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A writer reflects on summer day spent with candidate Tom Osborne

September 26, 2012|By Chris Dufresne
  • Former Nebraska football coach and then candidate Tom Osborne has his picture taken with Melissa Wagner, left, and Monica Stlepe in July 2000.
Former Nebraska football coach and then candidate Tom Osborne has his picture… (Dave Weaver / Associated…)

I am too young to have ever hit the campaign trial with Abraham Lincoln, but I was lucky enough in the summer of 2000 to spend a stump-speech day with Tom Osborne.

It could have not been that much different. OK, Lincoln traveled by horse and Osborne by SUV, but both were tall, laconic, larger-than-life types.

Lincoln was from Illinois, while Osborne was from Nebraska, with its capital of Lincoln.

Osborne announced Wednesday he was retiring, at age 75, as Nebraska's athletic director. His contribution to the university can not be overstated.

His record as a football coach is well established. He won at least nine games in his 25 seasons and went 60-3 his last five years and capped his career with three national titles in his last four seasons.

But he was also a great AD, rescuing the school at the depth of its Bill Callahan-hiring despair, while later ushering Nebraska into the Big Ten.

Tom and I had our professional differences. I did not agree with his reinstatement of tailback Lawrence Phillips before the 1995 national title game. I also took Michigan's side in the 1997 title debate. Osborne announced his retirement before the game and the USA Today coaches essentially gave up a half-share of the title as a going-away gift.

But I count that summer day in 2000 as as one of the luckiest in my career as I followed Osborne in his Congressional bid for Nebraska's 3rd District.

Osborne knew he was going to win in a landslide, yet he traipsed the district as if he was behind. He shook hands at the Fillmore County Fair -- "Hi, I'm Tom" -- as if they didn't know. He even gave a speech in a log cabin.

Osborne finished up in Hastings, his hometown, at a soy bean factory, where he asked detailed questions as three reporters in the room nodded off.

"I'm just trying to make a dumb football coach smarter," he would say.

The day ended in his campaign office. Osborne was talking about surveying the area water tables.

"So it's true," Mark Blaudschun of the Boston Globe asked.

"What's true?" Osborne said.

"You do walk on water."

Osborne let out a chuckle. 

He won the election in a landslide.

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