Tom Osborne's wife, children and grandchildren were all on the field for Saturday's tribute.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Mike Osborne on Dad: ‘Tough but Giving’

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

Mike Osborne, Tom and Nancy Osborne’s only son, describes his dad as a cross between John Wayne and Mother Teresa. “He can appear tough and gritty on the outside, but he’s kind and giving on the inside,” Mike said.

Last Saturday, when the Osborne family gathered at midfield for one final regular-season salute while their husband, dad and grandfather is still a full-time employee of Nebraska’s Athletic Department, Tom Osborne watched a video with 85,000 of his closest followers.

In this particular experience, he was more Mother Teresa ... humble, contemplative and uncomfortable watching others put him on a pedestal. “I think we might have overdone it,” Tom Osborne said later. “A lot of people said an awful lot of nice things. I sure hope they’re true.”

Let the record show that Mike Osborne believes they’re all true. “There are so many things I marvel at when I think about my dad,” he said, recalling how his dad fed bears salmon in order to appease them while using their fishing spot. He’s the only person I know who can stay in a boat fishing 10 hours without needing to ‘go’,” Mike added. “He can even drive down I-80 while ‘resting his eyes’. I don’t know how he does it, but he can see through his eyelids.”

Mike said the John Wayne in his dad doesn't blink at tempting fate in an aluminum boat during a lightning storm. “I also remember him calling a recruit minutes after waking up from triple bypass surgery and before he even spoke to anyone in our family,” he said.

Mike Has Examples to Prove His Point

Yes, Mike Osborne sees a balance between his dad’s tough side and his gentle side. “If a person’s greatest test in this life is to try to understand this world and love his fellow man as God does, then I think my dad has succeeded as well as any person has,” Mike said before offering the following examples to prove his point:

Going for two in the 1983 National Championship (1984 Orange Bowl) when a tie would have secured his first national title

Founding the TeamMates Mentoring Program after witnessing the dissolution of the American family in his recruiting trips over the years

Working against allowing alcohol advertising for athletic events

Passing up two NFL head coaching offers to remain an influence in more impressionable young people’s lives

Attending Seminary while playing pro football

Helping former players, including loaning them money and expecting nothing in return

Enduring scathing criticism of the national media during the Lawrence Phillips controversy

Refusing pay greater than the highest paid academic position at UNL while he was head coach

Reading his Bible at the beginning of every day

Giving financial gifts and tithing to the church

Pointing out to each freshman football class that only one on average will have a career in the NFL, so they better take their class work seriously

Trying to make time for anyone who seeks him out

Enduring the frustration of Congress for six years when he could have been fishing

Traveling near and far to speak to youth, church groups and business men and women about values and integrity, even when he is “dead tired”

Refusing to take Nebraska Lottery money to support the TeamMates Mentoring Program

Striving for 22 seasons before winning a National Title, and then not changing one bit ... 

Refusing to take his head coaching salary as an annual pension from the Athletic Department after retiring

Refraining from swearing and yelling to motivate players (“I did hear him say ‘Crap’ at practice one time, but he denies it.”)

Stopping on the Interstate to pull a driver from a burning car when no one else would go near it

Refusing large corporate and individual donations to his political campaigns

Never complaining even privately about being the lowest paid athletic director in the Big 12 or the Big Ten (“My mom did all the complaining on that one)

Harboring no ill will toward his boyhood hometown voting for someone else (I do the harboring on that one. Just kidding. I still love Hastings)

Teaching Sunday School many times on top of working 80 hours a week

Turning over the head coaching reigns despite being at the top of his game in order to honor a promise he'd made six years earlier

Doing the dishes after dinner even after a long day at the office

“My dad is the same person at home that you see in public,” Mike said. “He doesn't do things for show except for maybe wash the dishes.”

Seriously, “My dad does not look to other people or prosperity for approval,” Mike said. “His primary concern is living a life according to the values found in the New Testament.”

The values that guide his dad “can be summed up by the example Jesus set when the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them,” Mike said. “Jesus said ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’ Jesus demonstrated this when He knelt down and washed each of their feet.”

Don't be fooled, however. “Charlie McBride (Nebraska’s longtime defensive coordinator under Osborne) can tell you my dad never washed his feet or anyone else’s feet,” Mike said.

Son Defines His Dad’s Servant Heart

Mike says his dad sees true leadership coming from someone with the heart of a servant ... someone who’s willing to sacrifice for the good of others ... someone who realizes that reward is not found in fame, fortune or power, but in the satisfaction of having strived to fulfill God's purposes for their life.

“Having the heart of a servant and acting with love for others is a choice and not necessarily an emotion or feeling,” Mike said. “I can't tell you how many times I've seen my dad be patient, giving, and gracious when I knew he was feeling tired and a little grumpy. Sometimes, my dad is so good it can make you sick, but everything I’ve said is the truth. That's how I see my dad as a leader. Because he’s a servant to his friends, his family, his university and the state he was born and grew up in, he’s worthy of honoring.”

The owner of the Best of Big Red, a Lincoln retail store and website that offers online shopping for Husker gear and memorabilia, Mike is so proud of his dad that he had two special T-shirts designed to commemorate Saturday’s one-moment-in-time tribute. One shirt is black, the other red. The black shirt calls his dad “Nebraska’s Native Son” and documents his major accomplishments. The red shirt calls his dad a Legend, Coach, Congressman, Athletic Director and Mentor.

“Dad didn’t want us to make a shirt, and he definitely didn’t want one to say legend because he thinks you’re never a legend until you die,” Mike said. “I had to remind him that Michael Jordan’s a legend, and he’s not dead. He still tried to discourage me from making the T-shirts, but when I told him that each shirt sold would benefit TeamMates, he backed off.”

Mike told his dad he wanted his favorite Bible verse printed on both shirts. Tom Osborne thought about it for a minute and then decided on 2nd Timothy: 1:7, which says: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline.”

Mike remembered that was the verse his dad used in the locker room before Nebraska walloped Florida, 62-24, in the 1995 National Championship Game in the Fiesta Bowl. Mike doesn’t know if his dad remembered that because he didn’t ask. “I was just glad that he gave the okay,” Mike said. “There’s no doubt that TeamMates was the deciding factor. He wants to find mentors for all the kids who need one, and so do we. That was a big factor in us wanting to sell them.”

Send a comment to (Please include current residence)

Follow Randy on Twitter at

Randy’s N-Sider Blog Archive

Randy’s N-Sider Column Archive



More News Sponsor - First National Bank


Tickets Sponsor - StubHub