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May 14, 2008

Nebraska voters stunned the national media two years ago by denying Tom Osborne the governorship — a job that a lot of people assumed would be Osborne's almost by divine right.

Instead, it turns out the voters were right.

Just because you're Nebraska's favorite son doesn't mean you're the best fit as chief executive. Besides, could it be the voters sensed problems brewing in the athletic department at the state's flagship university, and intuitively knew that they had to keep the old coach in reserve so he could be called upon if things really fell apart?

This is not the place to document Steve Pederson's descent into Cornhusker purgatory, but suffice it to say that by summer 2007, he had the athletic department in an uproar. Chief fundraiser Paul Meyers had left the program and many other key personnel were lining up to jump overboard. The family-friendly atmosphere had morphed into a cutthroat corporate culture. The football team was imploding under Bill Callahan, the baseball team had stumbled through an underachieving season and men's basketball was trying to find its legs under new coach Doc Sadler. Only the volleyball team under John Cook (the best head coach at NU over the past five years) was really enhancing the Huskers' national reputation. The Husker athletic department needed leadership and stability.

After Chancellor Harvey Perlman fired Pederson as athletic director on October 15, few people who follow the Huskers were surprised when two days later, Perlman announced that Osborne had accepted the position. Many had been openly pleading on internet blog sites for Dr. Tom to return. But maybe we shouldn't have taken it for granted.

Osborne did not need to sign up for this. Despite his upset loss to Dave Heineman in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Osborne's status as a Nebraska legend was already secure. It seems to be his nature to stay busy, so after ending his three-term career as a congressman, life may have been a bit too tedious for the Hall of Fame coach. But make no mistake about it; at age 70, Tom Osborne took a big risk when he decided to come back for this curtain call.

After all, it's hard to improve on a 60-3 record with three national championships in your last five seasons as head coach.

The age question is a valid one. It sounds ridiculous now, but in 1990, people were saying that the game of college football had started to pass him by. What if, nearly two decades later, it became apparent that he couldn't manage nearly two dozen Division I-A college sports?

But in just six months, Osborne has done the unlikely. He took a job where he had little to gain, and he has done nothing but enhance his reputation, and the university's.

To no one's surprise, Osborne has been a paragon of dignity from the moment he stepped back into the public eye. He gave the nation a refresher course in what "the Nebraska way" means. The thing that impresses you most about his simple, generous, straightforward style is his refreshingly non-corporate manner of handling his affairs, and how successful that style has been.

Osborne handled the firing of Callahan with clear communication and class. He managed a nationwide coaching search with dispatch, making his choice in a little over a week. He hired Bo Pelini at a reasonable price, with no agents involved. The two men reached their agreement, shook hands and Pelini was off to hire his staff and hit the recruiting trail without signing a contract (the pact was not signed for more than a month after Pelini's introduction as coach). In the meantime, Osborne allowed Pelini to finish his season as Louisiana State's defensive coordinator, because both men agreed that it was the right thing to do.

The man with the boring personality uses that faade to mask his tendency to be a riverboat gambler. By choosing someone without head coaching experience, Osborne opened himself to criticism. In some ways, it was a flashback to January 2, 1984, when he sent out Turner Gill to go for the two-point conversion instead of backing into a national championship by playing for a tie. Instead of managing risk and playing not to lose, Osborne went with his gut and played to win (ironically, bypassing his good friend Gill) in choosing Pelini. That in itself will set apart Pederson's and Osborne's tenures as AD.

If Pederson were still running the NU athletic department, it's likely that the last great remaining football streak from the Osborne era — the consecutive sellout string — would have been snapped this fall. Instead, an aura of success is starting to refresh the whole state and a spirit of camaraderie is spreading across the campus, where Pelini has been seen at wrestling matches, basketball and baseball games and Sadler and baseball coach Mike Anderson have supported other sports as well.

Good signs were evident at spring football practice, where longtime I-back Cody Glenn decided to switch to defense for his senior season to help provide depth for a depleted linebacker unit — all because he wants to win a conference title. After a season where senior leadership was lacking, it appears that leadership at the top is trickling down in the right way in Lincoln.

In his four years at the helm, Pederson had managed to lock the NU athletic department into a winter of Narnian proportions. Osborne has thawed relationships with donors, re-hired Meyers, mailed a "welcome back" letter to former Huskers and hung the portraits of NU All-Americans back up in Memorial Stadium.

Pelini is winning the hearts of Nebraskans with speaking engagements all over the state, promising that the Huskers will play with pride and passion. This fall, we begin to discover whether Osborne's risk will yield the reward.

Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He was sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin from 2003 to 2007, during which time he wrote "Around the Husker Nation," a commentary on NU football. He was a writer and columnist for the North Platte Telegraph from 1984 to 2002. In 2007, he moved to Colorado to enroll his wife in an art school. A native of Callaway, Stryker's earliest recollection of Nebraska football is a radio broadcast of the Huskers' 13-10 win over Wyoming in the 1968 season opener.