Osborne: 'Character is whole deal'

Lincoln Journal Star

Tom Osborne's voice trembled just a little bit as he finished his speech.

"I'm sorry to leave coaching," Osborne said. "In some ways, I am envious of all of you."

He looked at the crowd of almost 2,000 high school coaches crammed into the Lincoln East auditorium and smiled. As always, after each speech, each press conference, each conversation just the upside of chit-chat, he apologized for taking time to deliver a message.

The standing ovation from the largest Nebraska Coaches Association general assembly crowd ever proved the apology was unnecessary.

He could have talked for another hour or two and still had the crowd mesmerized with an old message that will never tire.

"It takes a mental, physical and spiritual commitment to create the character it takes to win," he said. "You need a consistent philosophy. One of the most damaging things are the sayings 'Nice guys finish last,' or 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing,' and 'Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.'

"The bottom-line philosophy is win or lose. You need to tramp on somebody with your cleats, and you'll win at any cost.

"The other philosophy is process-oriented. We believed in 'Work hard, be thorough and be professional.' We tried to be as prepared as we could be. Under the process, you operate with integrity, develop players to grow and to promote the value of education.

"We hit hard, but with character. Character is the whole deal."

From a strong work ethic and character come victories.

"I told the players last year, we've already won 75 percent of our games based on how hard we worked in the winter, spring and summer," he said. "The idea is that we'd do things others were unwilling to do.

"I remember one summer when I saw Jason Peter run 30 yards across the field and tackle a guy. I asked him, 'What was that about?' He said the guy was loafing. I mentioned that he might have talked to the guy."

After the laughter died down, Osborne added, "It wasn't coaching, the players took it upon themselves."

He explained that the self-policing Unity Council, formed in 1991 with the help of team psychologist Jack Stark, helped the team develop character.

Some of the other keys to the Huskers' success are:

The stability of the coaching staff, which averaged 14 years in a field that usually averages three years at a school.

--The weight program of Boyd Epley.

--The walk-on program. "Part of our success is because we have so many walk-ons. By definition, a walk-on player is an over-achiever. The scholarship guy knows there is competition from people willing to give everything, even without a scholarship."

--That love can produce more victories than hate. "Hate is too closely related to fear. A team motivated by hatred can become fearful to easily. Love is closely related to courage and confidence."

Osborne also detailed his most memorable season of coaching.

"1995 wasn't my favorite but my most memorable season," he said. "We were undefeated and beat just about everybody pretty well. Even the second-best team, Florida, we beat by almost 40 points.

"On the field that team was outstanding. Off the field, we had four, five players who were singled out as renegades. The team took a lot of hits. The university was dragged through a lot from a lot of national press that didn't know the entire story.

"Riley Washington was charged with attempted murder before the season started. He was acquitted. Lawrence Phillips was convicted of two misdemeanors when he dragged a girl down three flights of stairs. Christian Peter was found to have three misdemeanors three years previous. Damon Benning was charged and later the charges were dropped. Tyrone Williams was still under charges of shooting at a car two years previous."

Osborne still carries the weight of the 1995 season. No story about his coaching career is complete without the criticism of his 1995 team. The debate surrounding Phillips' return to the team -- after a six-game suspension, which included a crucial battle with No. 7 Colorado -- is still hot enough to brand Osborne, probably forever.

Still, the rewards that year were great.

"We held together," Osborne said. "We were in the public eye. We were the defending national champions. The potential was for the team to fall apart. But we had the most intense effort I've ever been around. I've never been through a period where more players were more dedicated to making the tangible out of an idea."

Actually, things aren't all that hard in coaching, Osborne said.

"Coaching is easy. If you've got the best players, you win. If you don't have the best players, you lose. I can't think of many times when I made a difference in the outcome of a game.''

The now public speaker, college teacher, community activist, Bible class leader and Nebraska Foundation fund- raiser said he will miss coaching (note, he refuses to speculate on this year's Nebraska team). He said he will miss the two-a-days and the formation of another team and another game plan.

For the first time since 1955, Osborne is not involved in football practice. For the first time since 1962, he's not a part of Nebraska's football practice. He can't avoid missing it.

Now, he's sharing his experience that brought three national championships, a 255-49-3 record, and 13 conference titles.

"Teachers and coaches are often the front line for children because so many have abdicated responsibility," Osborne said. "You are often the only authority figure in a number of young lives."

He rolled through the dreaded statistics — parents spend 40 percent less time with their children than they did 20 years ago; 50 percent of the children in this country live without both biological parents in the house; and 35 percent were born out of wedlock.

"It all has to do with building character," he said. "You are in the business of building self-esteem. You can tear it down or build it up. If you have to discipline a player or cut a player you have to make sure you let them know it's not because you don't like them as a person. You have to let them know, they are OK as people."

Obviously, the high school coaches in the audience think that Osborne is OK as a person, too.

"Retired coaches are supposed to turn down these things because they are fishing and doting on the grandchildren," said Steve Johnsen, executive director of the Nebraska Coaches Association. "And he didn't do this for the money. He asked for no honorarium. Instead, we're giving a $2,500 check to the Teammates program that assists children. I wasn't surprised at his request."

Neither was anybody else.

Web posted August 6, 1998

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