Posted by: trevormeers | November 25, 2012

Dr. Tom

The nice lady behind the desk said, “He’ll be with you in a moment. Please have a seat.”

If this had been in the era of smartphones, I would’ve snapped a picture of that seat before gingerly settling into it. Two red leather couches formed a semicircle in the middle of the large lobby. A huge red N was embroidered into the carpet between them, and the whole arrangement centered on what you might consider the ultimate man-cave coffee table. A black pedestal stood between the couches, bathed in a beam of halogen light and supporting a black tower of a trophy topped with a crystal football.

By some amazing force of destiny, after a childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska, I’d worked my way onto hallowed ground: The Cornhusker football offices, six months after Tom Osborne’s first national championship.

“Trevor?” a voice said. “C’mon in.”

I stood and turned to face legend. Coach Osborne—far taller than I’d expected—was extending his hand, inviting me to pull up a chair in his inner sanctum, just on the other side of the wall from that trophy.

It’s hard to convey the sheer gravity Coach Osborne (aka, TO and Dr. Tom) carries in his home state of Nebraska. It runs far deeper than his football record, which is monumental on its own. Wins: 255. Conference titles: 13. National titles: 5. Record in his last five years: 60-3.

It’s possible that no coach not named John Wooden so perfected his craft. And like Wooden, Dr. Tom (he holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology) makes you feel like you’re near a walking chunk of Mt. Rushmore if you get within a few yards of him.

I made it into Osborne’s office in 1995 to interview him for an article about his faith for a Christian men’s magazine. His people told me to expect 30 minutes max in there, but the coach talked with me for 45 before ever glancing down at his watch. At the end of the interview, I dropped all journalistic pretense and took my one chance to tell him what his example had meant to all of us growing up in the long shadow he cast across the plains.

Dr. Tom carried himself like a Bible-believing Clint Eastwood. He spoke little and squinted a lot, but even when a failed two-point conversion cost him a national title in 1984, he uttered no more than “Dang.” It seemed like he spoke at every Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet I ever attended. He was the white hat in many confrontations over the years. He was the stoic yin to the yang of Barry Switzer, the “Bootlegger’s Boy” leading the brash Oklahoma Sooners. Osborne was the steady hand that finally got over on the all-that’s-wrong-with-college-sports poster kids at Miami, beating them for his first national title. He wiped the smirk off the face of the visor-wearing Ol’ Ball Coach from Florida for his second title.

The crux of his impact on me came when I was in college. I was coaching a junior high basketball team, and doing it with my best impression of an old-school coach. I fumed and belittled and praised only grudgingly. I was an intense guy, and I figured that required acting like some mutant offspring of Bob Knight and George S. Patton. But then I read a story about a new offensive lineman at Nebraska. He missed a block and gave up a sack, then slunk back to the sideline. TO stepped over, put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Son, we brought you here to make that play. If you can’t do that, then we’re not going to have a place for you.”

Suddenly, I saw a better way. Who’s the stronger leader? The guy who has to kick over a Gatorade cooler to make his point, or the guy who can jerk a 300-pound man up short with one calm statement?

Once I began to consciously study Dr. Tom’s Great Plains cool, I saw it everywhere. The ’96 season left both Nebraska and Michigan undefeated, for example, and the media repeatedly asked Osborne to make the Huskers’ case for the title. “Well,” he said, “we won 12, and that’s all we played.”

Osborne retired from coaching that year and got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Then he ran for governor and lost, shockingly. Even the storied native son couldn’t win over rural voters on a platform of consolidating more schools.

By 2007, Nebraska football had become nearly uncrecognizable. Osborne’s hand-picked successor was gone, replaced by an NFL guy who didn’t realize he was running a football team that belonged to the entire state, not him. Just before the whole ship sank, the university dumped the AD and brought in Dr. Tom to stabilize things. He fired the overmatched coach and hired Bo Pelini, and things have generally been trending upward ever since.

And that brings us to last Saturday, when the Huskers’ final home game saluted the kid from Hastings, who is retiring as athletic director at year’s end. He led the team onto the field one last time, reprising the lanky, sharp-elbowed jog onto the turf that always made Nebraskans feel like things were under control.

Over all those decades, I met TO only the one time. But I still knew him enough from afar to understand exactly what the country group Sawyer Brown was saying when they wrote “The Nebraska Song.” It salutes Brook Berringer, a Husker quarterback who played a career backup role, but helped secure a national title when Tommie Frazier went down with health problems. Right before graduation in 1996, Berringer died in the crash of a small plane about 10 miles from my house.

Tom Osborne went all the way to Goodland, Kansas, for the funeral of #18.

Well, I came up from Goodland, Kansas
I turned eighteen today
I’m college bound for Lincoln
Nebraska’s where I’ll stay

It’s been my dream all my life
To play football on this field
And if I ever get the chance
I’ll make you this deal

I’ll work hard,
I’ll do my part
You won’t hear me complain
I’ll never go down easy
I swear I’ll pull my weight
Hey there, Mr. Osborne
I’ll do anything to play
And it sure would be a honor, sir,
To call you coach someday

Here in the middle of the middle west
We ain’t afraid to fight
Well, I’ve looked up to you, sir
Now I’ll look you in the eye

Well, I hear something calling me
Like I’ve never heard before
It’s a red and white freight train
And I wanna get on board

I’ll work hard, I’ll do my part
You won’t hear me complain
I’ll never go down easy
I swear I’ll pull my weight
Hey there, Mr. Osborne
I’ll do anything to play
And it sure would be a honor, sir,
To call you coach someday

I came up from Goodland, Kansas
I turned eighteen today
I’m college bound for Lincoln
Nebraska’s where I’ll stay

Watch a live performance of “The Nebraska Song” (with Tom Osborne in the audience) here.

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