Tom Osborne interview
Nebraska Head Football 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 early years.
HP: Where were you born?
Tom: I was born in Hastings, Nebraska in 1937 and lived there most of my early life. I had a four-year time out when I went up to St. Paul, Nebraska, about 40 miles north of Hastings during WWII. My dad was over in Europe and my Mom, my brother, and I lived in St. Paul with my Mom’s parents in St. Paul from 1942 through 1945.
HP: What sports did you participate in while in high school?
Tom: Well, I played them all. I played football, basketball, track, and baseball. Whatever was in season, that’s what I played.
HP: Did you have a favorite?
Tom: I think football was always my favorite sport and basketball was probably next. I had a chance to go to the University of Nebraska on a football scholarship and go there and play basketball, but both coaches told me that they didn’t think it would be possible to do both. That’s one reason why I went to Hastings College. It was a small college in Hastings where I could play both. While I was at Hastings, I also participated in track.
HP: What influence did your father have on your athletic and your professional careers?
Tom: My dad had a lot of influence. He was gone, as I mentioned, during WWII and then he came back. I really didn’t know him because when he left I was 3 or 4 and when he came back I was 9 going on 10. I knew he really liked athletics and I wanted to please him so for that reason I think I was very attracted to athletics but it was somewhat of a natural attraction too. He always encouraged me in athletics and I know his interest had a lot to do with my interests too.
HP: What about your mother?
Tom: Well, my mom actually had a little bit of athletic talent herself. She was pretty coordinated. Her mother, my grandmother, was a softball pitcher and a pretty good athlete. When my Mom’s generation came along it wasn’t very popular for women to be involved in athletics. She went to the games. I don’t know that she was a die hard as my dad was.
HP: You were named an All-State Athlete in your senior year. Did you have a lot of schools recruiting you?
Tom: I had quite a few. As I mentioned, the University of Nebraska both in football and basketball. The University of Wyoming, Denver University, and maybe a few others that were interested in me. I chose Hastings because I was familiar with the school. I grew up within two blocks of it and I knew the players. It was an opportunity to play more than one sport and at that time I was a little torn between football and basketball. I had pretty good success in both and as a result I wanted to do both.
HP: Did you take any recruiting trips?
Tom: I was invited down to the University of Nebraska for basketball and football. At that time, I don’t know how much they did formal recruiting trips. The answer is no, I didn’t get on an airplane and go anywhere but I was offered scholarships at three or four different schools.
HP: While you were in high school did you ever go to any football games at Nebraska?
Tom: Yes, I did. Actually in junior high school I went to some games at that time. I think it cost 25 cents to get into what was called the knothole section where you sat on a bleacher in the end zone. I saw some of those games and I had a great uncle that had some tickets so I would attend probably one or two games a year with him.
HP: After you graduated you played 3 years in the NFL. What was training camp like compared to college?
Tom: Obviously it was a little more intense. The level of competition was certainly greater. I remember going out to the 49ers. I was an 18th round draft pick of 20 rounds, maybe 25 rounds and I believe they had 36 spots on the roster and they had 36 veterans returning and something like 60 or 70 rookies in camp that were the draft choices plus the free agents. The odds were pretty slim that you were going to stick around. I remember the first day I was there I went in to see the head coach, Red Hickey, and Red asked me which position I wanted to play. I told him I was a quarterback in my college days and that’s what I wanted to play. He said, “Well, we have two quarterbacks here. We have John Brodie and Y.A. Title and we’re only going to keep two. If you think you can beat one of them out you’re sure welcome to try. I could tell from the conversation that he was especially saying either you better try something else or you’re not going to be here very long. So I told him I thought I could be a wide receiver and so that day I switched to wide receiver. They had some good players there, Billy Wilson, RC Owens, Clyde Connor, and it was very competitive. I hung in there and was on the team on their taxi squad that year. Jack Kemp, who later ran for vice president, was on the taxi squad with me and at the start of the season the next year I started a couple of exhibition games and got picked up by the Redskins. I played for the Redskins for two years on their active roster.
HP: Do you remember what your salary was at Washington or San Francisco?
Tom: I remember very clearly. At San Francisco, it was $6,500 a year which was the minimum and Washington it was $8,500. Those were different days and there were some All-Pro players that played for $10,000.
HP: After the NFL, you returned to the University of Nebraska to continue your education. Was there a particular person who influenced your career choice of Educational Psychology?
Tom: I don’t know. When I was at Hastings Collge I thought about what I wanted to do and I admired some of the people on the faculty and in the administration and I thought maybe I would like to be a college administrator or something like that. I knew that a good avenue was Educational Psychology so I went back to the University of Nebraska and enrolled in the Ed Psych program and had been there a very short time when I talked to Bob Devaney who had just been hired from Wyoming as Head Coach. Matter of fact he was still at Wyoming and I called him and asked him if I could maybe help coach while I was going to graduate school. He had me come over to see him when I got to Lincoln. He didn’t have any coaching opportunities but he did have a problem over in one of the dorms with six or seven players over there in one end of the dormitory who were kind of a law unto themselves and the dorm counselors and nobody else could handle them. Most of these guys were from Chicago so he wanted me to move in with those guys and if I did he would pay my room and board. So I moved in there and it was a little tough sledding for awhile. But eventually I got their attention, got their cooperation pretty good. I think from those eight or nine guys, a couple of them ended up being teachers, business men, and one guy’s an author. You would have thought they wouldn’t have amounted to much but they all turned out pretty good. I proceeded from that point on to become a graduate assistant and also got my Master’s and my Ph. D. in Educational Psychology.
HP: Was one of them Bill “Thunder” Thornton?
Tom: No, Bill Thornton was from Toledo. Bill was a senior that first year in 1962. One of them was a guy named Larry Kramer. Larry was actually from Austin, MN and later became an All-American player at Nebraska.
HP: How did you and Nancy meet?
Tom: A friend of mine from Hastings, a guy named Don Fricke, who played at the University at that time, arranged for me to meet Nancy. I really liked her and I decided I was going to marry her after I had been around her a couple of times. We were engaged within a couple of months and married in about six months.
HP: Do you have a favorite Bob Devaney story?
Tom: (Laughs) This is not a particularly humorous story but I remember Bob when he went to Nebraska the first year he won 9 games and lost 2, which was a miracle because they had been losing big. The next year he went 10 and 1 and won the conference championship when he beat Oklahoma and ran off four straight conference championships and became tremendously popular because he turned the program around. We had a 6-4 season in 1967 and he wasn’t quite as popular and then we had another 6-4 season in 1968 and we lost to Oklahoma 47-0 and there were rumors that Bob needed to go and if he didn’t go, at least he needed to get rid of some assistants. A couple of lessons. That’s how quickly things can turn in football. You’re never any better than your last game. Here was a guy who turned a losing program around, still didn’t have losing seasons and all of a sudden people were not happy. I was particularly interested in his position because he could have easily fired two or three assistant coaches and made himself look good but he didn’t do that. He announced to the press and everybody else that if one guy went, we all went. He wasn’t going to have any sacrificial lambs. His loyalty to his staff engendered a lot of loyalty on our part. So I was always very loyal to Bob and I think I learned quite a lesson in loyalty that’s been important to me.
HP: Do you have a humorous story?
Tom: I think one time Bob was up in South Dakota somewhere and he was driving about 110 MPH and the cop asked him what he was doing. He said he had just gotten off the Interstate and he didn’t have time to adjust. Only Bob would say something like that. He was rather notorious for his driving and people, …..they really liked Bob but they didn’t like riding with him very much.
HP: What was your recruiting territory when Devaney was coach?
Tom: I was all over the place. I had western Nebraska. I had Kansas City. I also had California and I also had Arizona. One reason I got California and Arizona was because of those two 6-4 seasons and we were really struggling in our offensive line. We just didn’t have very big kids and got pushed around so I asked Bob if he thought I should go out and get some junior college players and he thought it would be a good idea. We did get some good players. We got a guy named Carl Johnson out of Phoenix CC and he played in the NFL. Keith Wortman out of Rio Hondo in California and he played in the NFL. Bob Newton out of Cerritos Junior College in California and he played in the NFL. There was a guy named Dick Rupert out of Harbor Junior College in California. Dick was smaller and didn’t play in the NFL but 4 of the 5 offensive linemen during our good years there in 1970 and 1971 were from junior colleges and that really helped us turn things around.
HP: What do you remember about recruiting Dave Humm?
Tom: I just remember it went on forever. At that time there was no limit on the number of visits a player could make and a lot of players were somewhere every week for 12 or 13 weeks. David visited a lot of campuses and also there were a lot of people who recruited David. It was usually the head coach. I remember Bear Bryant and Joe Namath going out there to recruit him. Eddie Crowder was out there from Colorado on a regular basis. Certainly part of it was that David was a fine person and a great player but a lot of it was also that they liked to go to Las Vegas. He was probably the most heavily recruited guy in the world.
HP: What about Vince Ferragamo?
Tom: I had California and I recruited Vince and I went to his high school and his brother was his coach and it was kind of a tug of war. Eventually I think it came down to Stanford and Cal and it seemed like Vince kind of wanted to go to Stanford. He signed a letter and put it in the mail. There was some big rhubarb about how his brother got upset because he wanted him to go to Cal and went and got the letter out of the Post Office or something and then there was the argument that once he signed the letter and put it in the Post Office was he committed? Eventually he ended up at Cal with a guy named Steve Bartkowski. It was between the two of them and he became disenchanted and transferred to Nebraska and of course started for us for two years and did a good job.
HP: Did he contact you again?
Tom: We couldn’t contact him again once he was enrolled at Cal. He or his brother or somebody called and said he was really unhappy out there and wanted to know if we would be interested in him and I said “Yeah, we’d be very interested in him.”
HP: What was the story about the bowl trip where he got in trouble with the NCAA?
Tom: That was my fault. When he transferred that first year he was not eligible to play but I did not realize that he was ineligible to go on a bowl trip. I guess to go on a bowl trip you have to be eligible to play in a game. We took him to the bowl. He had been on the scouting team and somebody recognized him on the sideline. He wasn’t suited up. He was in street clothes. Somebody at the Sugar Bowl interviewed him on television. Somebody knew the rule better than I did and they turned us in. I went down and appeared before the NCAA infractions committee and told them “Do whatever you want to to me. I’m the guy that was wrong. I didn’t know the rule but don’t penalize the kid. He just did what we allowed him to do.” They still hung a one game suspension on him so he didn’t start the first game of the next year and then he started the rest of them after that.
HP: What do you remember about your recruiting of Bill Sloey?
Tom: Bill was one of those guys that had some talent. He was a very good player and I thought had a great future. Then I believe it was during spring ball or a scrimmage or something he just hurdled over someone laying on the ground and came down kind of awkward and tore an ACL ligament. I believe at that time they didn’t have any good surgery for it and Bill was never the same player. He could have really been a great player.
HP: What do you remember about recruiting Roger Craig?
Tom: The guy that we recruited first was his brother Curtis who was heavily recruited. We got Curtis over here and he started for us, I think, for three years. Then Roger came along. Curtis was a senior when Roger was a senior in high school. I remember going over there and recruiting Roger when there was a huge snow storm. He lived up a hill and I remember literally pushing John Melton up that hill. We were walking and John just ran out of breath. Anyway, we got Roger over here and Roger turned out to be just a great player. He was a little bigger than Curtis and Curtis was a little shorter. They are both great people and great athletes.