- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- He went home to watch the football game, still tingly from a ceremony to honor his 1997 national championship team, and Tom Osborne sat down in front of the TV and let out "Oh geez" a few times.
And then he just felt downright sad.
"It's like his baby in a lot of ways " Osborne's wife Nancy said. "To see that kind of dismantled was heartbreaking."
Twenty-four hours after Nebraska fired its athletic director, the university turned to a much happier past to try and repair five years of rifts, tension and embarrassing losses. The university named the 70-year-old Osborne interim athletic director in a packed room full of administrators in expensive suits and college students wearing shorts and curious looks.
Some of them were in grade school when Osborne led the Cornhuskers to three national championships in four years. But they cheered after the tall, soft-spoken man briefly reassured them that he was doing this out of a love for the university and that he'd stay until the football program was fixed.
And that might take a while. The Huskers are 4-3 under coach Bill Callahan and have endured back-to-back poundings to Missouri and Oklahoma State. The latest one was a 31-point loss to the unranked Cowboys, the worst home defeat in nearly half a century.
NU chancellor Harvey Perlman has received roughly 300 to 400 e-mails a day in the past few weeks, mostly from disgruntled fans who wanted change. At about 4 o'clock on Monday, after he fired Steve Pederson, Perlman said, "the subject matter changed."
He said the e-mails turned positive.
Osborne retired after the 1997 national championship and a 60-3 run. His hand-picked successor, Frank Solich, was fired in 2003. After that jolting move -- and Pederson's infamous "gravitate to mediocrity" speech -- it was obvious that Osborne became disconnected from the program. But he said Tuesday that the estrangement was mostly because he was busy serving three terms in Congress.
In the days before Pederson's firing, it was speculated that the university needed someone from the Husker "family" to mend fences with boosters and an angry fan base. Osborne's calming influence was felt within seconds after he entered the room late Tuesday afternoon.
"And that's what we need," Perlman said. "I mean, God, we've got everybody up at fever pitch, and I don't know if that's healthy for the program. I don't think it's healthy for the people, and I don't think it's healthy for the state of Nebraska."
Perlman said Osborne will decide the fate of Callahan, and will be on staff until at least next summer, when the e-mails subside and the questions over the coaches have ebbed.
For Nancy Osborne, this wasn't the ending she'd hoped for after her husband lost a recent bid for governor. They were supposed to spend more time together, watching TiVo'd football games and catching up with grandchildren.
But when Perlman asked Osborne for help, the answer was easy.
"I mean, how could he not do this when he's asked?" she said. "It's like a calling or something.
"He has high energy. I've always said he's going to die with his boots on. So maybe it will be as athletic director. Maybe there's something else."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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