Commentary

Steady Nebraska embraces change

Originally Published: August 25, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Every day when he comes to work, Tom Osborne walks past a statue of himself and enters a building that bears his name.

They are monuments to the Nebraska icon's unshakable consistency. The former football coach didn't make the Cornhuskers great -- predecessor Bob Devaney gets credit for that -- but he kept them great across a quarter-century run that ranks among the most brilliant in the history of the game. Along the way to 25 consecutive years as a ranked team and always winning a minimum of nine games, Osborne established a program identity that never wavered.

[+] EnlargeTom Osborne
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTom Osborne has been the steady hand behind the wheel of Nebraska's program. He'll guide the Huskers' transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten.

Nebraska always played the same. Nebraska always looked the same. Nebraska always won the same.

It elevated the power running game and bruising defense to veritable Midwestern family values. It celebrated walk-ons who became the fiber of the program. It cherished the plain "N" on the white helmet and the black practice shirts on the defense and the eternal sellouts of Memorial Stadium on fall Saturdays, where the red sea of humanity makes the stadium the third-largest city in the state every home game.

Heroes came and went. Results, like Osborne's facial expression, barely fluctuated.

Given that reverence for permanence, it is surreal to sit in the Nebraska athletic director's office in the summer of 2010 and behold Tom Osborne, agent of change.

As everyone knows, the Huskers are on the verge of joining the Big Ten Conference. This is their final season as a member of the Big 12, which is an outgrowth of the Big Eight, which previously was the Big Seven and before that the Big Six. From six to 12, Nebraska has been a member of that core conference group since 1928.

After 82 years of league loyalty, one of America's most tradition-steeped programs is embracing a massive, jarring paradigm shift.

"It's going to be a little weird," said star Huskers defensive tackle Jared Crick, a product of Cozad, Neb. "But if Coach Osborne says it's best for the program, you can't really call him a liar."


The trust in monotone-voiced, 73-year-old Tom Osborne stretches from Scottsbluff to Tecumseh -- the state elected him to three terms as a United States congressman, after all. But it was the Hastings native's subsequent loss in the 2006 race for governor that helped set Nebraska on two seemingly divergent but ultimately parallel courses: back to its old-school football identity and off to the brave new world of the Big Ten.

"I wanted him to win the governor's job, but it might have been best for the direction of the football program that he didn't," said former Cornhuskers star wide receiver Matt Davison, now a member of the program's game-day radio team. "He probably has greater influence over the state of Nebraska as athletic director than he would have as governor."

By losing the Republican primary for governor, Osborne was around and available when Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman decided to get rid of athletic director Steve Pederson in 2007.

"I was teaching leadership classes at Nebraska," Osborne said. "I thought that's the way my professional life would end. Then, one Sunday afternoon, the chancellor asked if I'd become the athletic director."

Funny thing. What Osborne really wanted was a seamless transition from the end of his coaching career in 1997 into the AD's office, just the way Devaney had done it in the early 1970s. But the Nebraska chancellor at the time, Graham Spanier, pre-empted that plan years earlier by hiring Bill Byrne for the job in 1992. Osborne was so pleased that he went fishing -- he insisted at the time that it was a trip planned long in advance -- instead of attending Byrne's introductory news conference.

[+] EnlargeTom Osborne and Bill Byrne
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOsborne, with former Nebraska AD Bill Byrne, entered politics after retiring from coaching before returning to the Cornhuskers as AD in 2007.

When Byrne departed Lincoln in 2002, Osborne was immersed in his political career. So the AD job went to Pederson, who seemed to have the necessary pedigree -- a Nebraska native and former employee in the school's media relations department and football program. But after justifiably firing Osborne's hand-picked successor, Frank Solich, he made the fatal error of replacing him with former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan.

Callahan wasn't Pederson's first choice for the job. He took over a slipping program and quickly downgraded it to crumbling. Along the way, he did the worst thing you can do to Nebraska football: He changed it.

According to many in the Big Red hard core, Callahan didn't pay sufficient homage to Nebraska's heritage. He downgraded the legendary walk-on program and alienated former players. Perhaps most appalling of all to true believers in the inherent good of blocking and tackling, he played finesse football.

"I don't think Nebraska was playing a way that represented the fan base and the way we were used to playing," Davison said. "I don't think we were putting the most physical team on the field."

So within weeks of being named interim athletic director, Osborne made the very easy call to fire Callahan. Then he made the very tough call of hiring Bo Pelini over one of his greatest players, former quarterback Turner Gill.

Gill, now entering his first season at Kansas, will get a chance on Nov. 13 to prove his old coach made the wrong hire. That's when the Jayhawks come to Lincoln.

Even though Pelini lacked the steeped-in-Big Red pedigree of Gill, he still had the characteristics Osborne valued: familiarity with the program as a former defensive coordinator under Solich, a predilection for smashmouth football and a strong recruiting reputation.

Pelini's expulsive temperament is decidedly unlike Dr. Tom's, but it has worked. And if the white note card on Osborne's desk last week with a play drawn up in X's and O's is any indication, Pelini has kept his Hall of Fame boss in the loop. Nebraska has gone 19-8 in his two seasons as coach, including two bowl victories and last year's memorable appearance in the Big 12 title game.

"We've kind of gotten things stabilized," Osborne said.

Why, then, turn around and destabilize everything by changing conferences?

The answer, it turns out, is a contradiction.


Nebraska's entrenched method of conducting its football business didn't absorb its biggest shock to the system with the hiring of Bill Byrne or Bill Callahan. It actually came in 1996, when the Big Eight became the Big 12.

It took years to play out, but that was the beginning of the end of an era for the Cornhuskers.

"Things began to change," Osborne said. "People here still appreciate the Big 12 Conference, and I do, too. But it's not the same as the Big Eight Conference."

Things began to change. Not the same. Those are uncomfortable phrases around here.

After the Big 12 came into being, Nebraska was on the losing side of a 7-5 vote to locate the league's office in Dallas instead of Kansas City. (The Big Eight office had always been in K.C.) Texas was on the winning side of that vote.

Things began to change. People here still appreciate the Big 12 Conference, and I do, too. But it's not the same as the Big Eight Conference.

--Tom Osborne

With Nebraska in the North and fellow Big Eight alum Oklahoma in the South, the Huskers' biggest rivalry became a two-year-on, two-year-off proposition. You cannot have a football discussion in this state without someone lamenting the demise of that annual series. The Sooners, meanwhile, embraced Texas as their primary rival.

And after alternating the site of the conference title game for 14 years between Missouri (bedrock Big Eight territory) and Texas, Big 12 schools voted 11-1 to give the championship game an extended run at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Guess which school voted against? And guess which school was frosted at its North Division cohorts for going along with the Texas cabal?

The first of those games at Cowboys Stadium was this past December, when Nebraska came within a single second of shocking No. 2 Texas and throwing the BCS into chaos. But the Cornhuskers lost 13-12 when a second was (correctly) put back on the clock and Texas kicked the winning field goal. It was the Longhorns' fifth straight victory over Nebraska, their eighth in nine meetings since the two became conference brethren.

Not that Osborne says any of those individual instances led his school to bolt from the Big 12.

"The one-second loss to Texas had nothing to do with it," he said. "You don't make a move like that because of one loss, or where you play a championship game."

But if you add those things together, plus the suspicion that Texas would continue to throw its ever-expanding weight around, you get a picture of a former conference kingpin being marginalized against its will. And if you mix in interest from the most established conference in America, suddenly you have a change even hidebound Nebraska can believe in.

"Four or five months ago, I would not have thought there was much chance at all of leaving the Big 12," Osborne said.

But he talked to Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who said there might be a place for Nebraska in the Big Ten. Then Ohio State coach Jim Tressel told Osborne the same thing. Then Perlman, intrigued by the potential for an enhanced academic profile in the Big Ten, talked to commissioner Jim Delany.

A meeting was scheduled, and the parties hit it off.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOne of Osborne's first items of business as athletic director was to hire Bo Pelini as Nebraska's coach.

"We liked what we heard," Osborne said. "They liked what they heard."

This is where those divergent courses came together and ran straight. Nebraska's appeal was not enhanced by the number of TV sets joining the Big Ten Network. It was enhanced for football reasons: Osborne's firing of Callahan and back-to-basics hire of Pelini have aimed Nebraska back toward heavyweight status.

So when the Big 12 spring meetings turned into a showdown over who was staying and who was going and whether anyone could assure that the league had a future, the Huskers were ready to cut 82-year-old ties.

Bottom line: Nebraska had to embrace a change to the Big Ten because change to the Big 12 already had compromised what it held dear.

"If the Big 12 isn't going to be around six or eight or 10 years from now, what are our options going to be?" Davison asked. "We have a golden opportunity to go to a league that isn't going anywhere. Nebraska wants consistency, wants that rock of a conference."


There are, of course, a few items of business to attend to before sprinting into a bold new era. Perhaps as many as 14 of them.

The first 12 are the regular-season games in an autumn when expectations are ratcheted back up to typical Nebraska levels, with the Huskers starting the season ranked in the top 10. Next would be the Big 12 championship game -- something Nebraska hasn't won since 1999. After that, there are dreams of playing in a BCS bowl game -- perhaps even the championship game.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
AP Photo/Nati HarnikExpectations are high in Nebraska as the Huskers are ranked in the top 10 entering the season.

"For Nebraska fans, for the first time since 2001, we can say we're good enough to beat anybody in the country on a given day," Davison said. "We might be favored in every game this season.

"I do believe this could be a special season. Do I believe we'll win a national title? We've got a shot."

To get that far, Nebraska will have to slay the Texas dragon at least once, maybe twice. First shot comes Oct. 16 in Lincoln, in a game you might have heard a bit about.

The school's now-infamous "Red Out Around the World" video released this summer featured the date of the game and the words "Beat Texas." It was a surprising call-out of a midseason opponent, and it didn't sit well with some key constituents.

"I've got to admit," Pelini said, "I wasn't real happy with it."

So the video got some editing, removing all mention of Texas. But you can't scrub the name and date from the minds of everyone in and around the program.

"I know Coach doesn't want us talking about it, and we have to take one game at a time," receiver Niles Paul said. "But I also know that game's highlighted on a lot of people's calendars around here."

That's because of the way the December game ended. The nausea induced by that defeat spurred defensive back Will Richards to make red rubber wristbands for his teammates that simply say, ".01," for the single second that marked the difference between a championship and a bitter defeat.

"You could literally taste it," Crick said. "That second that all our guys were running on the field, you were at an all-time high. You go from extreme happiness down to about as low as you can get."

Even Osborne, the state stoic, might have had a perceptible mood swing over that outcome. But that memorable game was a mere prelude for guiding a school and an entire state through the momentous offseason to come.

"Nobody has a calming effect the way he does," Davison said. "Nobody has his ability to bring people together from every different demographic for the same cause."

The cause is a strange one for Tom Osborne's Nebraska: creating change, then embracing it.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.