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Tom Osborne Interview - Part III
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 political years.

HP: Do you find politics more grueling than football?

Tom: It’s sometimes not quite as straight forward in that in football you knew what success was and what it wasn’t. You were measured every week; people usually were pretty straight up with you. Politics is not always that way, although there are a lot of good people in politics. But sometimes you’re not real sure what success is or isn’t. It’s just not as clear cut. But both have some commonality – you have to be able to communicate your ideas, you have to be willing to work long hours, quite a bit of travel involved and they’re both competitive. I feel there has been some transfer from my years as a coach to what I’m doing now.

HP: So if you had it to do all over again, would you go into politics or try something else?

Tom: I think this has been good. You can do some things in the political arena that you can’t do anywhere else. You might be the president of General Motors, and you may make lots of money but you can’t pass an amendment that changes educational policy in the United States. So there are lots of things you can do in the political arena that aren’t available to any other profession.

HP: What accomplishment in Congress are you the most proud of?

Tom: There are several – one, I was able to get an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Education Act for mentoring which has funded at roughly $50 million a year and there have been literally hundreds of thousands of young people who have gotten a mentoring experience because of that. I also put a amendment in No Child Left Behind that provides some federal money, about $20-$25,000 a year, to small schools that otherwise would not have gotten those grants. I was able to get a bill passed that controlled steroid precursors like Androstenedione that Mark McGuire took and at one time that was sold over the counter and young kids could buy it, but it was very much the same as a steroid and that’s now a controlled substance. I passed a suicide prevention bill – passed a bill that governs sports agents, also got a conservation reserve enhancement program which takes 100,000 acres out of irrigation in Nebraska and brings $125 million into the state to bring the state into balance in terms of irrigation outflow as opposed to inflow in the state. Those are a few of the things that we’ve been able to do that I think are important.

HP: What is the best solution for water for the state of Nebraska and what can we do to get Lake McConaghey full again?

Tom: Well, the CREP program (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) that I mentioned earlier is important because it will be used to get the adequate stream flows back in the Republican River which right now we’re short of water that we’re supposed to be sending down to Kansas, according to a Kansas compact and we’re probably going to end up having to pay them some fines, but within two or three years I think we can pretty much get that in balance where Nebraska will not be fined anymore because we’ll have enough water going down the river. We’re also using some of those CREP acres out in the Platte Valley which will provide some additional inflows into Lake McConaghey and so those are some things that we feel we’ve been able to do. Basically, they’ve passed a law in the last couple of years that requires each basin in Nebraska to assess their water situation and those basins that are over-appropriated, where there’s more water going out than is coming in, have got to develop a plan to come into compliance and to come into balance. Of course, that’s going to be contentious but we do think it’s doable and we think it’s something that had to be done at some point.

HP: Nebraska is bordered by two states that have no state income tax. Do you think it’s possible to become a state income tax-free state?

Tom: Well, that’s possible. One thing that I am advocating is that we realign and re-examine our whole tax system here because we are a very heavily taxed state. We have to cut spending first, but I also think that the property taxes are pretty far out of line and I think we ought to take a look at the tax system that we have in place now to make sure that we remove any inequities that are there. That’s one of the first things I would want to do if I was elected Governor.

HP: Where do you see opportunities for population and job growth in the state?

Tom: One of things that is going to be critical is that we do some things to keep most of our best and brightest young people here. We have been losing a lot of our college graduates to other states. Part of the reason is that we have a very high tax base and the other is that we have not done a good job of promoting start-up businesses so we’ve been promoting for the last four years, teaching entrepreneurial skills, how to write a business plan, how to write a grant, how to access capital, and we’ve seen many high schools start to do this. As a result, we are starting to have a few more young people stick around and start something. Something else that we need to do is to develop a venture capital fund here in Nebraska because right now we’re very short of venture capital and if you have a great business plan, but you don’t have any way to capitalize your investment and start a business, you’re going to go somewhere else. So that’s something that we also have to do. We think that bioscience and scientific endeavor has to do with ethanol, has to do with plants, genetically modified crops, agriculture, livestock – those are the kinds of science and research that can really help Lincoln and Omaha become major research centers and draw a lot of business into those areas but above all, a lot of the results of that research, a lot of the spinoffs end up out in the small towns and the rural areas and provide the kind of jobs that will keep more of our young people at home and in those areas so we feel all of those things are important.

HP: What about organic farming?

Tom: Organic farming is a good niche and there are some people who are doing pretty well with that and we certainly encourage those kinds of things. We can’t continue to do things the way we’ve done them for the last 40 or 50 years. So we now are seeing some people growing grapes and creating wineries which at one time was unheard of in Nebraska. We see some canola being grown here, chicory, and so there is a diversification of crops that we think is healthy for the state and eventually will produce some rewards.

HP: Do you have a plan to help get kids the best education possible?

Tom: I guess you always want that to happen – as far as things that would make education better in Nebraska, one thing that I have been an advocate for is to have a state-wide distance learning network because a lot of the more remote and the rural schools, as those kids get into their sophomore, junior, senior years of high school may not have somebody to teach advance algebra or French or German, and a result they miss out on some of the course work that kids in the cities get, so we think that a distance learning network would be critical. We think that providing a program where teachers who have experience mentor new teachers. The biggest dropout/turnover rate in teaching is usually in the first two years and so if you can get a mentor to help those young teachers get through those first couple of years, that would be very helpful. I also would like to see something done where we could have some incentives, maybe some tuition forgiveness or student loan forgiveness for students who will commit to staying in Nebraska for five years after they graduate from college. Because if they stay in the state, they are apt to start a business, they are apt to get some roots and they may stay here because right now we’re losing too many of those people to other states. We think that bioscience is really critical and something that Kansas is sinking, I think $500 million into a bioscience project. Iowa is spending a lot, Minnesota is trying to be a world leader in bio-fuels and we really can’t afford to be left at the gate in those endeavors.

HP: In your opinion, what are the most important issues in this campaign?

Tom: Probably the number one issue is simply the issue of spending. We in this two-year budget cycle are increasing spending by 14.2%, roughly a $480 million increase in the state budget and that’s unsustainable. So we think there are three ways that we can reduce spending. One is to bring people from the private sector into state government and interact with people in state agencies and look at the state agency as much as you would in business and we think we can introduce some efficiencies, eliminate duplication and do some cost savings that would be very helpful. We don’t want people in those agencies to feel this is going to be a hostile thing. It’s simply a case where we would certainly want people’s advice, both inside those agencies and from outside. Then you formulate a plan and make changes. We’d like to do that in the first four months of the next Governor’s term. Texas did something like this; they saved $16 billion over about fourteen years. California is now looking at doing the same thing – they estimate they would save $32 billion over five years, so we think that would be significant. Another thing that we think we could do some cost savings on would be in the area of Medicaid, where if we went to a defined contribution plan and bought people in Medicaid a health insurance policy, then those people would have some responsibility for their own health care and they’d probably take better care of themselves and the state would also probably save some money. And then the last area where I think we could do a really good job of cutting spending is in the area of substance abuse. A study not long ago indicated that we are spending $435 million a year on underage drinking in Nebraska, one of the top three or four states. We are also spending about a billion dollars a year on methamphetamine abuse and at a hearing in Washington a few months ago, brought people in from other states and these individuals told us what they were doing in their states and essentially if you go after substance abuse with a three-pronged approach. First you would educate extensively in the second and third grade and years thereafter and also parents. Secondly, beef up law enforcement, particularly in the methamphetamine issue and then go to drug courts rather than locking people up in prison and I think you could do a good job of cutting those expenditures on substance abuse by anywhere from 25-30% which would translate into $400-$500 million in savings in the state of Nebraska. So all of those things working together could really significantly cut spending in Nebraska and make it a better place to live and enable us to return more money to the taxpayers.

HP: Why are you the best man for the job of Governor?

Tom: It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. I think the things that I bring to the table are – I’ve had a variety of experiences. Among those, of course, 25 years running maybe the most visible job in the state and maybe the most competitive job in the state, so I think I’m a known quantity, people have had a chance to watch me work and most of them hopefully will trust me to do the right things. Secondly, I’ve had experience in Washington now for five and a half years. I think that’s been important. I’ve seen almost every program that impacts the state of Nebraska from a federal level and I know people in Washington that are decision makers that can help the state, so whether it's Medicare, Medicaid, military help, homeland defense, agriculture, education, transportation – all these things are areas that I’m knowledgeable in and could be helpful. The last thing I would mention is simply the issue of campaign finance. Since I’ve been in Washington I’ve seen so clearly the influence of money and the fact that it really badly distorts the political process and there are so many people who, by the time they get elected to Congress, are so heavily indebted and so heavily compromised to those people who have given them money that there are certain things that they are just simply not free to do. In this campaign we have not taken any corporate money, we’ve not taken any money from political action committees, and we’ve not taken any large contributions from individuals. We’ve taken no more than $1,000 for the primary and no more than $1,000 for the general from any one individual. So I would hope that the voters from Nebraska would feel that everyone had equal access, that everyone was of equal worth so we think that approach would hopefully resonate with most people.

HP: Last question, this is from the bulletin board – what is your favorite walleye lure at Lake McConaghey?

Tom: I like to cast for fish so I suppose just a regular Maribou jig of some kind, a doll fly is what they’re often called, and I like to catch walleyes doing that. And of course I’m a big trout fisherman so I use a lot of trout flies and probably my favorite trout fly is a woolly bugger and so those would be a couple of my favorites.

HP: Coach, thank you for taking the time to share your Husker memories with us.

This is the end of the interview. Comments regarding this interview may be sent to this email.