The ‘Oracle of Omaha’ is a Husker at Heart
By Kelly Whiteside, USA TODAY
LINCOLN, Neb. - It's halftime and Warren Buffett's team is trailing Texas 17-3. As he stands in a concourse at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, a young father approaches.
"Can I get a picture of you with my daughter?" he asks.
Wearing a red sweatshirt with "Nebraska" across his chest, Buffett mugs for the camera. He pulls out his wallet and holds it up to the baby. Then he cups his hand over her tiny ear and whispers, as if passing on a stock tip. Everyone laughs.
Buffett has many titles: "Oracle of Omaha." Third-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $47 billion, according to Forbes. America's favorite investor, whose folksy philosophy built the ultra-successful holding company Berkshire Hathaway. Groundbreaking philanthropist who pledged to give 99% of his wealth to charitable foundations. And sports fan, especially when it comes to his beloved Cornhuskers.
"I've always liked sports. I haven't been that good at it. I've been redshirted now for 61 years," the 80-year-old says with a laugh. "They're just waiting for the right offense."
At other schools, wealthy alums might want their names plastered on stadiums or meddle in football affairs, but Buffett, Class of 1950, isn't your typical billionaire. He's just a fan. If he donates to the Nebraska program, he does so anonymously. Instead, his considerable charity donations have gone to causes such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to address education, health and poverty problems.
CAMPUS RIVALRY: Warren Buffett talks Nebraska football
There's also another sign of Buffett's influence in the sports world, or at least this corner of it: He's been immortalized with bobble-head dolls.
As part owner of the Class AAA Omaha Royals, Buffett usually throws out the first pitch at the home opener. The most recent Buffett bobble-head - he's wearing a Royals uniform and his arm is extended in mid-pitch - was given away before a game last season. Previous Buffett bobble-heads are collector's items; one is listed on eBay for $169.99.
Buffett says he once wanted to be a sportswriter. He clearly found a more lucrative profession.
Though an octogenarian, Buffett still has a childlike wonder about sports.
"Stan Musial was my baseball hero when I was a kid," Buffett says of the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals first baseman and outfielder. "When I was 11, he came up with the Cardinals, and when I meet him now, it's still a thrill."
When imparting wisdom, Buffett frequently makes sports references. To illustrate a point about the importance of waiting for the right investment, he'll draw from Ted Williams' book, The Science of Hitting, and the lesson of waiting for the right pitch that allowed the Boston Red Sox slugger to become one of baseball's greatest hitters.
As much as Buffett quotes sports, business quotes Buffett far more. Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee, a business major, says in every business class he's taken there's been some mention of Buffett. One of Lee's personal finance classes followed the Oracle's every utterance.
"Whatever he says dictates something big in the market," Lee says.
Because Lee has spent so much time following Buffett, he was thrilled to learn that Buffett was amid the "Sea of Red" following him at Saturday's game against Texas. Lee, last season's starter, replaced struggling Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez during the third quarter.
"I'm sure (Buffett) has other things to do," Lee says. "That's what makes Nebraska a special place. The passion people have for football unifies everyone."
Nebraska fans are known for their devotion. The Texas game was the 308th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium, a streak that dates to 1962.
Buffett attended his first 'Huskers football game at Memorial Stadium when he was about 8. The boy who would become one of the world's richest men sneaked into the stadium for free, prompted by a friend named Al, whom Buffett recalls as an experienced gate-crasher.
"He told me, 'Now Warren, whatever you do, keep walking,' " Buffett says. "These weren't the days of big crowds, so we went into the game and I'm walking ahead of him, I'm scared silly, and the ticket taker goes, 'Hey kid, where are you going?' and Al said, 'That's OK, he's with me' and we just kept walking."
Now he attends several Cornhuskers games a season and watches the others on TV.
"If we're playing someone like Oklahoma or Texas, you can count on him being here unless there's something big on his schedule that he can't change," Nebraska athletics director Tom Osborne says.
Getting to Lincoln is an easy one-hour drive from Omaha, where Buffett was born and where he built Berkshire Hathaway, whose investments include Gannett, parent company of USA TODAY.
"I think the fact that Warren lives here is just kind of Warren," says Osborne, a friend of Buffett's. "He's not enthralled by the big stage or celebrity. He certainly rubs shoulders with those people, but he's basically a Midwestern person. He's not going to live in an ostentatious house, drive a $100,000 automobile. It's just who he is, and I think people admire that about him."
Adviser to the stars
As most anyone who follows him knows, Buffett has lived in the same house in Omaha for four decades, about 1½ miles from his office. 'Huskers football photos and other sports memorabilia decorate his office. One treasured photo is a picture of Buffett hitting a Bob Gibson pitch almost out of the infield.
"I got a little wood on the ball," he says.
Nine years ago, Gibson, a Hall of Fame pitcher and Omaha native, joined Buffett at the Omaha Royals' home opener. Instead of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, Buffett handed the ball to Gibson and then stepped into the batter's box. Preparing for one of Gibson's infamous brushback pitches, Buffett shouted, " 'Hey, Bob, they said you would throw at your grandmother's head if she challenged you. But just pretend I'm your grandfather. You like me.' "
Gibson fired a 55-mph fastball, by Buffett's estimate. The Oracle connected. "I didn't run it out," he later quipped. "At my age, I get winded playing a hand of bridge."
In Rodriguez's eyes, Buffett will always be a clutch hitter. When Rodriguez opted out of his contract with the Yankees in 2007, team vice president Hank Steinbrenner said he would not negotiate with the slugger. Buffett told Rodriguez that when business problems arise, it's best to talk about the issue face-to-face.
"Get the agent out of there," Buffett recalls telling Rodriguez. "The agent has a different interest than you." After Rodriguez went directly to Steinbrenner, the Yankees relented. But the team was not interested in offering Rodriguez the 10-year, $300 million guaranteed deal he sought. Buffett suggested a creative solution.
"I said, 'Would you rather have X hundred million and have people booing when you break Barry Bonds' home run record, or would you rather have X minus 50 million? Make it performance-related,' " Buffett said.
The Yankees and Rodriguez agreed to just that - a 10-year, $275 million deal under which Rodriguez can earn another $30 million by reaching various benchmarks in pursuit of Bonds' record of 762 home runs. Rodriguez, 35, now has 613.
A longtime Cornhusker
For about 40 years, the Cornhuskers enjoyed a bull market under coaches Bob Devaney and Osborne, who won a combined five national titles.
After winning a share of the national title in 1997, Osborne retired. His assistant Frank Solich took over but was pushed out after winning 75% of his games in six seasons - good, but not good enough in Lincoln.
A rocky era followed under Bill Callahan, who lasted four seasons before Bo Pelini was hired in 2008.
"Bo Pelini has got it," Buffett says. "Devaney and Osborne couldn't have been two more different guys, but they both really could rally their teams in a different way, and Pelini is the same way."
The No. 13 'Huskers will need it after losing to Texas 20-13; they face No. 15 Oklahoma State in Stillwater on Saturday.
Pelini seethes. Devaney was quick with a quip. Osborne exuded calm confidence.
"When Devaney first came in 1962," Buffett recalls, "he was giving a talk to a Rotary Club, and he said, 'We're working hard, but we have a problem at fullback. We're looking for a guy that's 6-4 and weighs 125 pounds. I know that kinda sounds strange for a fullback, but that's the only kind of guy that can get through the holes the line opens up.' "
Though Buffett has probably repeated the story dozens of times during the last 40 years, he still breaks into a long belly laugh at the punch line.
"Devaney was a stitch. He was a rogue, but he was a lovable rogue." As for Osborne, "He is a quality man, quiet, a low-key guy. You don't have to jump up and down on tables to be a leader. He didn't shout and scream."
Buffett has a tape of the talk Osborne gave at halftime of the 1995 Orange Bowl. With the national title on the line, the 'Huskers trailed the Miami Hurricanes. Osborne laid out the plan for the second half. He told his players Miami would score early, but Nebraska, with its physical play, would have the advantage. Miami would get frustrated, make a key mistake, and Nebraska would own the fourth quarter.
"It happened just like he laid out," Buffett says. "Everyone believed in him. That's what you need."
Buffett seemingly has a quick-witted answer for everything, but when asked to name his favorite Nebraska player, he pauses.
"I go back to the Rose Bowl team in 1941," he says. He mentions Johnny Rodgers, a receiver in the early 1970s, then settles on quarterback Tommie Frazier, who led the 'Huskers to two national titles in the 1990s. "He never got the Heisman, but he was something," Buffett says.
Halftime of the Texas game is nearly over. Before heading to his seat, Buffett glances at a stat sheet and considers the Huskers' two-touchdown deficit.
"Let's hope it's not a double-digit recession," the Oracle of Omaha cracks.
Then he blends into the crowd, just another Husker fan in the Sea of Red.
Editor's note: This cover story appeared in the Oct. 20 edition of USA TODAY and is reprinted with permission from USA TODAY. To comment on this article, click here, enter your name, e-mail address and and select "Huskers.com Content" in the "Area of Interest" box. Write your comments in the "Request Description" space, add where you live and then hit the "Submit Support Request" red button at the bottom.