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This Time, The Recruit Is ‘Visiting’ the Coach
Kris Van Norman, a self-described Nebraska small-town, classic overachiever, still remembers the first time he met Tom Osborne.
“In typical Coach Osborne style, he pulls up to my house in Minden in a station wagon, by himself,” Van Norman recalls. “He comes in, sits down in the kitchen, drinks a cup of coffee with my mom and dad and high school coach and tells us all why he’s offering me a scholarship. He was very low key and very unassuming.”
Van Norman, who is picking up Osborne at the airport Thursday when Nebraska’s athletic director flies into Houston to receive the Bear Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award, values Osborne’s low-key style. That’s why he refuses to tell us what kind of car he will be driving to shuttle Osborne to the Hyatt Regency Hotel for the awards banquet.
“Coach is still so unassuming, he doesn’t understand why I want to pick him up when I could be working, and he could be taking a cab,” says Van Norman, who organized two tables of former Nebraska players to support Osborne at Thursday night’s award ceremony.
The American Heart Association has sponsored the Bear Bryant College Football Coaching Awards since 1986. Osborne will be the ninth Bryant Lifetime Achievement winner, joining the likes of Darrell Royal, Frank Broyles, Lou Holtz and Bo Schembechler, last year’s winner.
Van Norman was a three-year letterwinner for the Huskers from 1980 to 1982.
Ex-Huskers and current Houston Texans Kris Brown and Ahman Green will both attend Thursday night’s banquet. So will All-Americans Doug Glaser and Broderick Thomas. In addition, Jamie Williams, who played 11 years as an NFL tight end, is flying from San Francisco to Houston to pay his respect to Osborne because “this is a big moment, and I want to be there for a coach who was always there for all of us.”
Williams still remembers the time Osborne invited him to watch the Super Bowl with him. “We played tennis together,” he recalls. “He talked about his kids with me. I’m driving right now to coach my daughter’s fifth-grade basketball game. I know what this award means. Coach Osborne knows X’s and O’s like the back of his hand, but for him, it has always been about life and enjoying the moment. He could have had that lifetime achievement award 10 years ago, 20 years ago. He has always cut his own path . . . in everything he does.”
Van Norman agrees. “Coach is all about character, discipline, hard work and ethics,” he says. “He doesn’t take shortcuts, and he doesn’t compromise values. He’s the same whether he’s in front of the bright lights, cameras and a big crowd as he is standing next to you by himself.”
Osborne’s philosophy, according to Van Norman, is “not let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. Always try to keep things on an even keel. That works in business, sports, relationships – whatever you want to apply it to.”
At least six more ex-Huskers will join Osborne for a private, pre-banquet gathering – Bill Bobbora, David Clark, Ray Coleman, Clint Finley, Allen Lyday and Scott Saltsman.
Van Norman, who went on to get his MBA at SMU after a short-lived stint with the Atlanta Falcons, has done well in his Houston commercial real estate investments. He considers Husker supporter Dan Cook an important mentor. “He’s taught me never to give up, even when things go wrong in business.”
It’s the same lesson he learned from Osborne on the football field. Flash back to his senior season and the 1982 Colorado game. “We kept giving up this one play repeatedly, and it just so happened to be me who maybe should have been in coverage on that particular play,” Van Norman recalls.
“I came running to the sideline and got a thorough dressing down by some of my coaches. Coach Osborne came over and said: ‘You need to be telling him what to do, not what he’s doing wrong. Tell him what he needs to do right.’”
Even 25 years ago, it was clear that Coach Osborne had the constructive nature of a teacher. Tell us what the lifetime achievement award winner teaches you about life.
Oh yes, one more thing. Kris Van Norman may not be willing to divulge what kind of car he drives.
But even that old station wagon-driving Tom Osborne knows a Lexus when he sees one.