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One of the nation's busiest and most important leaders flew to Lincoln last week to talk about leadership, and those who were lucky enough to pack Lincoln's Champions Club for a special edition of Football 101 left NU's campus with a unique understanding.
They learned how a Supreme Court Justice uses Nebraska football as a metaphor for life and why Clarence Thomas is so passionate about the sport that he would move to Lincoln "in a heartbeat" whenever the time's right for his curtain to come down in Washington, D.C.
Thomas, who won an intensely contested Senate confirmation in 1991, is not a Nebraska alumnus, but he just may be the Huskers' most famous fan - right up there with Dan Whitney, a.k.a. Larry the Cable Guy, a man he is proud to have met, so they could share their passion for faith, family and football.
A Georgia native, Justice Thomas has had a fascination with Husker football since he married Virginia Lamp, an Omaha native, 23 years ago. Never quite able to figure out why her parents, the late Donald and Marjorie Lamp, were such devoted Husker fans, he decided to dig a little deeper when Tom Osborne invited him to visit the Nebraska football offices while Thomas was teaching a one-week law school class at nearby Creighton in the mid-1990s.
Thomas knew "there was something underneath Nebraska football," he said. "Being able to talk to Coach Osborne that day, I found out it's about more than just football at Nebraska. It's about life."
A Hall-of-Fame coach connected with a Supreme Court judge using football as merely a bridge. "I didn't become a big fan of Nebraska just because Coach Osborne was winning all those national championships," Thomas said. "The things that attracted me the most were the graduation rates, the focus on academic support and an emphasis on Academic All-Americans."
Tyrance, Suh, Dillard All Positive Examples
Thomas marvels about the career of Husker linebacker Pat Tyrance, a member of the College Football Academic Hall of Fame. "After Nebraska, he went on to get his master's degree from Harvard and his doctorate from Harvard Medical School," he pointed out.
Tyrance's desire to go above and beyond in orthopaedic medicine defines and dramatizes Nebraska's twin pursuits of athletic and academic excellence. "Unbelievable," Thomas said. "To me, that defines Nebraska football at the highest level."
Thomas, in fact, can't recall talking to Osborne much about football the first time they sat down.
"It was about life, about leadership, about character, about doing what's right and how you live your life," Thomas said. "He was trying to get all of that into the overall context of athletics, so football really becomes a metaphor for something much larger."
Any good judge likes to see compelling evidence, and no member of the media had to introduce testimony for Thomas last week.
"Take Ndamukong Suh," Thomas said. "I met him when he was a young kid. Now look at him. I mean, he's a man, a person of character. He's a great football player, but there's so much more."
There's so much more because Bo Pelini and Osborne told Suh he could accomplish more if he came back for his senior season. "They didn't ask him to come back to help the team win," Thomas said. "They encouraged him to come back, so he could get better every single day in every imaginable way."
The road to redemption for linebacker Phillip Dillard is another favorite story for a man who analyzes Nebraska football practices and recruiting updates in between much weightier issues facing Americans.
"Look at what Phil went through and look at him now," Thomas said. "No one should ever question Coach Pelini's and Coach Osborne's shared philosophy. You have to bring the whole person for the team to get the whole benefit. You can't turn character on and off. It's off the field, and it's on the field, and it's just wonderful to follow as a fan."
Osborne: The Ultimate Victory Comes in Life
Thomas knows some programs are willing to win at any cost. "Then they have a price to pay," he said. "Coach Osborne and Coach Pelini have their priorities straight. When you do it the right way, on and off the field, you'll get victories, but the ultimate victory really comes in life."
No wonder Clarence Thomas unabashedly told a seminar attended by 130 that he uses Osborne's book, Beyond the Final Score, for guidance in leadership. He also draws from the work of Stephen Covey, who insists that "success is inseparable from character" and a successful person is defined as honest, generous, self-sacrificing and trustworthy.
"Without character, you cannot be a leader," Thomas said. "In my humble view, the leadership of others begins with the leadership of one's self. Each of us knows what our personal struggles are. Over the years, each of the self-improvement projects that we've undertaken began with an honest self-assessment."
His own process was not pretty. Thomas had to ask himself what he was doing that needed to be changed or improved upon. He had to set goals and objectives and track his daily progress. "I will not bore you with the litany of things that I needed to do, but all change and improvement begin with honest self-assessment," he said.
In his more than three decades in Washington and in his almost two decades on the Court, Thomas has faced countless challenges. He has made difficult decisions despite an endless assortment of criticisms and personal attacks.
Not surprisingly, one of the Court's most conservative jurists relies on his faith to do what he says is "the right thing in the right way and for the right reason."
Thomas doesn't put much stock in personal ambition and fulfillment. "Something more than our personal gratification is necessary to earn the right to lead others," he said. "It is not about us. To withstand universal condemnation, one must have a transcendent purpose, and personal gratification is too thin a reed to bear the weight of true leadership."
Best Leadership Trait: Practice the Golden Rule
Bottom line, Thomas has a firm view that leaders should adhere to the golden rule and treat others like they would like to be treated themselves.
Ted Gilmore, Nebraska's receiver coach and recruiting coordinator, thought Thomas' comments were right on. "Coach Osborne talks all the time in terms of treating people the way you want to be treated, whether you're pushing a broom or behind a desk," Gilmore said. "I remember a dear friend who once told me I would become a better football coach when he learned my wife was pregnant with our first child. When I asked him what he meant, he said: 'You're going to coach someone else's kid the way you'd want someone to coach yours.'"
Tim Clare, a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, supports a Thomas statement that true leaders need to be who they are in all facets of their lives - as professionals, parents, spouses and community leaders. "Character and integrity are absolutely essential, whether you're dealing with your family, your coworkers or people you don't even know," Clare said.
Thomas' message resonated and sparked nearly an hour of Q&A after he spoke. Later, he admitted that he's such a Nebraska fan that he has a Husker screen saver on his computer and an extensive wardrobe of shirts with an iconic "N". He also confessed to an after-hours fascination with the Huskers on the Internet. He justified the passion by pointing out that he does not golf, gamble, play tennis, party or drink.
"When I tell you that my wife is the love of my life, I mean it," he said. "She's a fan, she's involved, and she's a hoot."
Thomas refuses to let cynicism in news programs, movies and elsewhere block his view that good will triumph over evil. Growing up in a broken family as the only black kid in his school, he learned at a young age to look for areas of common ground rather than focus on differences.
"If you let people steal your positive attitude, you let them steal your joy," he said.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't arm yourself with a good sense of humor now and then.
A Famous Fan Comes Up with a Good Quip
Thomas, for instance, would like to attend the Nebraska-Texas game in October, and he insists he would come to Lincoln without rancor or an agenda. "I let bygones be bygones," he said. "I will, however, be the timekeeper, and I will make sure that the game will be 60 minutes, not 60 minutes and one second."
Delivering his punchline with an uproaruous laugh, a serious-minded jurist proved he can be a hoot, too.
Matt Penland, a two-time NU letterman linebacker (1990-92) and now the Huskers' team chaplain, enjoyed the way Thomas balanced his message on leadership and character with some wit, especially when it's coming from a man who says: "Show me a perfect person, and I'll show you a deluded person."
"You cannot give what you do not have," Penland said. "I liked how Judge Thomas pointed out that you cannot fabricate leadership, service or honesty. I also liked hearing him describe the inscription he wants on his tombstone - one that says: He tried to be a good and faithful servant."
Penland then repeated the question that Thomas asked in his speech when he shared his vision of wanting to be a good and faithful servant. "In the end," Penland asked, "isn't that what really matters?"
Voices from Husker Nation
Thanks for the great piece on Justice Thomas. The diversity of BIG RED fans never fails to astound. The real gist of the article, in my estimation, is the references to what has always made NU different when it comes to the long-time commitment of developing quality people and, even more importantly in my opinion, that which makes Nebraska and NU unique. Bo Pelini understands what all is involved with state pride, the walk-on program, storied weight programs and other aspects of tradition. He gets that NU football is an institution in and of itself, and that's why there's no doubt he will be successful for a long time. GO BIG RED. John Floro, a 50-year, Nebraska-born fan now living in Chouteau, Oklahoma.
Loved the article on Clarence Thomas. What an awesome day that must have been. A great man appreciating and recognizing what makes Husker football what it is. I have lived in Arizona for 25 years now, but I still bleed Husker Red! Terri Fisher, Scottsdale, Arizona
Count me as surprised to see a Supreme Court Judge admitting he's a hard-core Husker fan. Wouldn't it be fun to see him waving to the crowd from Larry the Cable Guy's suite in the West Stadium? Everyone would see how diverse our fan base really is. Let's Git'R'Done! Dan Johnson, Missoula, Montana
Thanks for that wonderful article on Justice Thomas. It is great to hear that others appreciate the principles of Coaches Osborne and Pelini. I am proud to be a fan of this program. Go Big Red! Lennae Seevers, Omaha, Nebraska
I enjoyed your story on Justice Thomas. Great work! J Leroy Brandt
Thanks for the article on Judge Thomas. It brought out why we all love Nebraska so much - not just the winning, although that is wonderful, but it is the young men that come from the program. Deanna Grindle
I loved the article about Judge Thomas. It is good to know that a Supreme Court judge is such a big fan of Nebraska football. He sounds like a quality guy with exceptional ethics and character. Dennis McCarty, Grand Island, Nebraska