The View From A Slightly Twisted Angle

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A True Leader

on September 27, 2012

The all out buzz in my great state the past 24 hours centers around the retirement announcement of Tom Osborne, current athletic director at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  This isn’t the first time Dr. Tom has retired.  I remember watching a similar press conference in 1997 when he retired as the head football coach of UNL. That retirement caused an even bigger buzz and quite a few tears if I remember correctly. Today as I look through articles and comments either condemning or praising him I have to ask myself, “What is it about this man that makes a whole state stop and pay attention to what he is doing?”  Is it just because he won a lot of football games?  That helped of course but I don’t think that is the whole of it.  It has more to do simply with who the man is: A true leader.  

I have watched Tom Osborne my entire life.  He’s part of my state’s history. A  great part of it.  I simply don’t remember anything that happened before Tom was at the helm of the Husker football.  (That might have something to do with the fact that I was three the year he took over for his predecessor.)  In those years  I watched him win big and lose close.  I’ve watched him make tough decisions and live with the consequences.  I watched him in victory and in defeat.  The man’s character never changed.  Honest.  Upright. Quiet. A man of integrity. A man who stood by his decisions. A man who spent little time defending himself.   A man of little words.  He let his actions speak for him.  He spent little time worrying about his “legend” and more time serving the people who surrounded him.  He gave his job all that he had.  He not only coached young men in football but he coached them in life.  If you talk to most of his former players today they will tell you that he affected them on a much bigger level than becoming football players.  He helped make them the men they are today. I admire him not because of his football success but because of the example he has continually set for a couple of generations in this state.

He still has his detractors.

 I remember 1983 when all anyone could ask was why he didn’t just go for the tie in the Orange bowl.  Under the old system we were assured a national championship if we’d have tied that game. Tom went for two.  Why?  Because that’s who he is.  He’d rather win or lose outright than get in by technicality.  He is a man of integrity but his decision still drove most of the state nuts.  I remember the bowl years that followed when Nebraska just couldn’t seem to win.  Tom was decried for his old fashioned play. It was declared that, though a good coach, “Tom just can’t win the big one.”  What people didn’t know was that Tom was studying and making changes.  Gradual changes that eventually lead in one of the greatest runs I’ve ever seen: convincing National Championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997.  Then he retired while still on top of his job. He didn’t want to stay longer than he should.  He wanted to get out of the way for the future of the program.  He built it and then he trusted those he’d trainined to continue it in the direction it needed to go. That’s a true leader.

Even his long sought and much deserved championships weren’t without controversy. One of the things you will still hear from his critics is his handling of some of his football players during the 94/95 season.  Suddenly the mild mannered,  quiet coach from Nebraska was labeled a “win at all costs” kind of guy.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth.  He was a “help football players become good men” kind of guy.    He made decisions that he believed at the time were in the best interests of everyone involved. He wasn’t protecting his players or his program as much as he was trying to make a difference in the lives of the young men on his team.  Young human men who sometimes do really stupid things just like most other young human men. The difference is that these young men did them under a national spotlight.  The truth is the program didn’t need these boys to win.  These boys, he felt, needed the stability of the program. Looking back now Tom has said that perhaps he should have taken a different course of action but at the time he thought he was doing the right thing.  That’s who he is.  Still owing his actions but admitting that it may have been better had he done something else.  That’s a true leader.

After serving in the House of Representatives for six years our beloved Dr. Tom was teaching a few classes at UNL when the entire athletic program fell into disarray.  He was asked to step in as athletic director to help right the ship that was quickly sinking.  He was perhaps the only man in the world who could have done it because of his reputation, history and status in our state. We love Dr. Tom.  So at the age of 70 he stepped in to help.  Because he he was aked, he took on an astronomical job at an age when most men are catching up on their fishing time.  He’s reason? In his own words: “I thought if I could help  that I should.”  He’s “helped..” He’s given that job his very best for the past five years.  He’s turned it around and gotten things back on course.  He’s recreated an atmosphere of trust and work ethic.  He’s combined history with vision for the future.  That’s a true leader.

So many lessons can be learned from this one man’s life.  He’s touched and taught so many people just because of the character of who he is.  As he retires for the second time one can’t help but to stop and think of those things.  One can’t help but wish him the best: lots of time with his family and maybe a little time fishing.  I have a feeling,though, that  he’ll spend a large amount of time working at the statewide teen mentoring program he and his wife started years ago.  That’s who he is.  A man who cares more about touching the lives of those who need help than he does about what would be pleasant or easier for him.  A man who gives more than he takes. He’s a true leader.  I can learn a lot from his example.   


Thanks Dr. Tom!!



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