Tom Osborne Interview - Part II
Head Coach 1973-1997
Tom Osborne was the head coach at the University of Nebraska from 1973-97 and compiled a record of 255-49-3 while winning three National Championships. More about his coaching career can be found here. He is currently in his third term as Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives (www.house.gov/osborne/) representing the Third District of Nebraska and is a Candidate for Governor of the State of Nebraska. This interview was done by David Max on March 20, 2006. The interview was done in three parts - the early years, the head coaching years, and the political years. This segment covers the head coaching years.
HP: What do you remember about your first game as the Head Coach at Nebraska?
Tom: We had lost to UCLA the year before – that was David Humm’s first game – I think we lost 17-14 and I think maybe Mark Harmon, the guy that’s the actor, was the quarterback for UCLA and they ran the wishbone and we just didn’t do a very good job of stopping it and so they beat us 17-14 and the next year they came back here and we beat them pretty solidly. I can’t remember the exact score – it was like 42-13, something like that, and I remember Tony Davis was our I-back, had a couple of big runs and I think David Humm played pretty well that day.
HP: You changed your offense and defense from time to time during your coaching career – do you think you would be using a version of the West Coast offense if you were still coaching?
Tom: No, I don’t think so – I might do some of the things that Urban Meyer did at Utah. We started in that direction. We ran multiple sets but we also ran out of a shotgun some and we ran some option football out of it. Urban began putting people in motion and getting almost a three-back option offense out of the spread formation, out of the shotgun. I think some of those things would be attractive but I would always want to run some option. I always felt that the option gives you the best possible passing situation because in order to stop the option, you have to involve the safeties so much and somebody has to come up and take the quarterback, somebody has to take the pitch so you can start down that line and immediately isolate the secondary because they have to commit and you’ve got one on one out there. I was talking to Bear Bryant one time and he said he liked the wishbone because it gave him the best possible throwing situation, that was one receiver out there being covered by one guy, a cornerback with no help in middle because the safeties were involved in stopping the option. That’s very true and I’ve always been very partial to option football. Of course, we moved the ball very well that way throughout the time that I was the coach.
HP: So you prefer that versus the passing attacks that you utilized with quarterbacks like Humm and Ferragamo?
Tom: Well, we ran some options with those guys too. We probably got better running the option when we went to players with a little more speed. Jeff Quinn was certainly a guy that ran the option well, and of course, Turner Gill was where we really began to hit our stride. Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost, those kinds of people were truly outstanding at it, but we always ran some option when I was the coach.
HP: What do you miss most about coaching?
Tom: I miss the players and I miss the strategy. To me, coaching was a little bit like a chess game and so I always enjoyed that strategy and trying to counteract what the opposition was doing, and I really enjoyed the players.
HP: During your 25 seasons as the Huskers head coach, do you have any particular moments that you’re the most proud of?
Tom: I felt reasonably good about what we did – I don’t think the things that are important are necessarily the championships or the rings or the bowl games. It’s more the relationships – I guess since I’ve been out of coaching for eight years I have felt that most of the players that played here felt that there was something special that happened, a very strong bond among the players, they are very supportive, they come back a lot and that’s been really gratifying to see and see so many players who maybe came from difficult circumstances have made a better life for themselves — players who probably would never have gone to college if it wouldn’t have been for a football scholarship. That's been very good to see also.
I guess in terms of memorable games, maybe the game with Miami where we went for two points and didn’t make it during the 1984 Orange Bowl, the game against Miami in the 1995 Orange Bowl where we finally beat them 24-17 to win a national championship, the game with Florida for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl the next year and then certainly the last game I coached against Tennessee and Peyton Manning and we won that game rather handily. And probably one other would be the Oklahoma game in 1978 – we had not done well with Oklahoma and they came up here with a great team and we beat them 17-14, and so those games will always be very memorable to me.
HP: At one time you considered taking the head coaching job at the University of Colorado. How close did that come to becoming a reality?
Tom: Well, I think when I went out there to visit I thought I would probably take the job and there wasn’t anything we saw there that we didn’t like. Nancy and I went out there and you know the mountains are beautiful, facilities were reasonably good and we felt it was a very good place to recruit to, but when I got on the airplane and rode back to Nebraska I just realized that, as a Nebraskan, I couldn’t go out there and coach a different group of players and I wasn’t sure how I could stand up in front of the players that I had recruited and tell them that I told them Nebraska was a great place and I was going to turn around and go somewhere else that I thought was better. And so from that point on I never really seriously got involved with another job. I had two or three professional teams offer jobs that were attractive financially and one of them was Seattle because I love to fish and I like the Pacific Northwest and that was a little bit tempting, but I really just never seriously considered leaving Lincoln after that one trip. I think that was the only place that I really went and visited the campus and seriously considered it.
HP: What advice would you give a young man today who was interested in becoming a football coach?
Tom: I think that you have to count the cost. It’s a high-risk profession; it’s something that you really have to love doing, you have to love the game, love the players and you have to be willing to put in some awfully long hours and to have a wife that’s fairly understanding or it becomes very difficult. So it’s not for everybody, but it’s one of those things if you’re really not going to be happy unless you’ve done it, then it’s something you ought to try doing.
HP: I recently interviewed Charlie McBride. What influence did he and the other “long-term coaches” have on the program?
Tom: I think we really had a good staff and Charlie was a great coach as far as the defensive line and great coordinator and so I just really appreciated having him. Of course, I had Milt Tenopir with me for a long time, George Darlington was with me for a long time, Frank Solich, Turner Gill, Dan Young and just so many guys that were great coaches – Tony Samuel, also.
HP: I hear that your coaches’ meetings were pretty structured. Did you have a set format that you followed?
Tom: We usually started at 7:00 in the morning and the first thing we had was a short devotional where somebody would read a verse of scripture and we’d have a prayer and talk a little about the verse of scripture and take about ten minutes and then we’d begin our practice schedule for the day. We’d split up offense and defense. We looked at the preceding days' practice and then we’d get our practice schedule set and then we’d usually end up with quarterback meetings about 1:30 or so and then on the field for about an hour and forty-five to two hours and lift weights and we usually met on Sunday and Monday nights and then Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday we didn’t meet at night, which is different than some places, but I always went home and worked and it seemed to work pretty well.
HP: Over the years did you make any changes in how you conducted practices?
Tom: We didn’t make any great changes. One change we did make that I think was important was that as time went on we began to go at least a couple of periods, maybe for fifteen minutes on Tuesday and fifteen minutes on Wednesday where we would put our top offense against our top defense and of course that wasn’t giving us a picture of what we were going to see in our opponents’ alignment that week but we just noticed that if we went against scouting teams throughout the week and that went on through the whole season that toward the end of the year the scout teams became more and more passive and didn’t give us a very good picture. I think that made a difference for us when we began to put our top players against our top players and go live maybe for just ten or twelve plays during the week and I really resisted that and avoided it for a long time. It did seem to make us better.
HP: Getting back to the 1984 Orange Bowl, how much of an impact do you think going for two against Miami in that game had in future recruiting?
Tom: Well I really don’t know. I think there were probably more people that I’ve talked to thought it was a good decision than bad, but normally people who think you made a bad decision don’t come up and tell you it was bad. So I really don’t know what the public perception is but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time and I know those players that we had were convinced they would have made it and if I had kicked a point, I think they’d always kind of looked at me out of the corner of their eyes wondering what kind of guy I was and so we went for it. The play was there, but a guy got a finger on the ball and deflected it and that was it.
HP: Was the decision to go for two something you’d talked about before the game in case that situation presented itself?
Tom: We always had a two-point play so the decision to go for two was made right when the situation arose and the reason I did that was because there wasn’t much time left. I didn’t think that we could kick the point and tie the game and ever get the ball back as they still had about a minute or so left in the game and so I thought well, we’ve gotta win it now if we’re going to win it, and so we just went with the two-point play that we had on our practice schedule and that was what I called.
HP: With the formation of the Big 12 Conference, were you for that or against that?
Tom: I wasn’t too excited about that, I thought we had a very good league with the Big 8 and we had a very strong conference and the Southwest Conference was falling apart – they had had some major recruiting scandals, they were having a terrible time drawing fans to some of their games and so the teams down there that were viable were Texas A&M, Texas Tech was pretty viable, Houston was at times good, they didn’t draw very many fans and then of course Baylor and SMU and TCU. SMU and TCU had run afoul of NCAA and they were really struggling for attendance so they kept Baylor and dropped Houston and SMU and TCU and the idea was that they were going to join the Big 8 conference and accept our rules and then all of a sudden it was like we started over. All of a sudden it seemed like Texas had a lot of influence on what kind of academic rules we were gonna have, what was going to happen in the conference and I asked the Chancellor of the University at that time, what happened here? I thought they were joining our conference and accepting all of our rules and he said, well we just didn’t want to make them feel bad so we just decided we’d start over, so naturally I didn’t quite understand that procedure because they were struggling and we really kind of threw them a life line and then all of a sudden it was a whole different thing than what I thought it was going to be.
HP: What impact did your faith have on your coaching style?
Tom: I think when you have a strong faith you realize that the most important thing in the world is not winning a football game and you realize that all people have equal worth whether they’re first team or fourth team, and so I tried to treat the players the same irrespective of how much they were going to play on Saturday and hopefully treated them all well and cared about them and I tried to have a consistent walk in that I tried not to be somebody who said one thing and did another. Nobody is perfect and I’m sure there were times when I might have disappointed somebody, but I tried not to do that.
HP: When did you start the TeamMates mentoring program?
Tom: I believe we started it in 1991.
HP: How did you get the idea?
Tom: I think Nancy saw somebody on television who had gone back and visited their old grade school and the grade school had changed a lot, a lot of inner-city kids, a lot of poverty, and he had the idea that he’d made some money and he’d tell those kids that if they graduated from high school that he would be willing to pay their way to college and so apparently he had quite a bit of success so I thought we have all these players and maybe we could use these players in a constructive way with some kids here in Lincoln who might be struggling in one way or another so we started the TeamMates program and had those players serve as mentors.
HP: Where do you see the program going in 10-20 years down the road – do you see it going outside the state of Nebraska?
Tom: We’ve already gone outside the state a little bit and we have a couple of places in Iowa that we have started some TeamMates programs and currently we have 71 communities and roughly 3,000 people.
HP: What impact do you think the internet has on college football today?
Tom: I think the Internet obviously leads to a lot of bloggers, lots of opinions being posted and anybody who has a thought can get it on the Internet and it maybe makes things a little tougher because there’s so much information out there regarding recruiting, opinions on coaches, whose doing a good job, who isn’t, what move should’ve been made in a ballgame. It probably puts a little more pressure on the average coach than what he had maybe 20-30 years ago.
HP: So are you happy the Internet didn’t exist during most of your career?
Tom: Yeah, probably, although it was there to some degree toward the end of my career and I remember coaches coming in, saying what they had heard on the Internet or what they had seen, some rumor about some player we were recruiting, that we maybe didn’t even have on our list, didn’t even know about him. There was all kinds of things like that.
HP: If there’s one thing you’d like to say to the Nebraska fans today, what would you say about the Nebraska fans?
Tom: I think they’re generally very knowledgeable. I think they understand football and they study it and generally speaking they’re very good sports. They tend to treat teams that come in here very well and win, lose or draw, I think the opponents are generally treated with respect and the opponents will tell you that. That’s pretty gratifying and I hope that the way we try to conduct the program here had something to do with that. We never tried to make this a nasty place where people were ill treated and so I’m proud of that factor.
HP: What do you think about the future of the Nebraska program; do you think it’s in good hands?
Tom: I think so – we’ll see. Obviously in the last two or three games last year things went well so it gives them some momentum going into this year. This year they have a game out at USC that will be tough. They have Texas in Lincoln, probably will be tough. They have a game at K-State, at Iowa State that will be difficult games and also at Oklahoma State. They have the potential to win them all, they're probably going to lose some, but they also have the potential to lose four or five games. It’s hard to tell but I think they’ll have a good team this year.
This is the end of part two of the interview. Part one is located here. Part three covers the political years and is located here. Comments regarding this portion of the interview may be sent to this email.