The Eastside fans in Memorial Stadium combined to say it all Saturday: THANKS TOM.
Photo by Kelly Mosier

Now’s the Time for ‘The Sage’ to Laugh More

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

At the request of Bo Pelini, the coach he hired, Tom Osborne made one final Tunnel Walk Saturday. He cocked his head, squinted an eye and showed he still had some hop in his step as he jogged to the home bench one last time before retreating to the sanctity of the A.D. Suite in a North Stadium Complex that bears his and wife Nancy’s names. At halftime, he returned to the field with his wife, kids and grandkids to watch a series of video tributes they’d never seen, including Osborne’s own video-taped thanks so he could walk off the field and allow another NCAA record crowd to return its focus to the coaches and the players they paid to see.

It was an emotional, heart-tugging, tear-dropping sight for all loyal Nebraska fans that postponed concession breaks and rest room stops so they could see their beloved leader wave one last goodbye and make one final exit from a field that carries his name, yet has no such acknowledgement anywhere on it. There is, of course, a reason for that. Osborne believes Memorial Stadium should honor veterans, not coaches and especially if that coach is not named Bob Devaney, a Hall-of-Famer who hired, promoted and positioned another Hall-of-Famer for a 25-year head coaching run that became 14 years longer than his own.

Osborne strongly believes that Nebraska football is "much bigger" than he is. He's never lost sight of his predecessor’s greatest legacy – selfless devotion to an entire state that binds together with a vision and the resolve to be the nation’s best Division l program. Devaney was savvy enough to see Osborne’s progressive-minded strengths, and he hand-picked and empowered him to do whatever he needed to separate Nebraska from other NCAA institutions.

And Osborne has done that. Nebraska's unparalleled academic success, plus the Huskers' leadership in life skills, strength and conditioning, nutrition, athletic research and medicine, 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. 

Comedian as Important as Other Legends

Saturday afternoon, Nebraska showed video matinee “shout-outs” from all kinds of luminaries praising Osborne’s remarkable contributions to his home-state. Those thank-you tributes ranged from a Supreme Court Justice to a rascal of a rival coach from Oklahoma … from an athletic director who helped Nebraska become a member of the Big Ten Conference to a head football coach in his seventies (whose No. 1-ranked team was upset on national television a few hours later) … from an iconic two-time Outland Trophy winner that has a national award named after him to the school's first Heisman Trophy winner that also has an award named after him ... from a world-renowned billionaire/humanitarian to a slew of Husker legends that never got the chance to play in the Legends Division. Talk about a diverse range of influencers praising someone that influenced and still influences them.

We would be remiss, however, if we didn’t mention one video that made everyone chuckle Saturday. It was delivered by one of America’s most popular comedians, who introduced himself as Brad Pitt and ended his message with the revelation of his unique tribute to Coach Osborne – a tattoo painted on his chest in homage of his hero, even though he admitted he’ll probably never be able to show that tattoo to anyone.

Jamie Williams, the associate athletic director Osborne hired only months before announcing his retirement, believes Larry the Cable Guy’s video is every bit as relevant as tributes from Clarence Thomas and Barry Switzer, from Barry Alvarez and Bill Snyder, from Dave Rimington and Johnny Rodgers, plus business legend Warren Buffett and Husker legends Grant Wistrom, Tommie Frazier and Trev Alberts

Eyes were moist as fans reached for a Kleenex, and Osborne himself seemed well aware of the time machine moving with every step he took to get off the field. After an afternoon like that, Williams sees laughter as a strategic release and a long overdue benefit for a personal mentor who will leave his daily experience soon. While Osborne keeps and enjoys his unique brand of humor, Williams believes his boss's opportunity and need to laugh has never been greater. Yes indeed, after 50 years of heavy lifting as a Coach, a Congressman and an Athletic Director, the time has come for Tom Osborne to laugh a little more, if not a lot more.

Laughter Good Medicine for Next Chapter

Williams believes that Larry the Cable Guy, even if he does go “over-the-top” in the minds of many, may provide enough spiritual medicine to keep Osborne on task through life’s next chapter that focuses on finding thousands of new mentors for thousands of kids who need them. We’ll get to Williams’ thoughts and conclusion about his own mentor’s penchant for laughter at the end of this column, but let’s give Jamie the creative freedom to tee it all up.  

“First of all, Coach Osborne will always be tied to athletics and education, whether he’s fishing in South America or sitting in the A.D.’s chair,” Williams said of his boss’s impending retirement. “This is a transition from day-to-day duties to being more of The Wizard or The Sage. I don’t see him taking his wisdom or his knowledge away from what still can be done here. I know he’s not going to stop being a mentor for me and many others.

“Coach is wired to the University of Nebraska Athletic Department,” Williams said. “It has made him who he is, and he’s made it into what it is. He won’t have to make the tough day-to-day decisions anymore. That goes away, but his influence, I believe, will remain and perhaps even transcend his position and transcend time. He will always be the Nebraska Athletic Director Emeritus to me. Think about it. He coached me and many others back in our day. Yes, he stopped coaching against Oklahoma and Penn State, but he never really stopped coaching us. He’s still our coach, and he will always be our coach, wherever he is. He still takes our calls, and he’s still there for us."

Saturday had sudden impact as well as a long-lasting effect for fans smart enough to remain in their seats so they could visually communicate their gratitude with a simple Thanks Tom, followed by one last Go Big Red salute. They applauded, cheered and held cards in the air so the South, the North and the West Stadium fans, plus all of America, could see.

Even a Legend Enjoys Busting a Gut

“We will all begin to realize very soon that Coach will not be around here every day or on his radio show. The reality of that will sink in," Williams said. "We will realize that mankind is not immortal. We could only have Coach so long as a coach, and now we can only have him so long as an athletic director. From now on, we will enjoy every moment we have with Coach. He’s impacted so many people, directly and indirectly, that it’s almost beyond reason. I’ve told Coach he’s humble to a fault, and he doesn’t see his impact as deeply as we do.”

That’s a fact, and Williams enjoyed watching Osborne Saturday when he was in the stadium for the last time at a regular-season game as an employee of the athletic department. He loved seeing his coach honored with his wife, kids and grandkids surrounding him in the middle of the field. He also relished watching him walk off the field and seeing Ron Brown finding him and hugging both him and his wife.

Williams took great pleasure witnessing such a surreal scene. As the author of the movie script Any Given Sunday, however, Williams’ mind was also percolating with another thought that no one else would be thinking on such an emotional and eventful day – scenes that would be highlighted repeatedly on local, state, regional and national television.

“I kept thinking about last weekend when I attended Coach’s TeamMate Tailgate fund-raiser in Omaha,” Williams said. “I watched Coach almost the entire time when Larry the Cable Guy was roasting him. He was incredibly funny. I mean, he put something together on Coach Osborne that was beyond funny. It was hilarious and watching Coach’s reaction was priceless. I’ve never seen him laugh that freely, that deeply or that honestly. He was busting a gut at his own expense, and that made me think about how important it is to enjoy life and to relish the absurdity of it all.

Thank You Coach, Congressman and AD

“I thought to myself, we all should lighten up with our own families like Coach does with his,” Williams said. “Larry the Cable Guy was telling one gut-busting joke after another after another, and Coach was almost doubled over laughing at himself. To me, that was awesome to see him enjoy the moment. I think most of us have seen him as a coach, a Congressman or an A.D., where he had to be in deep thought and stay in strategic mode and fully focused.

“Over the last 50 years, we rarely got to see Coach totally enjoying the moment,” Williams said. “Even when he’s just won a national championship and they’re dumping cold water on him, he wasn’t smiling because he was still dialed in to what was required to get there. As I sat there and watched him bust a gut and listen to Larry the Cable Guy, the only thing that kept popping into my mind a week earlier than the actual live event was: “Thank you, Coach. Thank you, Congressman. Thank you, A.D. As far as I'm concerned, you’ve earned the right to bust a gut from here on out.”

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