Osborne: Dean of Nebraska’s ‘Fortunate 500’
Randy York's N-Sider
Even though he rubs shoulders with Warren Buffett and has served on the boards of countless successful businesses, Tom Osborne takes a back seat to few, if any great Nebraskans, even one that heads a Fortune 500 company ranking ahead of Ford Motor, AT&T and Apple. When Osborne wrote a book entitled Beyond the Final Score, Buffett endorsed the contents with this quote: "When most people think of Tom Osborne, they think of a great football coach. When I think of Tom Osborne, I think of a man of character who quietly but effectively improves the lives of everyone he encounters."
In this, the 50-year anniversary celebrating 325 consecutive Nebraska football sellouts at Memorial Stadium, it seems only fitting that Saturday's game against Minnesota represents a milestone of epic proportion - one that goes well beyond the Fortune 500. Saturday is the 500th college football game in which Osborne has been either a head or an assistant coach on the sideline or sitting in the athletic director's suite in the North Stadium. Let the record show that whenever Osborne has been directly involved with Nebraska football, the Huskers have compiled a record of 403 wins, 91 losses and 5 ties.
It may be true that time changes everything, but time never left Osborne alone or unsuccessful since he first stepped on the field as an assistant to the legendary Bob Devaney in 1962. For some of us, 50 years with Tom Osborne seems like the Indianapolis 500. If time flies when you're having fun, it hits the afterburners when you see it at sunset. Tom Osborne has been the alter ego of Nebraska, a university and a football program for five decades. As a Hall-of-Fame coach and an athletic director that restored the order, Nebraska has won more college football games than any other Division I program over the past 50 years and is the only school in NCAA history to sell out its stadium for a full half a century
Integrating Athletics and Academics
Such success begs two thoughts: 1) Why has Nebraska become the standard by which all other programs are measured? and 2) Why is Osborne such a great leader that made a decision nearly 50 years ago to pursue athletics over academia? Clifford Hardin, Nebraska's chancellor at the time, told Osborne he had the ability and the vision to become the president of the University of Nebraska. Bob Devaney, NU's head football coach at the time, told Osborne he had the ability and the vision to succeed at the major college level. When he earned his doctorate in Educational Psychology, Osborne knew he had to decide which way to go. He chose athletics, thinking perhaps that it would be easier to integrate academia into athletics than it would be to integrate athletics into academia.
Faith and principles drive every leadership bone in Osborne's body. He's bright, articulate, disciplined and consistent. Even at 75, he's like an Eagle Scout. He's always prepared ... for anything. It's not a stretch to compare Tom Osborne with John Wooden, a man he considered to be both a friend and a mentor. Both coaches were remarkable winners, but neither was driven by winning itself. Like Wooden, Coach Osborne is an incredibly strong listener, a lost art indeed in a Facebook, Twitter-kind of world. When Tom Osborne talks, people listen, and when they talk, he listens, not just to hear, but to understand how they think, so he can base his decisions on disciplined logic and common sense analysis.
Coach Osborne loved his players, and they loved him - from the Heisman and Outland Trophy winners to the walk-ons who rarely played but gave everything they had to be part of something extraordinary. Coach knew those walk-ons personally and respected the sacrifices they were willing to make. He knew their parents and often would ask how they're doing. Coach was instrumental in every player respecting the role he was given, so he could set the tone for others. No one wanted to let their coach down. Players from the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s will tell you how Osborne prepared them for life every bit as much as he prepared them for football. Let the record show that no one in college football history has averaged more than 10 wins and fewer than 2 losses over 25 consecutive seasons.
Delivering an Historical First
Four words spring to mind looking at Osborne's quarter-century record of 255 wins, 49 losses, 3 ties and 3 national championships ... unheard of ... historical first. It's going to be a long time before another coach wins 60 of 63 games and 3 national championships and has 1 national runner-up finish in the same 5-year span. Coach was never driven by fame, fortune, power or greed. A large portion of what he earned as a head coach was shared consistently with the staff that supported him. That's part of the reason why his assistant coaches were just as loyal to him as his players were. They would all run through a wall for Coach Osborne.
Coach has written books that carry titles reflective of his view on life: Beyond the Final Score: There's More to Life than the Game; More Than Winning; Secrets to Becoming a Leader; Faith in the Game: Lessons on Football, Work and Life; On Solid Ground. I carry in my briefcase a pocket-sized version of Coach's Secrets to Becoming a Leader book, and it includes a quote from Wooden on the front cover: "Tom Osborne has always gone beyond the final score, achieving competitive greatness with integrity, hard work, selfless sacrifice and strong faith," the late legend said. In other words, Osborne knows what matters most, and it's a big part of his legacy.
After serving three terms as a U.S. Congressman representing Nebraska's third district, Osborne returned to his alma mater as athletic director in 2007. Within months he brought together every employee in the athletic department so each had a voice in forming a mission to serve student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans. When you work with Coach Osborne and for him, you see on a daily basis how he applies those five values and why they equal success. While some might see Coach as fairly set in his ways, that's an endorsement, not an indictment because he's always listening, analyzing, doing his homework and coming up with solutions that are both innovative and stand the test of time.
Looking back at Coach's decade-by-decade contributions, one can't help but marvel at how he met all the challenges and still managed to have such incredible balance in his own life. He has one speed - full-steam ahead - yet always appears calm and at peace. He meditates every morning and spends meaningful time with his wife, kids and their families - from weekends at the family farm with wild turkeys and favorite fishing spots to lifetime memories on a South African safari. Such experiences explain why he's never in a hurry, yet always focused on something that will benefit the athletic department, the university, the state or society as a whole.
Knowing When to Go Outside the Box
Coach Osborne doesn't just write books about lessons in leadership and life. He lives by the same wisdom he writes about. He's the kind of leader who stays inside the box when it's the right thing to do, but he's more than willing to go outside the box when he thinks it's required. The way he's resurrected Nebraska's athletic facilities is testimony to his leadership. With systematic innovation, he's led the charge to build the new Dick and Peg Herman Family Student Life Complex and, at the same time, give Nebraska football and basketball extreme makeovers. His leadership also has benefited almost every other sport with meaningful improvements that enhance recruiting.
The TeamMates mentoring program that he and wife Nancy started 21 years ago began with a recommendation, was based on a simple question he asked his football team and became a reality when 22 players volunteered. The program now has 100 chapters in 120 communities serving more than 6,000 students from grade school to high school - in both urban and rural areas. It's an outgrowth of a vision Osborne inherently understands because his grandfather had a mentor that shaped his family's life. Coach knows the ripple effect a mentor can create and believes strongly in doing something for someone who can't do anything in return.
Like Steven Covey, the author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Coach Osborne always has believed in beginning with the end in mind, and it seems no small coincidence that he envisioned something beyond the 2013 last major expansion to Memorial Stadium. Included in that new East Stadium will be significantly large areas to accommodate two major research initiatives - one that the University of Nebraska will oversee and the other that NU's Athletic Department will direct. One of the first athletic research projects in Big Ten Conference history will be a game-changing monitoring system for strength and conditioning training.
Seeing Something Before Anyone Else
Nebraska is recognized as the Father of American Athletic Strength and Conditioning Training. The reason the Huskers own that honor is because a young assistant coach proposed to his head coach that Nebraska be the first collegiate or professional football team to hire a strength coach. Osborne walked into Devaney's office with Boyd Epley, who convinced Devaney that hiring him made sense - mainly because Osborne's research was behind it. A half century later, a visionary Osborne is as relevant today as he was in the 1960s, begging this question: Could there be a more meaningful milestone for one of the greatest leaders of our time?
We don't think so, and that's why Nebraska honors a man Saturday on his 500th game in the midst of 50 consecutive years of sellout crowds. Tom Osborne is the Dean of Nebraska's Fortunate 500 - a position that even Warren Buffett would choose not to challenge.
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