End of an Era

BY KEN HAMBLETON
Lincoln Journal Star

Tears welled up in Tom Osborne's eyes and a lump filled the throats of 150 players and thousands of Nebraska football fans Wednesday afternoon.

Even Nebraska's new head football coach, Frank Solich, felt the sadness when the football legend announced his resignation.

Osborne, who will step down after the Orange Bowl, said his health, his faith and his belief in the strength of continuity in the Nebraska football program led to his decision a day after he soft-shoed" retirement talk at his weekly news conference.

"The hardest thing is talking to the players," Osborne said as his eyes reddened. "I tried to say things I thought were funny, but nobody laughed and I felt bad. I care very much about those guys.

"But it is better this way now than for a guy from the outside who comes in and treats the players differently."

Osborne bowed his head.

He looked up.

His face reddened and tears welled again when he stepped back from the podium and heard Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Byrne announce by phone that Solich would be promoted to head coach after the Jan. 2 Orange Bowl.

Bad weather stranded Byrne in Chicago. Solich, who was in Toronto visiting recruit Dahrran Diedrick Tuesday, also battled the weather, but made it to Lincoln in time.

"This is a tough day for people in Nebraska and a few will be in shock," said Solich. "This is a day of mixed emotions for me. I am sad because Tom is so close to us all. I am excited to be named the head coach of the Nebraska football team."

Osborne, too, had mixed emotions.

"This has not been a fun day for me," he said. "My future, I don't know. Usually you leave these jobs when you get fired or get a better deal. I don't have a better deal, but I have nothing in mind other than to finish this out and then take some time."

Osborne said he began thinking seriously about retiring after his emergency trip to Bryan Memorial Hospital early on the morning of Nov. 16. At the time, Osborne reported the problem was a "heart flutter" that only required new medication and some monitoring.

Wednesday he said the heart problem "put me under and I had to be shocked to get back (a regular heart rhythm). It will go out again and might mean a pacemaker if life goes on."

He said he is still in reasonably good health. "I'm not going to keel over on you right now," he joked. But he added that the demands of a 15-hour day, seven days a week, were too much.

"This is what I enjoy doing but I'm positive to make the adjustments, you have to do your homework and there are no shortcuts. To call the plays and make the adjustments, I realized that in the last three months I could not sustain that for any great length of time and I don't want to be in the position where somebody tells me I'm not getting the job done."

Additionally, Osborne said he was calling it quits because naming Solich now will assure the continuity of the program.

"The third reason was that I take my faith seriously and I feel for me to continue beyond this time that I would not feel good about the spiritual aspect of life," he said.

He said he is leaving the program in the best shape possible and offered to help with recruiting through the national letter of intent signing day Feb. 4. Most of the 10 recruits who have committed orally to the Huskers said they will honor their commitments.

Osborne said he contacted his eight assistant coaches, six of whom were out of town recruiting. Each said he supported Solich.

"Not one coach had any qualms about Frank taking over and that is unusual," Osborne said. "There is usually some jealousy and some back-biting."

When Osborne took over for Bob Devaney, the Nebraska coaching staff was shaken with the departure of five assistants in the next three years.

"I was 35 years old and some of those coaches had been with Bob for 20 years," Osborne said. "I didn't know which end was up."

He said this time should be different.

"We tried to make sure what the order of staff was and everybody has been supportive," Osborne said. "I appreciate that."

Emotion surfaced again when Osborne said he will spend more time with his family and his faith.

"I appreciate my wife Nancy's stance in all this. She had to raise three children single-handedly and I did not realize until recently how difficult some of that was," he said. His voice almost a whisper, he added, "I don't know if you can ever make up for lost time, but maybe a few things will make up for some times we maybe should have had that did not happen together."

Osborne's told his family soon after the Nov. 28 Colorado game, his daughter Ann said. The coaching staff was told Tuesday and talks between Osborne, Byrne and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor James Moeser began in the past week.

Assistant coaches Charlie McBride, NU defensive coordinator and assistant for 21 years, and Milt Tenopir, offensive-line coach for 24 years, said they would stay with the program.

"This is not a one-man operation," Osborne said. "What the people of Nebraska can't afford to lose is the coaching staff. Some of what I'm doing is for continuity and consistency. This decision has been in the process for a few months. There have been a few things that happened with my stamina and cardiovascular problems.

"But at some point in the next two years I might have to call a halt. It would be wise to back off before I had to leave feet first."

A standout athlete at Hastings High School and Hastings College, Osborne ended a three-year pro football career to become a graduate assistant for Devaney in 1962. Osborne was hired as a full-time assistant in 1967. He quickly became the offensive coordinator under Devaney, calling plays to the sideline from the press box. Osborne took over when Devaney retired in 1973 to become athletic director full-time.

Solich, a 19-year assistant, is now in the press box and has been sending plays to Osborne since 1983. A Devaney recruit in 1962, Solich played fullback from 1963 to 1965. He coached at Omaha Holy Name and became the head coach at Lincoln Southeast in 1968. He became the Nebraska freshman head coach in 1979.
 
"I think a lot of the continuity from Bob Devaney to Tom Osborne will be carried on while I'm head coach," Solich said. "I think I am a mixture of the two, Bob known as the free-wheeling, carefree guy in public, and yet serious as a coach, and Tom, known as a stoic in public, but nobody hears how funny and easy-going he can be when he's in coaches meetings.

"It is tremendously exciting to have a chance to guide the program they built. We have the players in the system and I hope all the assistant coaches stay. We have the program that can stay on top as the best in the country."

Osborne and Solich said their immediate concern was preparation for the Orange Bowl.

The bowl game in Miami between No. 2 Nebraska, 12-0, and No. 3 Tennessee, 11-0, will mark the end of Osborne's remarkable career. The bowl game will be his with national championship implications.

"I don't know if this will upset the chemistry or lessen the resolve of the players for the Orange Bowl," he said. "The reason I waited until now was because we were in the season and a seven-day cycle until this week."

In 25 years, Osborne is 254-49-3. He hasn't had a team with fewer than nine victories in a season. His teams have averaged almost 11 victories a season and have been in the top 10 every week for the past five years.

Osborne's teams also lead the Big 12 Conference with a 74 percent graduation rate. Since he replaced Devaney in 1973, each of Osborne's teams has played in a bowl, winning 12 of 25. His teams have been ranked in the final Associated Press poll every year and finished in the AP Top 10 16 times.
 

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