Countdown to the Big Ten: Q&A with Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne
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Q: Even though athletics gets the biggest headlines in Nebraska's move to the Big Ten, wasn't academics the biggest driver for such monumental change?
A: I was probably focused more on the athletic side of it, but there's no question that Harvey Perlman and the academic community were very cognizant of the academic advantages to the Big Ten Conference. That certainly received my attention as well because there is no question that Big Ten schools carry quite a bit of academic clout. The Big Ten has a cooperative endeavor to work together and share research. Of course, the CIC (Committee for Institutional Cooperation) is the academic research arm of Big Ten schools. It does cooperative purchasing, such as software and other materials that get the full weight of the Big Ten Conference, allowing members to purchase at more reasonable rates than if you were going it alone. So overall, I think the value of the academic benefits probably outweigh the value of the athletic benefits.
Q: Go back a year. What do you remember most from secretive discussions and clandestine meetings with Jim Delany?
A: I guess I remember best the meeting Harvey (Perlman) and I had with Jim (Delany) and a couple of other people from the Big Ten at an off-site location where we, more or less, found each other out. Jim Delany was interested in Nebraska, but he wanted to know a little bit more about us. We were interested in the Big Ten, but we wanted to know a little bit more about them. So that meeting lasted about three hours. By the end of it, we felt pretty comfortable with the Big Ten. We felt they were pretty much headed in the same direction that we wanted to go. Harvey and I both left that meeting feeling we knew what we wanted to do. We didn't know what the Big Ten was going to do, but we thought we might have made a favorable impression on them.
Q: Would you compare and contrast the general fan reaction today - one year later - with the feedback you received immediately before and after the announcement?
A: My assumption at that time was that we might have a bit of a hard sell with maybe 30 or 40 percent of our fans. I thought more would certainly favor than oppose, but it seemed like about 90 percent of our people embraced the move right from the start. The ones who seemed to embrace it the most were our head coaches. In a private meeting, 100 percent of them voted to go to the Big Ten. I'm sure each one of them had his or her own reasons. I tried to present the facts objectively. I didn't try to sway them one way or another. I just said that it looks like we're going to have this opportunity, and I didn't want to do this if they weren't supportive and didn't want to do it. The way the coaches felt about it was probably the biggest thing with me.
Q: You and Harvey Perlman were a united force in getting this invitation and then receiving unanimous Board of Regent approval. Did you think that was possible so quickly after the Big 12 issued its ultimatum, and do you think the Big 12 was surprised when you came back with your answer?
A: I really don't know what their perception was. They were in the position where things were on the verge of really falling apart in a way that you couldn't put it back together. So I guess there might have been a little surprise on some of their part. I don't really know, but I do know this. There were an awful lot of them that given the same opportunity would have done the same thing we did. That would even apply to some of the schools further south.
Q: On July 1, when Nebraska officially becomes a member of the Big Ten, what will you do to commemorate the occasion?
A: It will be a significant change. It's probably something that will probably last for the next hundred years, I would imagine, or maybe even beyond that. So it's something you don't do lightly. I've had people, mostly from Big 12 country, who said: "Well, are you doing this because you're mad at Texas or because you lost the Big 12 championship?" Believe me, you don't make a decision as momentous as this, based on some slight or irritant or whatever it may be. Hopefully, we looked at it and thought it through, and we've done it for the right reason.
Q: What's your take on the AAU voting Nebraska out of its organization?
A: It was something we have no control over, but the timing was interesting. I guess the metrics that are somewhat disturbing are that Nebraska is a much stronger research university today than it was in 2000, the last time university status was evaluated. We've increased the percentage of growth in research faster than the majority of schools in the AAU over the last 10 years and yet at this point, they decided to eliminate us. It is what it is. The primary mission of this university is ag research. We're an agricultural state. To say we're not going to count agricultural research when we add up the research dollars seems a little preposterous, particularly when you look up the world population that is continuing to escalate. There is a limited amount of land and a limited amount of fresh water, so if all of those people are going to be fed as time goes on, ag research may be way more important than all of those other kinds of research combined, just in terms of survival. So why they (the AAU) would exclude that, I don't know. Then, of course, the idea that a medical school that by name is a part of your university and you get credit for all of the medical school research, but it doesn't count in the AAU because we've structured our medical school as a separate entity ...that's also difficult to understand. If you count Nebraska's ag research and our medical research, we would be very, very prominent among AAU universities, but we don't get credit for either. I guess those are the vagaries of the way people have chosen to structure the AAU. I don't think it (the ouster) has anything to do with the quality of the university.
Q: Would you explain why you think Jim Delany is such a powerful leader in intercollegiate athletics?
A: Jim is very knowledgeable in regard to television networks and television contracts. He's very much on the inside in terms of negotiations with the networks. Of course, he's been the Big Ten Commissioner for quite some time now, so he's not a newcomer. He knows the territory. He's articulate, and he's in Chicago where there's a lot of media, giving him the chance to have quite a bit of influence nationally.
Q: Shifting gears a bit, what's your take on the Justice Department wanting answers from the BCS?
A: Apparently, the Justice Department has filed an inquiry or a complaint against the BCS organization. The questions seem to be pointed at the six conferences that get an automatic berth and those that don't. I think that can be solved fairly easily by saying at the end of the year, you take the final BCS rankings and the top 10 teams and wherever you're from, you're in and the top two teams go to the national championship game. The other eight teams go to the other four BCS games. Of course, some of the individual conferences aren't going to be excited about that if their champion doesn't finish in the top 10, but I think that would be one equitable way to solve the situation. There are years when some BCS conferences don't have a school finish in the top 10. But in terms of polls and computers and everything else, that seems to be the fairest solution to me.
Q: Everyone, including those who have been in the Big Ten for a long time, see Nebraska's first-year schedule as the toughest in league history because it begins with Wisconsin and Ohio State and includes back-to-back road games at Penn State and Michigan in November. Mind sharing your thoughts on that?
A: With the divisions and the cross-over games, we knew we were going to end up playing Penn State and Michigan. We also knew that we would play two of five additional teams in the other division - Indiana, Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State or Wisconsin. The two they gave us were Ohio State and Wisconsin. In terms of what happened last year, those are the two toughest draws we could have had (Wisconsin and Ohio State shared the Big Ten championship with Michigan State, and both played in BCS bowls). We had already beefed up our schedule somewhat with Fresno State and Wyoming, which are not automatic wins at all and still have Washington on our schedule, so top to bottom, it's a very difficult schedule.
Q: What kind of economic impact will Nebraska have on the Big Ten and how much value do you think the athletic department immediately brings to the league?
A: I'm not privy to a lot of the numbers, but the Big Ten Network has estimated that just the state of Nebraska alone can bring in about $7 million a year to the Big Ten Network. That doesn't address Nebraska fans that live outside of Nebraska. The Big Ten Championship football game, I'm guessing, will probably pay out about $25 million. I don't know if we can claim sole responsibility for that $25 million, but without 12 schools, you can't have a game. And there will be more high-profile games that will be nationally televised, including Nebraska-Michigan, Nebraska-Penn State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Nebraska-Ohio State and Nebraska-Iowa. All of those games will have a fair amount of value, and maybe some other ones, too, I don't know. I think Jim Delany has been able to get some added revenue from the television networks. Although current contracts are in effect and don't get renegotiated for awhile, they still may be getting some added revenues. I don't know what the total would be, but if you add all of that up, I think we bring considerable value to the league.
Q: You said Jo Potuto had an impressive presentation at the most recent Big Ten meeting. She attends your executive staff meetings. What makes her an effective Faculty Athletic Rep?
A: She's very bright and has a very good legal mind. She has a breadth of experience on NCAA committees. Some people would shy away from those, but Jo welcomes the opportunity to serve on various committees, so she has a great understanding of how the NCAA works. Whenever there's a discussion regarding NCAA rules, regulations and procedures, she is very knowledgeable, and I believe she adds a great deal to whatever conference she's in, whether it's the Big 12 or the Big Ten.
Q: We're expanding our football stadium, building new basketball practice facilities and will be anchor tenants in the new downtown arena in 2013.With these and other dramatic improvements in facilities, where will Nebraska rank overall in the Big Ten?
A: It's hard to quantify because everyone has something that's exceptional, We don't have hockey, of course, but I would imagine that our baseball facility will be as good as anybody's, and I think our basketball facilities will be as good as anybody. Our football stadium is not as large as three others, but with the East Stadium expansion and being sold out all the time, we'll be very competitive financially with the larger stadiums. The volleyball venue will certainly be as good as anybody has. Overall, I think we'll be pretty well positioned.
Q: Can you elaborate on what the Nebraska Athletic Research Center might become when space is built in the expanded East Stadium?
A: There would be two areas of research - one that would be dedicated to MRI research and will be accessed by seven or eight different departments on campus academically. And then in the athletic research area, we can envision some nutrition research and some performance-based research, such as how you enhance recovery time and how you build speed and strength more quickly and more efficiently, and that may interface with nutrition. There also might be some research on equipment - how you build a better helmet, what you do with shoes to make them more stable, yet lighter and faster. There might even be some research that relates to the mental aspects of athletics, things like focus, concentration and vision. It's all a little vague right now, but we'll be trying to get it built up and committed to in the next year or two. Athletic research has a lot of potential, and, of course, innovative software probably will be a crucial component of that research.
Q: Across the board, what are we expecting in our first year in the Big Ten?
A: It's all speculation, of course. That's why athletics is intriguing because there are no certainties. You have to go out there and do it on the field. We have pretty good baseball and softball teams returning, and I think we'll be competitive in both. The same applies to wrestling. Gary Pepin seems to have good track teams, and I would think we'll be competitive there, too. Of course, we think we'll be competitive in football, and I would think soccer would be competitive. Some of the outdoor, warm-weather sports will probably get a boost because they'll now be playing teams with similar weather patterns. Golf and tennis will both be on a more level playing field than they've been on. We'll be competitive in women's gymnastics. There was only one other school in the Big 12 in men's gymnastics, and now there will be seven others in the Big Ten. Of course, we will continue to be very competitive in volleyball, and I'm hopeful we can move up some in men's and women's basketball. We had a great year two years ago in women's basketball, and I think we'll improve a great deal this year. I'm hoping the same is true of the men. We've worked hard to position both programs for the future.
Voices from Husker Nation
I was pleased to read that Coach Osborne mentioned Husker fans that live outside of Nebraska. There are thousands of us. A good example was the Washington football game last fall in Seattle. I was impressed at how many of us were there. Red was everywhere. Believe me, Husky fans were surprised when we took over their city. We support the move to the Big Ten completely and will be watching BTN from now on. Go Big Red! Mary Ellen Poppe, Puyallup, Washington
Every time I read what Tom Osborne has to say, I'm thankful he's our athletic director. If he wasn't in that role, there would have been no need for a governor's proclamation to commemorate Nebraska joining the Big Ten. Steve Johnson, Lincoln, Nebraska
Tom Osborne has Nebraska well positioned for the future. He always takes care of detail, so we will be competitive right away. More importantly, we will be in a league that shares our values. That's why I believe all the head coaches gave a unanimous thumbs up to join the Big Ten. Go Big Red! Stacy Murphy, Wichita, Kansas
Tom Osborne earned his doctorate degree in the 1960s and has done all the right research to help his alma mater get invited to the Big Ten. What a blessing to have his wisdom as athletic director. Chancellor Perlman made a smart decision to hire him, and we can only hope he remains AD for at least five more years. No matter how we do in the first few years of this wonderful new league, we will need his kind of steadiness and stability to keep moving forward. Jeff Wagner, Denver, Colorado
Enjoyed reading T.O.'s overview on the money we help bring in to our new conference and the power of our brand on national TV. I have good friends who are Mizzou fans. They're well aware of Nebraska's athletic advantages, but didn't fully understand what we have going academically and research-wise. Too bad the AAU didn't invite Osborne to weigh in before they took a vote. Maybe then they wouldn't have disgraced themselves with ridiculous metrics and petty jealousies. Keith Miller, Warrensburg, Illinois
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is so fortunate to have so many dedicated, talented and loyal people. Those people put the interests of student/athletes and fans/supporters first - an approach that has spelled S-U-C-C-E-S-S. Go Huskers! Joseph P. Sokolovsky, Fremont, Nebraska
I listened to Tom Osborne last night on his radio show. He did a thorough job of explaining the compliance issue regarding student-athletes buying extra books for their courses. Even though it was an unintentional error and no one really benefitted, Osborne took full responsibility and did the right thing - he took it upon himself to report the violation to the NCAA. I think most of today's leaders would have kicked that issue right under the rug, and very few probably would have known it even happened. Osborne has always been a man of character, and his integrity reflects in everything he says or does. I'm glad he's the one leading us into the Big Ten, where we will excel both on and off the field. Dennis Huber, Omaha, Nebraska