraska Coaches Association convention in Lincoln. Several coaches were honored for 25 years of service.
“I’ve been a head coach for one day now,” Osborne said. “Twenty-five years seems like an awfully long way off.”
Winters, summers. Springs and autumns. Seasons came, seasons went, including the football kind. Now, after 25 years, a “long way off” has arrived, and Tom and Nancy Osborne are ready to meet the future on their own terms.
He won 255 games, three national championships and the hearts of many. But it wasn’t just the winning. The Osbornes, native Nebraskans, have exhibited moral leadership and represented values dear to the citizens of their home state — constancy, loyalty, humility, steadfastness, dignity.
Amid countless standing ovations, roaring crowds, occasional griping by unhappy fans, job pressures, health concerns and a fish-bowl existence, the Osbornes have endured. They have stood together figuratively, just as they did literally last month after the coach announced his resignation at age 60.
Today they are honored as The World-Herald’s Midlanders of the Year.
What their future holds is of great interest to the many who have followed their lives — but it’s apparently unknown, even to them.
“I don’t really think either one of us knows what it is we want to do from here on out,” Nancy Osborne said. “We both believe something will float to the surface. Tom is not ready to ‘retire’ in terms of not working anymore. He has way too much energy.”
They will continue their volunteer and philanthropic activities, including the Teammates program they created and funded through the Osborne Endowment for Youth. Originally called Husker Teammates, the program has expanded beyond Huskers — it pairs adult mentors with junior high students and guarantees their postsecondary education if they graduate from high school.
The couple will lend their names to good causes. They will help with fund raising, for NU’s Love Library, for example, and for Hastings College, Tom Osborne’s alma mater.
But beyond volunteering and spending time with their family, they will look for something that occupies a greater share of their time and interests.
“I suspect,” Nancy said, “it will be something we haven’t even explored yet.”
It’s an exciting prospect.
People passing through Nebraska at the time of the coach’s Dec. 10 announcement may have been puzzled at the outpouring of feeling over the resignation of a football coach. Some Nebraskans, too, have wrestled with the outsized response.
The answer may lie in the fact that the Osbornes transcend football: To many, they represent all that Nebraska wants to be and hopes it is.
They are not clones. He is reserved and introspective, she is extroverted and outgoing — a real card, friends say.
After Friday night’s 42-17 victory over Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, Tom said merely that his team had done all it could. A smiling Nancy was more succinct: “We tromped’em!”
It was a typical response from a woman whose cheery outlook has balanced her husband’s serious approach. For Tom’s 50th birthday, she ordered a cake and had everyone at the football office laughing — she showed up wearing a black dress and veil.
A native of Gothenburg, Neb., Nancy Jean Tederman grew up in Holdrege, where her father managed the McDonald department store. At the University of Nebraska, she majored in elementary education and earned a high honor — president of the Mortar Board student honorary society.
Don Fricke, now a Lincoln dentist and for years a university regent, introduced Nancy to a graduate assistant football coach from Hastings, Neb. Her first impression: Tom Osborne was cocky.
For all who have followed the career of the polite, stoic, serious coach, that sounds funny today. In any case, Nancy said, she soon found that he was a man of decency and character.
The Osbornes were married Aug. 4, 1962, at the First Baptist Church in Holdrege. The Rev. Howard Osborne, Tom’s uncle, officiated.
As a boy, when his father was away in World War II, Tom, his brother and their mother lived with her family in St. Paul, Neb. In his 1985 autobiography, “More Than Winning,” he revealed that he was a moody, insecure child who had recurring nightmares of German soldiers invading the town and looking for him. He once fell into a fishing pond and thought he was drowning, but an uncle pulled him out.
Tom’s dad came home after the war and the family returned to Hastings, living across the street from Hastings College. In fifth or sixth grade, he attended Husker games in Lincoln on a great-uncle’s season tickets.
After being named the state’s high school athlete of the year, Tom turned down football and basketball scholarships from Nebraska and attended Hastings College, playing both sports. He spent three seasons with pro football teams. (The NU press guide says he played only in exhibition games.)
In 1962, Bob Devaney arrived in Nebraska, starting the modern era of Husker football, and hired Osborne as a part-time coach. In 1965, Osborne earned a doctorate in educational psychology, writing his doctoral thesis on test anxiety.
Nancy, meanwhile, was teaching at a Lincoln elementary school and envisioning their life as two educators. She eventually stayed home to raise their three children. And Dr. Tom’s destiny was not to be a college professor or a university administrator.
As most Nebraskans know, he helped revamp the offense that led to national championships in 1970 and 1971, and succeeded Devaney as head coach in 1973.
He soon learned, he said, that expectations were even higher than he had thought. He drove himself, often working 100 hours a week.
Even years later, in 1990, he said: “At Nebraska, if you ever got complacent and your teams weren’t performing on the field, life would become so miserable that it wouldn’t be worth staying even if you had a lifetime contract.”
He threw himself into his work at a cost to his family. He often wasn’t there — and even when he was, Nancy once said, he wasn’t: He was thinking football.
When accolades came his way, Osborne always credited his assistant coaches, insisting that “it’s not a one-man show.” But at home it was often a one-woman show. Nancy, he said at his Dec. 10 announcement, had raised the three children “fairly single-handedly.”
Nancy Osborne said last week that he might be overstating the case.
“He’s trying to give me credit for maybe more than I deserve,” she said. With a laugh, she added: “But I’ll take it.”
In his 1996 book, “On Solid Ground,” he said that if he had any regret from a career in coaching, it was the time it took him away from his family. On their deathbeds, he wrote, few people will regret not spending enough time on their careers.
“However,” he said, “many will regret not spending enough time with their families. It’s odd how often we fail to see what is really important to us until it’s almost too late.”
All three children are grown and married, and the coach said he’s proud of the adults they have become.
Mike, 32, who became the fourth-generation Osborne to play football at Hastings College, works in sports marketing in Lincoln, where he lives with wife Emily and their two children, Will and Catey.
Ann, 30, is a homemaker who lives in Lincoln with husband Bob Wilke and their child, Haley. Wilke works in the corporate office of Hobby Town.
Suzi, 28, who teaches English as a second language, has moved to South Dakota, where husband Kevin Dobbs is a college women’s basketball coach.
Spending time with all of them, Osborne said, will be a high priority in his post-coaching life.
All gathered in Miami for the coach’s final bowl game. Nancy said it was nostalgic.
“I was remembering how good the Devaney people were to us, helping us get acquainted,” she said. “Bev Melton (wife of longtime assistant coach John Melton, now retired) took me under her wing. It’s not a sad, blue thing. There are good memories.”
Nancy said she and Tom will miss “the rhythm of life that goes with football.”
One downside to his career has been a lack of privacy. “It will be nice, hopefully, to get some of that back,” Nancy said.
Her father’s death in 1995 had an effect on the couple. The coach mentioned it in his announcement last month, and Nancy agreed.
“You begin to realize you really aren’t going to go on forever,” she said. “Life is too short. You’d better enjoy things while you can.”
Nancy Osborne said her own health is fine. Her husband underwent double-bypass surgery 13 years ago, and in November underwent shock treatment to restore his heart to proper rhythm. Health concern, he said, was part of the reason for stepping down — though he had decided at the start of this season that it probably would be his last.
He went on the Pritikin Diet after his surgery, and in recent years the low-fat Ornish Diet, with lots of vegetables and very little meat. He exercises daily.
His self-discipline is legend. He said recently that he doesn’t eat “anything that tastes good.” His wife said wryly that he doesn’t understand “chocolate addiction.”
Tom Osborne, a good Methodist who once considered a career in the ministry, takes a methodical and meticulous approach to life, with a premium on self-control.
He is such a nonsmoking, nonswearing teetotaler that when the Omaha Press Club honored him with one of its “Face on the Barroom Floor” caricatures, the club lightheartedly called his the “Face on the Dining Room Floor.”
Osborne has spoken out on serious social issues. He has decried superficial definitions of success and the erosion of moral absolutes. He has crusaded against the dehumanizing effects of pornography, and has spoken in favor of a nuclear freeze. He has banned his players from entering gambling casinos. He has avoided partisan politics.
His brother once joked at a roast years ago that he always knew Tom would end up in Lincoln, but figured it would be as a prison warden. Tom, in fact, has visited prisons — and spoken about his spiritual beliefs.
“When I’ve volunteered time for prison ministries, I’ve met many kind and thoughtful prisoners,” he wrote in his 1996 book, adding: “I’m not a religious fanatic and I’m not soft on crime.”
The coach has survived much pressure and stress. He said he never felt overwhelmed by the pressure of a game but often felt stress because of the demands on his time. The greatest stress, though, came during public scrutiny over his decisions on star player Lawrence Phillips.
After Phillips assaulted a former girlfriend, Osborne suspended him and arranged for psychological tests and counseling. The coach let Phillips return at the end of the 1995 season, which created much controversy.
Osborne responded that it would have been easier for the university, the athletic department and himself to have abandoned Phillips. The coach said he did what he thought was best for Phillips as a human being — not to win football games.
Not everyone agreed with Osborne’s decisions on Phillips, who came from a poor background in Los Angeles and grew up partly in a group home. But the coach sympathized greatly with players from poor families, saying that during recruiting, he often was struck by the poverty in which some lived.
Partly because of that, he campaigned at NCAA conventions — unsuccessfully — for a return to the days when players received small monthly stipends beyond their scholarships.
Through the years the Osbornes have received numerous honors. Tom was this newspaper’s Midlander of the Year in 1979.
In 1994, he received the Giant Steps Award from the Center for the Study of Sports in Society. In 1995, he was only the second college football coach to receive the Distinguished American Award from the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The same year, Tom and Nancy became the first native Nebraskans (Mother Teresa and Dr. Jonas Salk were previous winners) to receive the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth.
Osborne meditates and prays at least twice a day for 20 to 25 minutes each, which he says gives him energy and focus. He started each 7 a.m. coaches meeting with a five-minute devotional time. He says all of us need to be more forgiving.
He has overcome adversity — but adversity, he often has said, is the springboard to success.
After years of coming close to a national championship, with such bad luck that people sometimes thought he was jinxed, he won his first after the 1994 season.
After that game, Nancy Osborne met her husband on the field, beaming. Only a couple of years earlier, she and other coaches’ wives had complained about hecklers at Memorial Stadium getting personal and nasty. She eventually moved to a family booth in the press box.
But she always has been a gracious first lady of Nebraska Football, even when fans would brush past her to shake her husband’s hand. A needlepoint in her kitchen reads: “This marriage has been interrupted to bring you the football season.”
Tom wasn’t around enough to get the hang of being a handyman. Nancy said the only bad thing she could say about him is that he “doesn’t know one end of the hammer from the other.”
As a young man, Tom had dated a lot and even was engaged before. But once he met Nancy, he soon knew that she would be his life partner. He asked Nancy to marry him after only two or three months of dating, and had to talk her out of leaving for California — she had signed a teaching contract there.
They had grown up 50 miles apart in small Nebraska towns, in families of similar backgrounds and values. Early in their marriage, he said, he became depressed and anxious and had to learn to communicate better with his wife.
He calls her “solid as a rock,” and his best friend.
The football part of their lives ended Friday on a perfect note. His coaching now behind them, but having made a lasting impact far beyond stadiums, the Osbornes now head in uncharted directions.