Tom Osborne’s integrity has only been questioned once.
In 1995, Osborne reinstated Husker running back Lawrence Phillips just weeks after suspending Phillips from the team for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Osborne was harshly criticized for making an exception for the star player and early Heisman Trophy candidate.
Osborne reasoned that kicking Phillips off the team would do more harm than good for the troubled athlete. Some viewed the move as a perfect example of Osborne’s father-figure reputation, but others grilled Osborne, questioning his moral ground and claiming Osborne only wanted to win a championship.
While the Huskers did win the national championship that season, Osborne didn’t sell his soul to the devil for a ring. His team was better prepared and had better guidance than Florida, which Nebraska trounced 62-24.
Tom Osborne wasn’t just a coach, he was an icon that represented not only the university, but the way of life in the state of Nebraska.
It sounds cheesy – the coach of the football team being the figurehead for the state – but it’s true. Osborne is viewed as almost a deity in Nebraska, an immortal. The Cornhusker State even elected the Huskers’ head coach to represent it in the House of Representatives.
The reaction says it all.
On Twitter, Tom Osborne was a trending topic nationally before Osborne even took the podium. By the end of his press conference, his name was trending worldwide.
It started with Tim Miles, the new Nebraska men’s basketball head coach, who officially broke the story with a picture from the staff announcement. It followed with praise from current and former players.
Tom Osbourne announcing retirement. Leaves an unreal legacy for NU. Go Big Red twitter.com/CoachMiles/sta…— Tim Miles (@CoachMiles) September 26, 2012
“Tom Osborne had the biggest impact on my life as an athlete, student, and business leader,” tweeted Blake Lawrence, former NU linebacker. “Incredible man. Love you T.O.”
Reaction came from all ends, stretching far beyond the football field.
“Osborne left behind an amazing legacy,” tweeted Anna Weigandt, the reigning Big Ten Champion in the outdoor triple jump. “It was an honor to have him as an AD for the majority of my time here as a student athlete.”
Osborne left behind an amazing legacy. It was an honor to have him as an AD for the majority of my time here as a student athlete. @huskers— Anna Weigandt (@AnnaWeigandt) September 26, 2012
Former Nebraska tight end Jamie Williams, now Nebraska’s associate athletic director of diversity and leadership initiatives, said he didn’t see it coming.
“I’m just sad right now.”
Williams is one of the biggest names rumored to replace Osborne, but he wouldn’t say definitively if he was interested in the position. Who would? Those are massive shoes to fill.
It’s one thing to replace the wins. Any good coach can do a passable job replacing the wins.
His accomplishments as an athletic director aren’t hard to follow either. Osborne introduced new coaches and new facilities, but life goes on.
Osborne’s shoes are as big as his heart is.
“We need to make sure we honor this man the right way,” Williams said. “His wisdom and knowledge, we can’t throw it out there. We need to make sure this man is involved as long as he wants to be involved.”
One moment in a 40-plus year relationship with Nebraska, one questionable call, is the only mark on his integrity. And even that was disputable.
Counter that with his charities, both money and support-based, and throw in the endless advice and guidance he has given one-on-one to Nebraska athletes and spread to the masses across Husker nation, and the Phillips decision seems to vanish from memory.
Osborne will be remembered as a coach, as an athletic director and most importantly as a man. He was and will remain the biggest icon the state of Nebraska has ever seen. For NU Chancellor Harvey Perlman, the decision to replace Osborne shouldn’t be a decision at all.
You can’t hire a new Tom Osborne. You can only hire a new AD, you can only move on.
Chris Peters is a senior journalism and advertising and public relations major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org