Retiring AD Tom Osborne embraces all the leadership qualities that are still considered timeless.
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10 Qualities Make T.O. as Relevant as Ever

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Last week, Forbes Magazine published a major article that separates the dreamers from the entrepreneurs, and the bottom line was this: However you see yourself and whatever age you may be, you have to remind yourself of the leader you are and of the leader you would like to become. The contributing writer then credits research for defining the top 10 qualities that every good leader should possess and learn to emphasize. As I read through all 10 qualities, I realized something important: At age 75, Tom Osborne, who will retire as Nebraska’s athletic director on Jan. 1, meets the criteria for every quality. To me, that makes him as relevant in his retirement as he ever was as a teacher, a coach, a Congressman or an athletic director. Using past columns and current blogs, The N-Sider has decided to define Osborne’s relevance in each of the following 10 up-to-date categories:


This principle is easy to reinforce because John Wooden helped guide Osborne as both a coach and a man. I had the privilege to interview both legendary leaders in the same week nearly three years ago and learned why they were friends and in philosophical alignment. Both are very open about their faith. Both have a great ability to listen and care about others. Both believe that honesty is critical to be successful as teachers, coaches and mentors – roles both embraced with all of their heart and soul. Don’t just take my word for it though. Read an account from Omaha 4½ years ago when Huskers honored Osborne and called him  The 'Ultimate Boy Scout' because he’s all about duty, service and honesty, not to mention his penchant to “Be Prepared” in every daily task he takes on.


There was a purpose behind my calling Osborne the dean of Nebraska's 'Fortunate 500'. 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. He hasn’t done it by himself. He’s done it through his innate ability to delegate.


I wish all Nebraska fans could have seen and heard Osborne when he was the keynote speaker for one last legendary breakfast in Omaha. Some attendees have been listening to Osborne speak at such breakfasts for more than four decades. Others saw him for the first time. All connected with every word he said. Again, don’t take my word for it. Consider the kudos that came from current Nebraska male and female student-athletes earlier this month when they saluted their athletic director during Finals Week. Björn Barrefors, the 2012 Big Ten Conference decathlon champion, is destined to become the first Nebraska student-athlete to receive Academic All-American recognition four times during his career. “Coach Osborne has been so inspiring for me that I want to become more like him,” Barrefors told me. “He always does exactly what he says he’s going to do. He does that better than anyone else I’ve ever seen or met. What he’s shown me is you can be wildly successful and yet still hold onto the values that are important to you – like humility. He really is the best leader I’ve ever seen.”


There are countless examples to reinforce this specific trait, but I have two personal favorites that fit perfectly into this category. The first goes back nearly four years ago in an N-Sider entitled Good Reasons Behind Tom-Foolery and Bo-Jinks. Tom, of course, is Osborne, and Bo is Pelini. You have to read the column to get the full gist of Osborne visiting the football office to inform former linebacker coach Mike Ekeler about something he did when he recruited Will Compton – something that another Big 12 school had written the NCAA about Nebraska’s apparent violation of a rather obscure rule involving extra recruiting enticements. It’s a funny story, but no more hilarious than the one Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad delivered when he roasted and toasted Osborne for a remark when Erstad wanted to switch scholarships after his junior season. Erstad’s story ranks high on the laugh meter, and Osborne was a good sport for other Nebraska staffers who honored him in similar fashion.


Confidence is a pivotal part of why I call Tom Osborne THE standard for coaches and ADs. I’ve never seen anyone so humble walk into a room and command it, even when the sound is silence. Osborne doesn’t have to say anything to get anyone’s attention. He radiates respect, and he’s earned it because of the way he sees the world, operates in it and manages to stay above the fray. In politics, he would not compromise his principles, and he would not change his position on something just to gain extra percentage points in a media poll. I worked in Corporate America for more than 22 years and in my opinion, there are very few leaders with Coach’s commanding combination of confidence, competitive drive and character-based leadership.


There is no question what N-Sider captures the essence of Tom Osborne’s definition for commitment. We wrote how Nebraska fans could help T.O. ride off into the sunset before he joined Bo Pelini and 29 seniors in their final Tunnel Walk in the regular-season finale against Minnesota. Former Husker quarterback Steve Taylor said Osborne kept coming back to Nebraska to make things right. “Coach Osborne reminds me of the lead character in the movie Shane, who keeps riding off into the sunset until someone needs him, so he keeps coming back to save lives and help people who need help. That’s what Tom did at Nebraska. Like Shane, he came back, put the program in his hands and revitalized it. That’s what he’s done all his adult life – keeps coming back to the people he loves, the program he loves, the university he loves and the state he loves.” Judging by the hundreds of responses we received on this column, those fans love Tom Osborne, too.


We have an N-Sider that accurately reflects this trait, and we go straight to the Osborne family to depict the importance of a constantly positive attitude. Mike Osborne describes his dad as tough but giving. He mentions how his dad went for two in the 1983 National Championship (1984 Orange Bowl) when a tie would have secured his first national title; how he co-founded the TeamMates Mentoring Program after witnessing the dissolution of the American family in his recruiting trips over the years; why he passed up two NFL head coaching offers to remain an influence in more impressionable young people’s lives; how he attended Seminary while playing pro football; why he helped former players, including loaning them money and expecting nothing in return; how he received scathing criticism from the national media during the Lawrence Phillips controversy yet hoped for a better outcome; how he refused pay greater than the highest paid academic position at UNL while he was head coach; why he reads his Bible at the beginning of every day and tithes to the church.


Tom Osborne has been so creative for so long and without fanfare that you tend to forget all the new wrinkles for which he is responsible in college athletics ... the I- formation in football, plus strength and conditioning training and a full-fledged walk-on program mainstreaming its way into an athletic department. All three innovative solutions came early in his career yet remain foremost in the grand scheme of things. Nebraska Associate AD Jamie Williams says Osborne has been such a productive Renaissance Man that now is the time for "The Sage" to laugh even more than he already does. Let’s also give credit to Bob Devaney, who was savvy enough to see Osborne’s progressive-minded strengths. That's why he hand-picked Osborne and empowered him to do whatever he needed to separate Nebraska from other NCAA institutions. All Osborne has done is to help enable Nebraska's unparalleled academic success, plus the Huskers' leadership in life skills, nutrition and athletic research. All are the result of Osborne's relentless push to be a pioneer in support areas that connect total-person development with consistent performance and overall innovation. 


We all know there’s no roadmap to lead a team through uncharted waters, so Fortune Magazine is right. The higher the risk, the higher the pressure, and that’s where your natural intuition has to kick in. Osborne’s first national championship team in 1994 is a classic case in point. When Tommie Frazier had blood clots, Osborne turned to a walk-on quarterback from Goodland, Kan. And Brook Berringer's influence went far beyond the masterful performances he put together on the road to a moon over Miami. Berringer’s power and spirit on that team carried over to third-team walk-on quarterback Matt Turman, who started at K-State and kept the Huskers’ unbeaten season going despite playing with a collapsed lung. Osborne never has allowed his name to be put on Memorial Stadium’s artificial turf even though it is officially called Tom Osborne Field. When Osborne took down a bronze bust and other personal salutes to him inside the Athletic Department when he became AD, employees understood. Fortunately, the statue in front of the North Stadium Complex was never moved because Berringer is a big part of it. Check out Osborne and Ron Brown remembering Berringer 15 years after a game that showed the nation why Nebraska could still win a national championship with its backup quarterback. Then take the time to watch Brown's video installments as well as Osborne's remembrances of Berringer. Let’s add one more intuitive influence that connects Osborne/Brown not only to Nebraska football, but college football: Husker Captain Stan Parker, who helped bring pregame prayer to the field when Nebraska once hosted Oklahoma. Osborne's own faith matches up well with his intuition. Who will ever forget his legendary role that moved Nebraska out of its historical roots and into the Big Ten, the nation's oldest intercollegiate athletic conference? In a game of big boy chess, Osborne asked an important question and when the answer wasn't clear, his principles enabled him to use his intuition to produce a solid long-term solution that fits Nebraska athletically, academically and culturally.


As a Hall-of-Fame football coach, a three-term Congressman and an athletic director who squeezed 15 years of accomplishments into a little more than five years, Osborne’s solid values have never fallen out of fashion. His optimism, hard work and strength of character are timeless and enduring. He can spot talent and nurture it. He’s equally effective as a strategist and a tactician. He doesn’t judge people when they fail or fall flat on their face. He analyzes how they handle failure, how they show resilience and how they see and reinforce strength in others. He takes a genuine interest in every level of those who work around him and is the best listener of any leader I’ve ever seen. He’s a staunch believer that everyone’s work matters and each contribution is bigger than you or your salary. Because of all of that, it should come as no surprise that the N-Sider offers up two stories this week that graphically paint portraits of Tom Osborne’s remarkable ability to inspire players even after they’ve fallen so far, a rescue seems like a long shot. Take the time to read Against All Odds: The Budge Porter Story and Power of Redemption: A Big Osborne Legacy for Ricky Simmons, the second leading receiver on Nebraska’s 1983 NCAA record-setting Scoring Explosion team. Porter, a quadriplegic, and Simmons, a drug addict who went to prison three times, inspired Osborne, and more importantly, you’ll learn how Osborne still inspires them.

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