LINCOLN, Neb. — Tom Osborne, who put together one of the most successful coaching runs in college football history before serving in Congress and taking the reins as Nebraska’s athletic director five years ago, is retiring.
The 75-year-old Osborne announced at a news conference Wednesday that he would step down Jan. 1, though he will stay for an additional six months to assist in the transition to a new athletic director.
“At some point, whether you’re able to function or not, just the perception that you’re getting old can get in the way,” Osborne said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys everybody is walking around wringing their hands trying to figure out what are we going to do with him? That happens sometimes.”
Osborne, who had double-bypass heart surgery in 1985, said he has no health issues that led to his decision.
“I’m probably healthier today than when I was a member of Congress. That takes a big toll on you,” he said.
Basketball coach Tim Miles tweeted news of Osborne’s retirement announcement shortly before Osborne spoke to reporters. Miles said Osborne leaves “an unreal legacy” at Nebraska.
Associate athletic director Jamie Williams, who played tight end for Osborne in the early 1980s, said, “They don’t make a lot of Tom Osbornes. There aren’t a lot of living legends left that you can rub elbows with every day. For him to say he’s going off to pasture, I told him we have more dragons to slay. Sometimes fishing becomes more important.”
Osborne said he told chancellor Harvey Perlman in August that he planned to retire after the football season. Perlman said a search firm had been hired to identify candidates to succeed Osborne, and that he has already interviewed some of them.
“The decision will be his,” Osborne said, referring to Perlman. “I’ll support him any way I can.”
Besides the success his Cornhuskers teams enjoyed from 1973-1997, Osborne served in Congress and lost a gubernatorial bid before returning to the university in 2007 to take over the athletic department. He oversaw the rebuilding of the football program he loves and shepherded the school’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten.
Under Osborne’s watch, the athletic department has built a new basketball practice facility and entered into a public-private partnership to build a 16,000-seat basketball arena in downtown Lincoln that will open for the 2013-14 season. He also oversaw an expansion project that will increase Memorial Stadium’s capacity to more than 90,000 next year.
Perlman had asked Osborne to take over the athletic department at a time of turmoil. The football program was struggling under Bill Callahan, and staff morale was low under athletic director Steve Pederson.
Osborne recalled Wednesday that when he first met with athletic department executives, a few of them told him they were receiving counseling because of stress. Several staff members either had quit or were considering quitting.
“I wouldn’t say things were awful,” Osborne said, “but things were a little fragmented. Some people had quit and some people were thinking about quitting. People pulled together very quickly. Hopefully, it has worked out well.”
Osborne fired Callahan after the 2007 season and hired Bo Pelini, who made the Huskers competitive again and led them to the Big 12 championship game in 2009 and 2010. Among Osborne’s other key personnel moves: hiring Miles from Colorado State last March to coach the men’s basketball program and hiring former major-leaguer Darin Erstad in 2010 to coach baseball at his alma mater.
Osborne is most widely known for his coaching. Every one of his 25 teams won at least nine games, and three of his last four teams won national championships. He retired with a career record of 255-49-3, an .836 winning percentage that ranked fifth all-time among Division I coaches, and 13 conference titles. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998, the year after he retired.
Osborne turned to politics after his coaching days. By overwhelming margins, voters in the western Nebraska district elected him to the House of Representatives in 2000, 2002 and 2004. In perhaps the greatest upset in Nebraska political history, Osborne lost to incumbent Dave Heineman in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Osborne finished his third term after the crushing defeat, then returned to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he taught classes in leadership and business ethics before taking the reins of the athletic department.
“I feel we’re well positioned,” Osborne said. “We worked hard on the culture and part of that has not just been internal. We’ve tried to link this place with the former players. … Whatever we’ve accomplished couldn’t happen if we didn’t have a united fan base. It would be hard to find one equal to our fans around the country. It allows a program in a state of 1.8 million to be competitive with programs in densely populated areas.”
Perlman praised Osborne for stabilizing the athletic department.
“There are people you can admire from a distance and then when you get up close you see all the warts,” he said. “That’s not been my experience with Tom. It’s been fun to interview head coaches with him and to see the national respect and awe they have of his reputation.”
Williams said he hoped Osborne would stay involved in Nebraska athletics long after the new athletic director is hired.
“But at some point,” Williams said, “he has to do more fishing.”
Osborne joked that his wife approved of his decision.
“It leaves me with a great deal of fear and trepidation,” he said with a smile, “because she keeps reminding me the garage hasn’t been cleaned in three years and I can see a whole list of things popping up.”