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On Stage

Nebraska football fans are passionate. I know this to be true because I am one and have been for most of my life. As a preteen boy, before most of the games were on T.V., I had a game day routine. My popcorn was strategically placed next to my pop, both far enough away that they wouldn’t get knocked over from an over zealous cheer, but close enough so I could indulge without stretching. The radio was tuned to 1110/KFAB. From pre-game prognostications to post-game interviews and scoreboard shows, I usually listened to the roughly twelve hours of game day programming from beginning to end.

Like a psychological thermometer, one could gauge the temperature of my mood by how well the Huskers were doing. If they won, as was routine, I was happy as a pig in mud. When faced with a rare loss, I cried. A year or two ago, I finally outgrew the crying part. Yes, Nebraska fans are passionate. Though I’m exaggerating a bit on the duration of my tears, I can’t deny that even at my age, my mood rises and falls with the ups and downs of the Husker football team.

When I began to follow the Huskers, our coach was the legendary Bob Devaney. Mr. Devaney was a jovial sort, hired in the early 60s to turn around an anemic football program. The Nebraska faithful and administration demanded some changes and got it when they hired the plain-talking coach away from Wyoming. Indeed, Mr. Devaney did turn the program around. With an assist from Tom Osborne, hired initially as a young graduate assistant, the football program started to soar.

In 1970 and 1971, Nebraska won back to back National Championships. I don’t have to consult a reference book to make sure those dates are correct. I remember. I was twelve years-old, but I remember.

Mr. Osborne was the Offensive Coordinator and was later promoted to Assistant Head Coach. And though the reserved Coach Osborne and socially effusive Devaney were as different as the sun and moon, Devaney trusted Osborne and sensed his superb intellect. Before cashing in his coaching chips and taking over as Athletic Director, Devaney hand-picked Osborne to succeed him as Head Football Coach.

The year was 1973. And when Tom Osborne retired from coaching 25 years later, even those that didn’t follow college football knew his name. He was to become one of the most successful coaches in the history of college football, with a combined record of 255-49-3 through 1997, when he stepped down after winning another national championship. Osborne won thirteen conference titles, went to a bowl game for all 25 years that he was the head coach and won three national championships in his final four years. Needless to say, he is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

I appreciate the wins. I really do. But the vagaries and trivia of wins and losses pale to the point of insignificance when laid beside the personal legacy that Tom Osborne left in his footsteps. Simply put, Tom is a man of God. On a very visible stage, Tom conducted himself with dignity, humility, honesty, honor, compassion, fairness, kindness, thoughtfulness, and peace. Like a paperback page-turner, the years have passed, yet Mr. Osborne hasn’t changed. Many books have been written about this man’s legacy which is in fact not his own legacy at all, but the testimony of that which happens when a man yields to the indwelling power of the One Living God.

While Tom retired to the political arena and was elected to the House of Representatives, the drum beat of Cornhusker football marched on, though in far less capable hands than what preceded it. Frank Solich was fired by Athletic Director Steve Pederson. When Pederson announced the hiring of Bill Callahan in 2004, hopes for Callahan were high, but with the face of college football changing drastically, parity, reduction in scholarships, and who knows what else, Bill Callahan just didn’t get the job done. The 65-51 loss against Colorado was probably the last straw for many Husker fans, but the second losing season in four years and the Huskers’ second losing season in 45 years didn’t help matters. Callahan was 0-10 against teams ranked higher than 20th, 25-21 against Division I opponents and 15-18 against Big 12 opponents. Around here, that doesn’t fly.

I am a passionate Nebraska fan and understand that these silly games sometimes make fans lose their collective heads, but the incessant outrage went too far, even for me. Husker Nation lost its way in the maze of perspective. Yes, I suppose when your team hasn’t had a losing season since the 50s there’s bound to be a certain level of hysteria, but the screeching sound was unbecoming. People were losing their minds. Listening to the tone of callers on sports talk shows, you would think Bill Callahan were a baby killer. He’s a coach that tried and failed. Fan’s tone of meanness and antipathy didn’t fit the crime. We’re not trying to cure brain cancer here. It’s just football.

During the Missouri/Kansas game, a game that with important national championship implications, I saw a public service announcement about sportsmanship which was produced–I think–by the N.C.A.A. It showed regular people doing regular things, but getting heckled and booed by a hidden crowd. One scene showed a senior citizen clumsily trimming his hedge, while a rowdy voice screams sarcastically, “Trim bushes much, you jerk?” The announcers tag line is something like this: “You don’t behave this way in the rest of your life … why do it when you go to the game?”

A few weeks ago, with the Husker football program in shambles, Steve Pederson was fired as Athletic Director and Osborne was hired as Interim Athletic Director. Largely due to the near unanimous respect that Osborne enjoys in Nebraska, much of the hysteria died down. On the day after Thanksgiving, Mr. Osborne announced that he had met with and fired Bill Callahan as Head Coach for Nebraska football.

As in other times when he crossed troubled waters–critical losses, harsh criticism from national media for giving players too many second chances when they messed up, heart surgery, “can’t win the big one” talk from Husker fans, and on and on–Osborne managed this difficult situation with grace, dignity, and honor.

As I listened to the now 70 something Osborne navigate the ensuing storm of reporters and questions with composure and dignity, I found myself with an unexpected surge of emotion. I’ve watched this man operate for nearly 40 years now with rare class. As Osborne extemporaneously explained his actions, I was once again amazed by his strong compassion, quiet ethic, and impeccable integrity. With humility, he fielded difficult questions with candor and serene authority. He was especially generous to Coach Callahan and his assistants, being careful to spare their dignity and to speak of them respectfully.

Tom Osborne has had a profound influence on the way in which I live my life. His example is worthy of imitation and as I watched him speak again on Friday, I realized the many ways in which his beliefs and behaviors have become a part of me. I don’t mean to say that I have been worthy of his example, only that his life has been a significant inspiration.

We are all on stage–some of us more, some less. This isn’t profound, but it is often overlooked. But whether our stage is large or small, big or tall, literal or metaphorical, it’s visible from where people sit; there is a sphere of influence of which we should be aware. To our children and those near us, we may play a starring role. To others, maybe only a bit part. To still others, maybe it’s a memorable supporting role. Sometimes, the person on which we might expect to have the least impact, ends up being one that we influence the most. These are windows of opportunity as we play a character that’s as real as life itself. And people are watching.


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