Home First Wins: Tom Osborne

First Wins: Tom Osborne

by Mike Ferguson

Photo appeared in 1973 Nebraska media guide

Think of Nebraska football and perhaps the first figure to come to mind is legendary head coach Tom Osborne.

A native of Nebraska, Osborne would serve as an assistant, head coach and athletic director for the Cornhuskers. He will almost be most revered for his time as a coach.

Our “First Wins” series that looks back on the first head coaching victory for legends of the sport heads to Lincoln. That’s where Osborne would spend more than three decades as a coach.

Early Life and Career

Born in Hastings, Neb., Osborne would spend his early life there, excelling in multiple sports at Hastings High School. He stayed home to play college football at Hastings College.

A wide receiver from 1956 to 1958, Osborne continued to excel. After becoming the first male athlete to be recognized as both high school and college athlete of the year by the Omaha World-Herald, Osborne was selected in the 1959 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Osborne never played in a regular season game for the 49ers, but saw sparse action in 1960 and 1961 as a member of the Washington Redskins.

In 1962, Osborne joined head coach Bob Devaney’s Nebraska staff as an unpaid assistant. Osborne became a paid member in 1964 and would spend the next nine years under Devaney.

In 1967 and 1968, Nebraska was ranked 99th and 95th, respectively, in scoring offense. Prior to the 1969 season, Devaney decided to make a change. Osborne was promoted to offensive coordinator.

The improvement was almost immediate. After improving to 49th in scoring offense in 1969, the Cornhuskers improved to fourth in 1970. That season, Nebraska claimed its first national championship at 11-0-1. A year later, Nebraska ranked third in scoring offense en route to a 13-0 finish and second straight national title.

Devaney resigned following a 9-2-1 finish in 1972, but remained in his role as athletic director. To find his successor, he didn’t have to look far. The 36-year-old Osborne was the easy choice.

The First Win

Unlike many in our “First Wins” series, big things were expected of Osborne immediately. The Cornhuskers began the 1973 season ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll.

Osborne didn’t have time to settle into the job, either. His first contest was a top-10 showdown against UCLA at Memorial Stadium.

Led by head coach Pepper Rodgers, UCLA was coming off an 8-3 campaign in 1972. The Bruins opened the 1973 season ranked 10th as they arrived in Lincoln on Sept. 8, 1973. Osborne passed his first test with flying colors as Nebraska rolled to a 40-13 victory.

For a half, UCLA hung tough. Nebraska raced to a 14-0 lead behind a short touchdown run by quarterback Steve Runty and a 77-yard punt return for a score by Randy Borg, but before the first quarter was over, UCLA had moved to within a score on Kermit Johnson’s 12-yard touchdown run.

Nebraska pushed the lead back to 14 early in the second quarter when Runty hit Frosty Anderson for the game’s only touchdown pass. UCLA however, made it a 1-score game at the break as quarterback Mark Harmon scored from three yards out.

Leading 20-13 at the break, Nebraska dominated the second half. The Cornhuskers outscored the Bruins 20-0 over the final 30 minutes.

Tony Davis scored on touchdown runs of one and 43 yards in the second half. With less than three minutes to go, Jeff Moran put the exclamation point on the victory with a 2-yard touchdown.

Davis finished 147 yards for a Nebraska team that tallied 305 yards on the ground. Runty was an efficient 9-for-11 passing for 105 yards. The vaunted “Blackshirt” defense held the Bruins to 259 total yards.

Success But One Thing Missing

Nebraska would finish 9-2-1 in Osborne’s first season. The Cornhuskers would finish in the top 10 in at least one of the two major polls in each of Osborne’s first 16 seasons, but for much of his career, he carried the reputation of a coach who couldn’t win the “big one”.

Osborne’s best opportunity to that point came in 1983. The Cornhuskers were 12-0 as they faced Miami in the Orange Bowl.

Trailing 31-24, Nebraska scored with less than a minute to play to cut the lead to one. Rather than kicking the tying extra point, which probably would have resulted in a national championship for Nebraska, Osborne infamously played for the win. The 2-point conversion try was no good and Nebraska settled for a No. 2 finish in the polls after the 31-30 loss while Miami claimed its first national championship.

A decade later — again at the Orange Bowl — another national championship hung in the balance in the final minutes for Osborne and the Cornhuskers. After Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward led a field goal drive that put Florida State ahead 18-16 with just 21 seconds remaining, Nebraska managed to get into field goal range with just a second remaining. On the game’s final snap however, kicker Byron Bennett hooked the winning field goal try wide left and it was Bobby Bowden and not Osborne who celebrated his first national championship.

Osborne Goes Out a Champion

Osborne’s reputation for not being able to win the “big one” however, would have to wait just one more year.

In the Orange Bowl to cap the 1994 season, No. 1 Nebraska scored 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat Miami, 24-17. When the final polls were released, the Cornhuskers stood alone at No. 1.

A national title would be in the cards three times over Osborne’s final four years. In 1995, Nebraska fielded one of the most dominant teams in college football history, beating every opponent by at least 14 points. The season was capped with a 62-24 win over undefeated Florida in the Fiesta Bowl.

After an 11-2 season in 1996, Nebraska went 13-0 in Osborne’s final season of 1997. The Cornhuskers were No. 2 heading into bowl games, but was able to ascend to No. 1 in the Coaches Poll following a 42-17 drubbing of Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Michigan claimed the national championship in the AP Poll.

Osborne spent 19 years as associate athletic director during his coaching career. After a brief stint in the U.S. House of Representatives, Osborne served as athletic director at Nebraska from 2007 to 2013.

Despite his tenure as an administrator and congressman, Osborne will always be remembered as a football coach. Over 25 years as a head coach, he compiled a remarkable 255-49-3 record.

Among coaches with at least 200 wins at the FBS level, no one has a better winning percentage than Osborne’s .836 mark. His first victory was pure domination over a top-10 opponent.

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.