Tom Osborne is the gold standard for college football coaches and, in my opinion, he’s become an equally compelling role model for Division I athletic directors, even if he is less than a month from his 5-year anniversary as Nebraska’s AD.
Osborne announced his retirement Wednesday, effective Jan. 1, 2013, and UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman acknowledged that a private search for his replacement has been in progress since August. Since Osborne has stabilized the athletic department, restored its trust and expanded its vision, Perlman has more to offer potential candidates than he had Oct. 16, 2007, when he asked Osborne to return to the athletic department as athletic director.
Five years after reinvigorating one of the NCAA’s most traditional institutions, Osborne is ready to move on with his life. He leaves behind what some call the best facilities in college athletics, a new home for Nebraska in the Big Ten, an unparalleled focus on academics and life skills and an athletic research facility that could build a national, if not global reputation for innovation. With his characteristic calm, Osborne not only guided Nebraska through that 2007 chaos, but somehow managed to squeeze about 15 years of accomplishments into a 5-year chunk of time.
Reporter’s Question Mirrors Perception
What else would you expect from Tom Osborne, who attacked every challenge with vigor, faith, discipline and principles? Even at 75, he’s like an Eagle Scout. He’s always prepared ... for anything. But when a reporter asked new Nebraska Basketball Coach Tim Miles how he feels about working for a 75-year-old athletic director at the press conference announcing his hiring, Osborne realized that public perception doesn’t necessarily align with how well he feels or how sharp his mind is.
Fortunately, Osborne is exiting stage left feeling much better physically than he did in his third term as a U.S. Congressman.
Osborne Loved All His Football Players
“I’ve been in the room for two retirements from Tom Osborne. Both very sad days for me and #Husker fans everywhere. Incredible human being,” tweeted Matt Davison, an analyst with the Husker Sports Network and the player who always will be remembered for making the “Miracle in Missouri” catch that saved Nebraska’s 1997 national championship season.
Davison tweeted that because Osborne loved his players, and they loved him – from the Heisman and Outland Trophy winners to the walk-ons who rarely played but gave everything they had to be part of something extraordinary.
That fact, even more than his .836 winning percentage and three national championships over 25 years, makes Osborne the standard by which all Nebraska coaches will be measured. Because he is also a man who always listens, always analyzes, always does his homework and always comes up with ideas and solutions that stand the test of time, Osborne has remained as relevant in 2012 as he was in 1962 when Bob Devaney hired him to be a volunteer graduate assistant on his first coaching staff at Nebraska.
As Athletic Director, He Restored Order
On Tuesday, a staff cameraman was shooting slow-motion video at Nebraska’s football practice and thought to himself that Coach Osborne would be perfect in slow-motion because he’s never in a hurry, yet always focused on something that will benefit the athletic department, the university, and society as a whole.
That, in a nutshell, is why Osborne is a rock-solid benchmark for whoever Perlman selects to succeed him. Nebraska’s chancellor said Osborne has done “an extraordinary job for athletics and the university. He certainly stabilized the department. He’s hired some very promising coaches. He’s brought our facilities to a new level. I think it’s important that the first facility he moved on with was Life Skills and Academics. I think that tells us a little about his views and the culture of our athletic department.”
Osborne has been so efficient and so effective in leading the athletic department that Perlman believes Nebraska can “attract the very best to this position.” The search has not and will not be an open public search, Perlman said, because it would “limit our opportunities” and “the kinds of people we could attract.” Perlman has hired Jed Hughes from Korn/Ferry International to spearhead the process. Hughes heads the company’s international sports division and was the search consultant that hired the athletic director at Michigan and the new commissioner of the Big 12 Conference.
Hughes is “knowledgeable about intercollegiate athletics and he is well-networked,” Perlman said, adding that Hughes understands Nebraska is looking not just for experience and credentials but “a personality and a viewpoint that has to fit with Nebraska and our visions and what our culture is.”
Will Spend Six Months Helping Transition
Once a new athletic director is hired, Osborne, at Perlman’s request, will remain in the athletic department for six months to help with the transition.
Perlman said Nebraska will consider internal and external candidates and acknowledged that he already has interviewed candidates for the position. “It very well may be that I interview more,” he said. “I say that only so that you can have the fun of following my car and tail numbers just to keep track of me. That way, I’ll know where I am.”
All humor aside, Perlman made an important comment he knows that Nebraska fans want to hear. “I can also assure you that Tom will play an important role in advising me in that selection as well,” Perlman said.
Describing Nebraska’s External Culture
Asked later to describe that culture, Perlman said he was referencing the external culture, not the internal. “I’m talking about the role that athletics plays in the state of Nebraska,” he said. “I think it’s the pride that Nebraskans have for not only winning and losing, but for the holistic view that we take for student-athletes - that life skills are important, that academic success is important."
Perlman talked about commitment and fan engagement and mentioned the role that fans and student-athletes play to develop culture. "I think you have to be open and embracing of all the constituents of athletics,” Perlman said.
When asked what Nancy's thoughts were, Osborne said: “She’s probably more approving than disapproving. It leaves me with a great deal of fear and trepidation because she keeps reminding me that the garage has not been cleaned for about three years, and I can see a whole list of things popping up. All of you who are married understand these things.”
TeamMates at the Core of Its Co-Founder
Suzanne Hince, Osborne’s daughter and the executive director of the TeamMates mentoring program in Omaha, attended the press conference and said she was happy to see her dad healthy and as committed as ever to help the program he and Nancy co-founded 21 years ago. TeamMates began with Nancy’s recommendation. The idea was based on a simple question that Osborne asked his football team: Do you want to help kids who need help? Twenty-two players volunteered and the program now has more than 100 chapters in 120-plus communities serving more than 6,000 students from grade school to high school – in both urban and rural areas. In the next three years, Osborne would like to see that total increase to 10,000 students.
TeamMates is an outgrowth of a vision Osborne inherently understands because his grandfather had a mentor that shaped his family’s life. Osborne knows the ripple effect a mentor can create and believes strongly in doing something for someone who can’t do anything in return.
Osborne has passed on that wisdom to son Mike, who also attended Wednesday’s press conference. “If you want to know the impact my dad had, talk to the people who do the dishes at the training table, the security guards or the people who greet you at the games,” Mike said. “He treats them just like he treats the big shots, and I think that’s the true test of anybody – how you treat people that you know can’t do anything for you in return.”
Serving Others the Heart of His Philosophy
Osborne invests himself to serve others with that same philosophical foundation. He believes in affirming and encouraging those who are already strong and blessed and doing the same for those who are disadvantaged and struggling. It’s the essence of who he is as a man, husband, father, grandfather, coach, Congressman, athletic director and leader. However stressful a situation can get, he never loses his composure or his compassion. He stays calm, cool, collected and true to his character. It all comes from his faith and the beliefs that guide every personal and professional decision he makes.
I’ve never seen anyone so humble walk into a room and command it, even when the sound is silence. Osborne doesn’t have to say anything to get anyone’s attention. He radiates respect, and he’s earned it because of the way he sees the world, operates in it and manages to stay above the fray. In politics, he would not compromise his principles, and he would not change his position on something just to gain extra percentage points in a media poll. I worked in Corporate America for more than 22 years and in my opinion, there are very few leaders with Coach’s commanding combination of competitive drive and character-based leadership.
Osborne has a proven track record in every challenge he takes on because he’s all about process, preparation and principles, and here’s the best part about his leadership: He thinks all of us can improve and succeed if we combine those qualities with good, old-fashioned hard work. A lot of coaches used and still use John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success as the cornerstones of their philosophy. I don’t know of anyone besides Wooden who has brought those qualities to life like Tom Osborne. I think Wooden was the best coach in the history of sports, and I think Osborne was one of the best leaders right behind him. No wonder he succeeded under trying circumstances. He was built for the challenge.