TOM OSBORNE IS STILL . . . : Looking for Respect : Cornhusker Coach Wins More Than His Share, but the Doubters Remain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Has anyone ever seen Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne smile? Actually smile. Not smirk, not grin, not beam, but smile? Does he have gums and teeth? And if so, are there dental records to prove it?

Thumb through the entire 1993 Cornhusker football media guide, all 272 pages, and you won't see a single Osborne incisor. Instead: See Tom crouch. See Tom with headphones. See Tom sign autographs.

But never, ever see Tom smile.

Even in his family photo, Osborne wears a sort of dreamy grimace, as if he had better things to do than be happy. The man has won 206 games, ninth-best among all Division I-A coaches past and present, and yet he looks in need of a good joke or, better yet, a national championship.

Once again, Osborne and the Cornhuskers find themselves at title's edge. Once again, everyone with a point spread and an opinion is predicting another Nebraska belly-flop. Consider it tradition.

For 21 consecutive seasons, Osborne has taken the Cornhuskers to a bowl game. Saturday's Orange Bowl appearance marks the 13th consecutive time Nebraska has played on New Year's Day.

And there's the rub, and maybe the reason no one knows whether Osborne has dimples.

Nebraska wins games, but can't seem to win nationwide respect. The Cornhuskers are undefeated, ranked No. 1 in two of the three major polls and still find themselves double-digit underdogs to once-beaten Florida State. About the only people giving Nebraska a chance Saturday are immediate family members and anyone under medication.

If there is a more maligned successful program than Nebraska's, Osborne would like to see it. For assorted reasons--some legitimate, some the equivalent of old wives' tales--the Cornhuskers have become favorite postseason targets.

Occasionally, Osborne does what he can to refute the criticism, but indignation isn't really his style. He says what he has to say, but every year, like the winter snows that fall on Lincoln, Neb., the list of complaints involving the Cornhusker program returns.

Presenting, in reverse order, the four that count:

4. OSBORNE HAS NO PERSONALITY

This is true. Osborne's weekly TV show is so dull that the Food and Drug Administration should classify it as a depressant. Of course, it isn't much better in the print world. Many a newspaper reporter has ventured to Lincoln for an audience with the Nebraska coach, only to discover that Osborne's office is the place where interviews go to die.

Osborne is polite, decent and careful. He isn't afraid to speak his mind (he has been especially critical of the NFL's policy concerning underclassmen), it's just that it always comes out in a monotone. Put it this way: He wouldn't be your first choice for the Friar's Club.

"Tom doesn't seem to have a lot of public charisma out there, the kind that endears people to him," said Iowa State Coach Jim Walden, a former Cornhusker assistant. "Bobby Bowden, Lou Holtz, Joe Paterno--they have a certain charisma. Bobby Bowden is cracking jokes. Lou Holtz is choking officials. I'm wild, I'm down on my knees praying for a call. Paterno wears those pants halfway up his legs.

"But what do you see Tom do? He stands still. Whether it's 10 degrees or 100 degrees on the sideline, he stands still."

And this from Oklahoma State Coach Pat Jones, another longtime admirer of Osborne: "He's not a real outgoing guy. Tom and I . . . I really like the guy. I think he's a very genuine person. He's just not a real pizazz guy."

Nebraska didn't hire Osborne for pizazz, but for victories. On this count, Osborne has few peers. Among active Division I-A coaches, only Paterno and Bowden have more victories, and no coach reached the 200-victory mark faster than Osborne, who did it in 21 seasons. During his tenure, the Cornhuskers have lost only one game to a team with a losing record--Iowa State in 1992.

"I think when you start talking about outstanding football coaches to other coaches, there's not any I know who wouldn't list (Osborne) in the top three or four," Texas Tech Coach Spike Dykes said. "I don't know if there's a more respected coach in the business."

None of this happened by accident. Osborne might not be much for one-liners, but no one can question his work ethic. Colorado Coach Bill McCartney remembers the time when the Buffaloes played the 1990 Blockbuster Bowl on Dec. 29, while Nebraska had a Fiesta Bowl date with Florida State on New Year's Day.

"We got back here (to Boulder) and then I hit the road recruiting," McCartney said. "On Jan. 2, I went into a high school in L.A. and I was feeling pretty good about myself, you know, that I was hitting (the recruiting trails) hard.

"Then I found out that Coach Osborne was already in that school that day--and he had (coached in a bowl game) the day before. That's him. He's smart. He's a tireless worker. He's got tremendous focus."

But is he beloved? Bowden has won 227 games during his career, not one of them for a national championship, and yet Florida State followers consider him "Saint Bobby." Osborne does the same sort of thing and some people, including Nebraska fans, grumble the night away.

Osborne is what he is. Dynamic, no. Determined, yes. Sure, it would help his public image if he lightened up a bit. But that isn't Osborne. He is as plain as the N on the sides of the Cornhuskers' helmets.

Yet, ask Bowden where he'd like one of his grandsons to play football, and there is no hesitation: Nebraska, for Osborne.

3. NEBRASKA'S SCHEDULE IS TOO SOFT

This was mainly true until McCartney turned Colorado into a consistent winner, Bill Snyder and Glenn Mason worked wonders at Kansas State and Kansas, respectively, and Gary Gibbs revived the Oklahoma program. Now you can argue that the Big Eight is solid from top to bottom, not counting Missouri.

Of course, don't mistake solid for superior. Colorado's renaissance is only about five years old. Kansas went to a bowl game last season and Kansas State is going to one this year, but together, the two programs are 0-42 vs. Osborne. Oklahoma is better with Gibbs, but that could change once quarterback Cale Gundy's eligibility is up. Oklahoma State has been hampered by injuries and the lingering effects of NCAA probation. Iowa State means well--the Cyclones upset Nebraska last season--but rarely has the scholarship numbers to compete. And Missouri hasn't had a winning season in 10 years.

Osborne can't do much about the schedule. The Cornhuskers are required to play seven conference games, so they play them. Is it Osborne's fault that the other programs, with the exception of Oklahoma's and later, Colorado's, took so long to put up a fight? And how, ask Osborne supporters, can you criticize a coach whose record against Big Eight opponents is 123-23-2?

The problem is the recent nonconference schedules. This year, the Cornhuskers played North Texas (Division I-AA), Texas Tech (6-5), No. 14-ranked UCLA (8-3) and Colorado State (5-6).

Meanwhile, Florida State faced Kansas (5-7), No. 10 Miami (9-2), No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) and No. 8 Florida (10-2).

Last season, Nebraska played Utah, Middle Tennessee State (Division I-AA), Washington and Arizona State. Two years before that, the Cornhuskers met Baylor, Northern Illinois, Minnesota and Oregon State.

You get the idea.

Osborne is 45-35-1 against ranked opponents, 22-19 when the list includes only nonconference ranked foes. True, the numbers can be manipulated slightly. Kansas State wasn't in the top 25 when Nebraska beat the Wildcats. And UCLA wasn't ranked when Nebraska beat the Bruins, 14-13, at the Rose Bowl.

"Let's face it," Kansas' Mason said, "nobody thought that was a big game. But it turned out to be a real big game. UCLA is in the Rose Bowl and Nebraska is playing for a national championship."

Still, the nonconference schedules have been on the tender side. That will change. Next season's list of nonleague Cornhusker opponents includes four 1993 bowl teams: Wyoming, Texas Tech, UCLA and Utah State. It isn't exactly murderer's row, but it's better than what's been popping up the last few years.

2. HIS OFFENSE IS TOO BORING

Believe it or not, Osborne was known as a pass-oriented coach when he first came to Nebraska. But seven years into his head coaching career--and not an outright Big Eight championship to show for it--Osborne switched to the triple option. Since then, the Cornhuskers have won six conference titles outright, shared two others and put a nation to sleep.

This is a legacy Osborne can live with. It is a legacy a lot of coaches could live with. The triple option has worked wonders in the Big Eight, where the artificial turf and the early arrival of winter encourage the run.

Sonny Lubick, who took over Colorado State's program this season after working as Miami's defensive coordinator, knows the Nebraska offense from way back when. When he was the head coach at Montana State years ago, Lubick used to visit Osborne every year.

"I'd go there to watch spring practice," he said. "Tremendous program. The coaches are good. I was kind of running the same offense and defense seven, eight years ago."

The Nebraska offense is predictable, often boring, but almost always effective.

"It's relatively basic," Kansas State's Snyder said, "yet, what they do, they do very well."

Translation: The Cornhuskers historically feature a multitalented quarterback, at least one, sometimes two Heisman-neighborhood running backs, and a huge offensive line able to bench-press European sports cars.

"When you look at their program, the names change and the numbers change, but everything else seems to stay the same," Kansas' Mason said.

That's not entirely the case. Osborne, known for his stubbornness, has allowed the forward pass on occasion. The Cornhuskers led the Big Eight in touchdown passes this season and last. But when it comes to actual passing yardage, Nebraska is ranked 92nd among 106 Division I-A teams.

1. NEBRASKA LOSES WHEN IT COUNTS

Osborne has never won fewer than nine games in a season. He has never gone a year without his team being ranked in the Associated Press poll. And no active coach has appeared in more Cotton, Sugar or Orange bowls than Osborne.

Now the downside.

Nebraska hasn't won a bowl game in its last six tries. If the oddsmakers are correct, the streak will grow to seven after Saturday's game against Florida State.

In the Cornhuskers' defense, they will have played the Nos. 1-, 2- or 3- ranked team six of the last seven seasons. In three of those seasons, Nebraska was ranked significantly lower than its opponent.

Still, Nebraska has earned a reputation as a postseason choker. If it weren't for Louisiana State, which the Cornhuskers have beaten in bowl games three times in the last 10 years, Nebraska wouldn't have a postseason victory since 1980.

"I don't know how you (reporters) come up with some of the things you come up with," Texas Tech's Dykes said. "I think the fact that (Nebraska) lost in the Orange Bowl nine years ago doesn't have anything to do with this team."

This season's team is 11-0, but looks can be deceiving. According to Oklahoma State's Jones and Iowa State's Walden, the 1993 Cornhuskers are talented, but not off-the-charts devastating like the '83, '87 or '88 teams. Truth is, Jones said, Nebraska could have lost to UCLA, to Oklahoma State, to Colorado, to Kansas State, to Kansas and maybe even to Oklahoma.

"I just don't think this team is as talented to be 11-0," Jones added. "They are not that talented."

Walden: "(Osborne) has had some 10-1, 11-1 teams I promise you that were better than this team."

Yet, Nebraska is unbeaten, which is why Jones and Walden said Osborne has done the best coaching job of his career.

McCartney, Snyder and Mason argued that no team can go undefeated and not be special.

"I don't think you can be 11-0 with a bad team," Snyder said. "I don't think you can be 11-0 and not be better than a team that finished 9-2. They just end up doing what they have to do. A lot of times an excellent football team can play to the level of competition. I would suggest that this (Nebraska) team has done that."

Snyder will get a definitive answer soon enough. Florida State is favored by more than two touchdowns, which sounds about right to Jones, Walden and Colorado State's Lubick.

Said Lubick: "They'll have to play almost a perfect game in all areas to beat Florida State."

Walden: "Unless he gets the breaks, he will not beat Florida State."

Jones: "I just think Florida State is a lot more talented than (the Cornhuskers) are."

But then Jones reconsidered. Perhaps it was the law of averages, or the thought of Osborne possibly winning his first national championship.

"You're just not sure," he said. "This seems to be a Nebraska team that destiny might hold something for them."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°