T.O. Leaves a Legacy, Takes on Next Challenge
Randy York's N-Sider
We knew this day was coming, and Thursday, June 27, 2013, is historic – Tom Osborne’s last official day with the Nebraska Athletic Department. The Hall-of-Fame coach, three-term Congressman and NU athletic director for more than five years is moving on to his next challenge – finding and training 3,500 new mentors for TeamMates, the program that he and wife Nancy co-founded and launched in 1991. The N-Sider asked T.O. to reflect on the past and share his vision of the future. Please feel free to join our conversation:
Q-1: Is this really your last week on the 4th-floor as Athletic Director Emeritus?
A: I’m not really good at sitting and just occupying space. I had some things to do these last six months, and that transition went very well, but it’s over and done with. I wanted to help on our research space in the East Stadium, but the physical space is pretty much on auto pilot. It will be completed on time. We hired Judy Burnfield as executive director for the National Performance Lab. I have great confidence in her. Doak Ostergard will be one of her right-hand people who helps coordinate the athletic research lab with the Athletic Department and also with Dennis Molfese in the Brain, Biology and Behavior (B3) Lab. He’s also very good at what he’s doing. We’ve come very close to getting all of the financing we need, so that’s also in good shape. All of our other priorities – the new basketball arena, the East Stadium expansion and the Devaney Center renovation – are on target. They’re all pretty much out of my hands at this point and all doing well, so the best thing I can do right now for Athletics is to step aside and get out of the way. I don’t want to be perceived as somebody hanging around beyond his time.
Q-2: There’s a light on here whenever you want to come back and use your office, but aren't you pursuing one of the most important goals of your life?
A: The area I can focus on and make the biggest contribution right now is TeamMates. We’re trying to grow from approximately 6,500 matches to 10,000 matches (mentors for kids). Our goal is to reach that number in three years, so it’s going to take a lot of effort to recruit mentors and raise funds to run the program. The average cost is $450 per match. It’s going to require nearly $5 million a year, and that’s each and every year, so it’s going to take some doing.
Q-3: When is your last day in the Athletic Department?
A: I’m committed officially until the end of June, but am taking some vacation time, so Thursday morning will be my last time in the office here.
Q-4: As you take on your next challenge, where will your office be located?
A: TeamMates has an office in Union Bank on East “O” Street, so that’s where I’ll be.
Q-5: What’s the best advice you can give to the student-athletes at Nebraska?
A: Athletics is a complex endeavor now. There’s the demand to win and there’s a financial demand. At the core of it all is turning people out of here who are much better for the experience and are well prepared to be productive citizens with certain values that are important to society. It takes time and effort to accomplish that, but as long as I’ve been around here, the focus has always been on the student-athlete, the academics, the coaches, the health, the life skills and all of those things, so I would assume that will continue to be the focus. You never want the athletic department to be an embarrassment or an albatross to the university as a whole. I think, for the most part, that athletics has carried its own weight over the years, and we expect that it will continue to do that.
Q-6: What's your greatest example of Nebraska Athletics pride?
A: The student-athlete part of the experience. I don’t know if we’re doing better than everyone in the country, but I think we’ve certainly done well meeting the needs of the student-athletes who have come here, and we’re doing it at least as well as the very best.
Q-7: What about Bob Devaney hiring you and choosing you to succeed him?
A: I wasn’t here before Bob came here, but we arrived on the campus within a matter of a couple of weeks of each other. I played a very, very minor role at the time he arrived. I was a grad assistant to begin with, but what Bob contributed most was a mindset. He always thought he could and should win, and his staff thought they could win, too. I think the previous mindset was more along the lines of “We might win occasionally, but we’re not expected to win”. That’s what Bob brought, and we were fortunate that there were some really good players here when he came. Bob changed the culture of the football team, and, of course, as the football team grew and became more successful, we added seats in the stadium and attendance grew. That made it possible to do a lot more for all the other sports here. Women’s sports started to take off in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s because Bob was always very open to seeing the women’s sports and the Olympic sports do well. His support of our women’s programs is a part of his legacy that probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Q-8: If Bob’s mindset was expecting to win, what was yours?
A: We had an emphasis on fundamentals, and we also had an identity. I think every successful organization has an identity. Ours was probably built on physical and mental toughness. It was the way we practiced for every game. The idea was that every game is a test of wills. When you watch games in the first quarter, it’s hard to tell what team is going to prevail. As the game progresses, eventually one team will begin to assert itself more and more. By the fourth quarter, one team or the other is basically superior. We tried to play each game hard in such a way in the first three quarters that we would prevail in the fourth. Our receivers blocked on every play. Our quarterback didn’t slide and didn’t run out of bounds. The quarterback was a football player just like every other guy on the field, and that was our identity. Our players understood it. Our coaches understood it, and our fans observed it. Some understood it more than others.
Q-9: Isn’t our fans' undying loyalty part of Nebraska football’s identity?
A: We only have 1.8 million people in this state. Every other state in the Big Ten has a much larger population base, and that was also a fact when we were in the Big 12. For us to be competitive, we need the devotion and the energy of our fan base. Of course, that support enabled us to do what we’ve done with our facilities. If we didn’t have that support, it wouldn’t have happened. The State Legislature, the Board of Regents and our Administration see us as an organization that is good enough to stand on its own. So we rely on that fan base every year to exist and to be competitive. There’s no question that the support we have is partly the result of the long-term success we’ve had. We haven’t been perfect. We’ve had our ups and downs, but over the years, we’ve gone the longest period without losing teams or teams with a .500 record.
Q-10: Do you plan to continue to come and watch Husker events?
A: I will try to come to as many games and events as I can. I’ll continue to come to the football games and plan to see as many basketball and baseball games as I can. Plus, I want to see some of our other sports whenever possible.
Q-11: What's your take on personally hiring Bo Pelini, Tim Miles and Darin Erstad?
A: Bo’s averaged nearly 10 wins a year now for five years, and not very many people have done that. He has a good squad coming back, and the schedule is a little more favorable than it’s been. His teams probably had the toughest conference schedules you could have in those first two years. So I think they’re in pretty good shape going forward. Everything I’ve seen of Tim Miles is very encouraging. He obviously has great energy, and he knows what he wants to do. He’s a very good recruiter. He has great organizational skills and, of course, relates well with the public. He really works hard at everything, and I appreciate everything he’s done. Darin had a very difficult schedule and lost a pitcher to injury early, and that cost him in some of those early games. If they could have won two or three of those early games, it would have made a big difference. If you look at the way they played Indiana in the final games of the Big Ten Tournament – and Indiana was a legitimate College World Series team – I think it showed that in just two years, we’re not very far off. I think Darin and his staff are doing a great job.
Q-12: How do you view our programs that have won a conference title?
A: Most all of our sports are doing quite well and seem to be positioned to be potential Big Ten champions with a break here or there. John Cook has already won a Big Ten title and will probably compete for one just about every year. Gary Pepin has won a Big Ten championship in the women’s indoor and in the men’s outdoor, and his teams have always been consistent threats to win conference championships. Dan Kendig has won two Big Ten championships in women’s gymnastics. Rhonda Revelle’s team made the Women’s Softball College World Series this year, and she’s obviously done great things over a long period of time. The women’s tennis program under Scott Jacobson won the Big Ten Championship this year. Connie Yori’s women’s basketball team finished second in the Big Ten and I think returns four starters from a team that made the Sweet 16. Stacy Underwood has done a good job helping our rifle team compete at the national level. Mark Manning has done some great things with our wrestling program, and I think moving to the renovated Devaney Center will help his recruiting. Championships aren’t the only measures of progress. Our women’s swimming and diving program, for instance, isn’t at a championship level, but they are making progress. I think all of our sports eventually will have the facilities to recruit at a high level, and I think we’ll do very well in many sports and hold our own in others. Our women’s bowling doesn’t compete in the Big Ten, but it did beat Vanderbilt for the NCAA Championship this year.
Q-13: Harvey Perlman and you helped Nebraska land in the Big Ten Conference. Can we revisit that decision and put it into context?
A: The situation we were in with the Big 12 was somewhat untenable. We had several schools openly talking about leaving and reading between the lines, there may have been an agreement between those schools and another major conference. They hit a stumbling block and it fell apart, but we didn’t know it was going to fall apart.
Q-14: What became the bottom line that made that decision so easy to make?
A: The Big Ten represented stability and academic excellence, so I don’t think there was a whole lot of choice concerning the option to go to the Big Ten. We weren’t going to stand around and watch a conference disappear with nowhere to go. I’m not sure all of our fans appreciated how important academics was in that decision, even though the decision also was predicated on a certain level of athletic accomplishment over the years as well. The move was made. I think it is a good fit, and I think we’ll know more as time moves forward.
Q-15: You see members of the Legends Poll as a good fit for the format that will replace the BCS in 2014. Do you have any interest in serving in that capacity?
A: I’ve had some casual conversations with people, but nothing formal.
Q-16: Lincoln is in a renaissance period with all kinds of construction and cranes filling the skyline. How would you describe what you’re seeing?
A: There’s a very healthy dynamic in Lincoln right now. Lincoln has a great group of young leaders who are very progressive. I see good things happening here. I think Innovation Campus, the new arena and the whole Haymarket Area will be keys to growth. The schools are good and unemployment is relatively low. The future looks bright, and I think the University of Nebraska Athletics is a significant part of that.
Q-17: As you move on, will you fish and hunt more than you already do?
A: I will certainly have more flexibility with my time; I don’t know if I’ll fish a lot more than I do now, but at least I’ll have the opportunity. I’ll probably put in 40 hours or more each week to do what we need to do with TeamMates. That will be a high priority.
Q-18: How do you view Shawn Eichorst succeeding you as AD?
A: He’s thoughtful, he’s organized, and he has plans for the Athletic Department. He’s not driven by ego and uses those around him well. He wants to get the job done, and he’ll do fine here.
Q-19: Shawn wants you around. Are you going to have any time to share?
A: I’ll probably drop in occasionally if Judy (Burnfield) or Doak (Ostergard) or whoever else might want my opinion. But to stay within NCAA rules, since I’ll no longer be an employee of the Athletic Department, I don’t know what I can do and what I can’t. I just know that I’ll help anybody and do whatever I can, if needed.
Q-20: Last question. Will you finally find the time to clean out the garage for Nancy?
A: (genuine laughter here) I think that still might be an issue.
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