Osborne, Thomas William ("Tom")
OSBORNE, Thomas William ("Tom")
(b. 23 February 1937 in Hastings, Nebraska), professional football player and head coach of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers from 1973 to 1998, during which time his teams won three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championship titles.
Osborne was the elder of two children born to Charles Osborne, a traveling car salesman and later owner of an irrigation business, and Erma Welsh Osborne, a teacher. During World War II, Charles Osborne served in the military and the family moved to St. Paul, Nebraska, where they lived with Erma Osborne's parents. After the war, the family returned to Hastings.
In his junior high years Osborne enjoyed playing all sports. At Hastings High School he made his mark in football and basketball. Osborne was the starting quarterback in his junior and senior seasons and made the second-team All-State squad his senior year. In 1955, as a senior on the basketball squad, Osborne was selected to the All-State team. For his senior year athletic achievements he was named Nebraska's High School Athlete of the Year.
Both Osborne's father and paternal grandfather had played football at Hastings College, so after graduating from high school in 1955, Osborne passed up scholarships in football and basketball from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and enrolled in Hastings in the fall to major in history. He played football, basketball, and track for the small liberal arts college, quarterbacking the football team during his sophomore year and in 1957, his junior year, leading Hastings to an undefeated season. Osborne's efforts on the field earned him All-Conference recognition in his sophomore, junior, and senior years. The Lincoln Journal Star named him the State College Athlete of the Year in 1958 and 1959 for his outstanding performances.
Osborne graduated from Hastings College in 1959 with a B.A. in history. He entered the National Football League (NFL) draft and was picked in the eighteenth round by the San Francisco 49ers. He made the team as a member of the practice squad, but in 1960 at the beginning of his second year with the 49ers he was released and picked up by the Washington Redskins, where he assumed the position of flanker. Osborne played a few games and returned for 1961–1962, but a persistent hamstring injury forced him to retire at the end of the season.
In 1962 Osborne returned to Nebraska, where he enrolled at the University of Nebraska and pursued a master's degree in educational psychology. He also worked as a graduate assistant football coach. Shortly after enrolling for the spring semester he met Nancy Tederman; the couple married on 4 August 1962. Osborne finished his M.A. in 1963 and earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology in 1965. A few months before Osborne completed the Ph.D., the first of his three children was born.
Osborne struggled to decide whether to teach educational psychology or to coach football full time. In 1967 he accepted the full-time receivers coach position under the Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Bob Devaney. When on 17 January 1972 Devaney announced he would not return, he named Osborne as his replacement. Osborne became head coach in January 1973, and he was immediately under considerable pressure to win. Under Devaney, the Cornhuskers had won two national championships in the last three years.
Throughout Osborne's twenty-five year coaching career with the Cornhuskers, the team developed intense rivalries with their Big Eight conference opponents, and in the 1980s came close to winning two national championships. In 1982 the Huskers were defeated by Penn State and prevented from claiming the national title. The team had another chance at a national title when they played Miami in the Orange Bowl following the 1983 season. The Nebraska team, led by Mike Rozier, recipient of that year's Heisman Trophy, mounted a drive late in the game that produced a touchdown. An extra point attempt would have tied the game, but with forty-six seconds left Osborne decided to go for the win with a two-point conversion. Unfortunately, the conversion attempt fell short, and Osborne's hope of capturing his first national championship died.
From 1985 to 1993 the national championship title eluded Osborne. The teams he coached during this period played exceptionally well and all made postseason bowl appearances, but at the end of the season the Huskers were never number one. For the 1993 season Osborne changed Nebraska's defensive scheme from a 5–2 to a 4–3, which placed more emphasis on speed and allowed Nebraska's defense to equally defend the rush and the pass. The move was designed to make the Cornhuskers more competitive against pass-oriented offenses.
In the 1994 season, with the new defensive scheme in place and the exceptional leadership of quarterback Tommie Frazier, the Cornhuskers finished the regular season undefeated and beat the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl for Osborne's first national championship. The American Football Coaches Association voted Osborne National Coach of the Year in 1995. The following year the team repeated its national championship success by defeating Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. The 1995 season was marred by a series of off-the-field incidents involving members of the team. In September 1995 Osborne suspended running back Lawrence Phillips for assaulting his girlfriend, but later reinstated him, a decision that drew fire from the media.
The Cornhuskers returned as co-national champions (the Associated Press poll voted Michigan number one and Nebraska number two; the ESPN Coaches Poll voted the Huskers number one) in 1997, defeating Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. The victory was bittersweet for Osborne because on 10 December 1997 he announced the Orange Bowl game would be his last. The Orange Bowl victory marked his 255th career win and brought to a close a 25-year career that included twelve Big Eight Conference Titles, one Big Twelve Crown, and three national championship titles. In 1998 Osborne was inducted into the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame.
In retirement, Osborne and his wife established the Osborne Endowment for Youth's Husker Teammates, a mentoring program that matched Husker football players and area business leaders with junior high school students. The couple also established an endowment fund at Hastings College. In November 2000 Osborne, a Republican, was elected to serve as a U.S. representative from Nebraska's third Congressional District.
Osborne, an outstanding Nebraska athlete and former professional football player, is most recognized for his successful tenure as head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Although he coached excellent teams, Osborne struggled to win a national championship in the first half of his career, epitomized in the games played between the University of Nebraska and the University of Oklahoma, and in the close Orange Bowl losses of the 1970s and 1980s. By the end of the 1990s Osborne found success and captured three national titles, but they came with controversy, as off-the-field problems with players and questions about the Nebraska program flooded the press. Osborne, always calm on and off the football field, took the praise and criticism in stride and relied on his faith to weather these victories and storms.
Biographical information can be found in Osborne's own books, including More than Winning: The Story of Nebraska ' s Tom Osborne (1985), written with John E. Roberts; On Solid Ground (1996); and Faith in the Game (1999). Additional biographicaldata is in Julie Koch, ed., A Salute to Nebraska ' s Tom Osborne: A 25-Year History (1998). Information regarding specific games Osborne coached can be found in Tom Shatel, Red Zone: The Greatest Victories in the History of Nebraska Football (1998).
Jon E. Taylor