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If you ever wondered why Nebraska recruits Kansas City so well in so many different sports, wonder no more. Tom Osborne, Nebraska’s legendary football coach, former U.S. Congressman and Athletic Director Emeritus, was the keynote speaker here Wednesday for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Inaugural Champions of Character Foundation Awards Luncheon. The Kansas City Convention Center’s Grand Ballroom was packed with 700 people at $100-a-plate. The audience included national NAIA award winners and local high school character heroes. Together, they gave Osborne a standing ovation before his keynote address and an equally enthusiastic standing O after T.O. shared his thoughts about the importance of integrity and character in whatever you do.
Just when it looked like the successful event was over, the NAIA’s executive director picked up the microphone one more time to address an audience that included the highest ranking executives representing Kansas City’s three major professional sports franchises (football, baseball and soccer). “The NAIA coaches recently passed something we wanted to share with you,” Jim Carr said. “The NAIA proudly announces today that our football championship trophy will now be known as the Dr. Tom Osborne National Championship Trophy.”
Osborne’s NAIA Roots Influenced Team Culture
The surprise announcement made complete sense. Osborne, after all, was a three-sport student-athlete at Hastings (Neb.) College, the same hometown school that his father, his grandfather and his son attended. Osborne played football and basketball and competed in track and field at Hastings College. He also played in the 1956 and 1958 NAIA Basketball Tournaments at Municipal Auditorium just down the street from the Convention Center.
Even though Osborne turned down a Nebraska football scholarship and a Husker basketball scholarship to compete in three sports at Hastings, he was his usual self-deprecating self in a pre-luncheon media session. Blair Kerkhoff, a national sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, asked Osborne about his NAIA experience, and Nebraska’s athletic director from 2007-2012 chuckled before describing what it was like to be a freshman facing one of the NAIA’s all-time leading scorers. “I was a 6-3½ post and Texas Southern had a guy named Bennie Swain, who was 6-9 or 6-10 and about 320 pounds,” Osborne recalled. “He dumped in 32 points on me, and I just felt terrible.”
NAIA Has 300 Colleges, 60,000 Student-Athletes
Kerkhoff had done his homework and reminded Osborne that Swain was an NAIA All-American who played for the Boston Celtics the next season. In its 76th season, the NAIA Tournament is the longest running basketball tournament in college athletics, and Osborne’s name is now on the organization’s national championship football trophy. Headquartered in Kansas City, the NAIA governs 300 college and university athletic programs, which have a combined 60,000 student-athletes in 25 conferences. They compete in 13 sanctioned sports and receive $450 million in athletic aid.
Osborne began his speech with classic time-tested humor to warm up the audience before sharing his substantive view of integrity and character. At one point, he described character as “what you do if you know nobody would find out. Character is a big deal,” he said, ranking it on equal student-athlete footing with intelligence and energy.
Honest Question Deserves an Honest Answer
Honesty is another important character trait, and Osborne remembered Spencer Tillman showing interest in attending the University of Nebraska. When an NU academic counselor asked Tillman what he wanted to major in, he said Petroleum Engineering. “Then the best place for you to go is probably the University of Oklahoma,” the academic counselor replied.
Osborne recalled playing for the San Francisco 49ers and seeing his own teammates follow orders to “go for the knees” of Green Bay Packer center Jim Ringo. Osborne said if his coach was willing to take out an opponent, “he doesn’t care about us either.”
Positive Husker Environment Impressed Holtz
Nebraska’s Hall of Fame football coach shared a story about Lou Holtz calling him and asking if he could visit Nebraska during a bye week for Arkansas. “It was during the regular season,” Osborne pointed out. Before Holtz left LIncoln, he acknowledged how positive Osborne and his entire coaching staff were. “We had a positive environment,” Osborne said, “because we felt like it’s better to reinforce what a player is doing right than to attack what he’s doing wrong. When something goes wrong, no one feels worse than the player does.’’
Osborne finished his speech describing why he tried to balance Nebraska’s football culture in three ways, physically, intellectually and spiritually. He also shared a poignant moment about Bob Devaney in the final hours before his death. The two talked about relationships meaning infinitely more than any kind of championship.
NAIA Leader: Tom Osborne ‘Perfect for Us’
Carr, also the NAIA President and CEO, said Osborne embodies the association’s commitment to character and leadership development and exemplifies the NAIA’s five core values – integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership. “We could not have picked a better person or a better name to have on our National Championship Trophy,” Carr said. “Tom Osborne was perfect for us.”
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