One part of the job has never gotten easier for Tom Osborne in the seven years he has been the Nebraska football coach, since succeeding Bob Devaney.
In those years Nebraska fans have seen Osborne establish a style that sets him apart from others in a profession that tempts many to cut corners, all the while adding to the monument of success left by his popular predecessor.
The burden Osborne still carries is one that offers no apparent escape when football fever reaches the point that Al Gaston, high school coach at Grant, senses of fans in Nebraska.
“To me, fans out here are like everywhere,” Gaston said. “They are not satisfied unless you win them all; and if you win them all, they want you to win by a bigger margin.”
Tom Osborne hasn't yet won them all, but his outstanding coaching record plus his character, his dominance in the news, and his impact on the public makes him The World-Herald's 1979 Midlands Man of the Year.
It was the 1979 Nebraska team, of all the teams in the Osborne area, that made its strongest run at winning them all. The 17-14 loss to Oklahoma in the final game of the regular season was tough for the 42-year-old coach to accept.
“I really don't feel the pressure to win subsiding any,” Osborne said. “This year as we went along undefeated I felt more pressure to win. I think a lot of that was self-imposed. When we lost to Oklahoma it was one of the most disappointing we've ever had from a personal standpoint. We had the chance to win them all and we didn't do it. There aren't many times you get that opportunity.”
The loss was Osborne's seventh in eight tries against coaching nemesis Barry Switzer and his Oklahoma teams, a string of defeats that have ended each Osborne season on a note of discouragement. A victory this year would have kept Nebraska in strong contention for a national championship.
Those are indicators of some of the disappointment that Osborne has experienced as a coach.
The measure of success? Take your pick.
It might be his 65-17-2 record for seven seasons, which figures to a percentage of .774 and nearly matches the mark of .787 that Devaney posted with a 59-16-0 record in his first seven years. Osborne has taken his teams to bowls in each of his seasons. All of his teams have finished among the nation's top 10 teams in at least one wire service.
Or some might prefer to measure a man by the way he conducts his life. In selecting Osborne as the 1979 Midlands Man of the Year, The World-Herald has looked both at his coaching record and the outstanding example he sets both on and off the field.
These qualities were especially evident this past season: rebuilding a team that had suffered heavy losses into a championship contender, and his responses to such setbacks as what many thought was intentional injury to Jarvis Redwine against Missouri and the loss to Oklahoma.
In 1979 Osborne was rarely out of headlines, from the aftermath of the uproar created among he Cornhusker faithful when he considered an offer to coach at Colorado, the highly publicized recruiting season last spring, the excitement of the 10 straight victories leading to the Oklahoma loss, and finally through preparations for the Huskers' Cotton Bowl date New Year's Day.
A familiar subject from the past became last-season news when coaching-rival Switzer commented there must be some problems with the Nebraska offense after Osborne made a quarterbacking change from Tim Hager to Jeff Quinn for the final two games.
In other years the names have been different but the problems similar — Dave Humm and Steve Runty, Humm and Terry Luck, Luck and Vince Ferragamo — to complicate decisions for Osborne. Who should be the quarterback? The fans always have their favorites and the coach is often the goat.
Fans wondered this season as the production of the Husker passing attack dropped below previous standards despite the presence of Junior Miller, and All-American tight end, and fellow receivers Tim Smith and Kenny Brown.
Osborne's personal views of the 1979 team are favorable. “Probably the most rewarding thing is that the players responded well,” he said. “They really came close to playing up to their potential.”
The challenge to be met prior to the season included starting an untested quarterback as well as replacing four starters in the offensive line, a No. 1 draft pick at defensive end in George Andrews, two starting linebackers and two regulars in the secondary.
“I think we had a little better defensive team than last year, but it didn't end up as strong as we would have liked. Maybe we weren't as good on offense, but we've been very close,” Osborne said.
After last year's Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma, Osborne called that team the best he's coached. This team could rate similar praise with a successful Cotton Bowl.
“I hate to label anything until after we've played all our games, but it certainly has a chance to be as good as we've had since I've been coaching,” Osborne said.
Three times Osborne has marched to the threshold of a national championship. Each time his teams entered the final game of the regular season ranked second nationally in polls.
In 1975, a 10-0 team was a 35-10 victim at Oklahoma. Last year, the 9-1 Huskers were toppled by Missouri 35-31 only a week after getting their first win over Oklahoma since 1971. Then came the 17-14 loss last November.
“I really feel for the man,” said Husker center Kelly Saalfeld. “Nobody else in the state hurts more than he does when we come so close.”
When Devaney was replaced, even Osborne questioned (“very definitely”) whether he would be able to maintain the level of success. The challenge became more substantial, he said, when scholarship limits were reduced from 45 to 30 and the numbers of assistant coaches that can recruit on the road was cut.
“Bob took over a different type of program,” Osborne said. “There were good athletes here, but he definitely had to overcome a certain amount of interia. Overcoming the losing attitude was really a tremendous feat on his part. On the other hand, I benefitted from a lot of things he accomplished, at the same time operating under his fairly long shadow. Certainly all of his accomplishments really served us well.”
Osborne admirers can be found in all sizes and places in this state. Cornhusker players don't blush in expressing their respect. “I could write a book about him,” Saalfeld said.
Osborne's approach with the players steers away from an attitude of win at all costs. “He's one coach who doesn't ask you to win games,” Saalfeld said. “All he asks is that we play to the best of our ability. That's all a coach should ever ask of a player.”
Norm Peterson is an Osborne neighbor in Lincoln. During the recruiting season Peterson often aids Osborne with trips in his private plane. Each summer he joins the Husker coach for at least one fishing trip.
“He's a great fisherman,” Peterson said. “He once told me if he weren't a football coach he would like to be a fishing guide.”
From next door, Peterson says, “If there is one word that describes Tom it would be fair. In dealing with players, recruits and friends, he's just a very fair person.”
Sandy McLaughlin, Osborne's personal secretary, said, “I can't think of anybody I could work for and respect more than him.”
In the west, Gaston, the Grant coach, views Osborne as “a gentleman. When you talk with him you come away with a feeling of deep sincerity that he will do the best possible job, whether it takes 10 hours a day or 20 hours a day.”
Omahan Michael Finigan, 8-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Larry Finigan, met Osborne last summer at a Nebraska alumni vacation camp in Colorado. He displays an Osborne autograph on his bulletin board.
The young fan was asked what impresses him most about the Cornhuskers' coach. “When he loses a game he doesn't get real mad, and if he wins he doesn't get all excited about it,” Michael said.
Perhaps such insight is innocently formed. But it focuses directly on the Christian-Judeo beliefs that Osborne uses to keep his job in perspective.
“I guess it's very easy in whatever profession you are in, to make it an all-encompassing obsession to the point where it becomes the most important thing in your life,” Osborne said.
“My personal faith has enabled me to keep things more on an even keel. I'm more able to recognize the world hasn't come to an end when we lose a game. By the same token I realize we haven't accomplished all that much when we have a big win or do real well.”
Osborne sets aside time each week during the season to spend with his wife Nancy, son Mike, 14, daughters Ann, 12, and Susie, 9.
“It's pretty hard but we try to spend time, particularly Thursday evenings, together. We go to church together on Sunday and usually have dinner at noon. Other than that, it's kind of haphazard.”
Mike shares sports interests with his father, who made his name in the state initially as an athlete. Osborne, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Osborne of Hastings, was the first person honored as both The World-Herald's High School Athlete of the Year (1955), at Hastings High School, and State College Athlete of the Year (1958), at Hastings College.
“Mike plays football, basketball and participates in track,” said his father. “He likes athletics very much. I don't know what direction his interest might take, but right now he's very interested.”
Meanwhile, his father, Tom Osborne, has garnered yet another honor as The World-Herald's Man of the Year