The Colorado football team was 0-6, on the way to a 1-10 season under second-year coach Chuck Fairbanks, when No. 9 Nebraska prepared to travel to Boulder in late October of 1980. The Huskers would play No. 15 Missouri in Lincoln the next week.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was in my third year at the Lincoln Journal and Star, still trying to establish credibility on the Nebraska beat, and had set up an interview with a player before practice.
Times were different. A relative handful of reporters would show up at practices, which were open to them, and they would set up and do interviews at a player’s convenience.
Sometimes it was: “Hey, come to the locker room before practice.”
That was the case on this particular day. Since the newspaper offices were just down 10th Street from Memorial Stadium, I set out on foot, starting to cross 10th.
“Hey, Mike, you want a ride?”
Tom Osborne, in his Wheel Club vehicle, was stopped at the light, coming my way on Q, a one-way street. As he yelled, his light changed to green and a car or two came from behind him. So rather than make him wait, I cut diagonally through the intersection, at a jogger’s pace.
I’ve never been fast. Quite the contrary.
Reaching his vehicle, I slipped on some loose gravel—folks have disputed that part, attributing it to clumsiness—and went down in front of the vehicle.
Though only an instant passed on the pavement, it seemed much longer. Maybe he could just run over me, I thought. What credibility would I have now?
I pulled myself up, thinking maybe I should say, “Thanks, but I’ll walk.” Obviously my ability to do that was in question, though, so I got in the vehicle, trying not to bleed on the interior.
I stared straight ahead, unsure of what to say.
Osborne turned right and headed to the South Stadium parking lot. The only thing he said was, “You know Mike, I don’t think fans are taking Colorado seriously enough, do you?”
I might have mumbled something, I’m not sure.
When he pulled into his parking space, I quickly got out, said thanks—the only thing I remember saying for certain—and quickly hid in the sports information office.
To this day, I don’t know if Osborne saw me disappear as he waited, such was his focus on Colorado. Never mind that the Buffaloes were 0-6, or that they had beaten Nebraska only once (in 1967) since Bob Devaney arrived from Wyoming in 1962, or that the Missouri game was up next.
Osborne prepared his team for every opponent as if it were a national championship contender, which is among the reasons that during his 25 seasons as head coach, Nebraska lost only once to a team that finished with a losing record—Iowa State, at Ames, in 1992.
I’ve always tried to take what I do seriously but not myself. When Colorado was a conference rival, I was regularly reminded of the “incident” in 1980. Now with the Buffaloes on the non-conference schedule, the memory has returned—though there’s no risk of fans taking them lightly.
And the ugly side of the rivalry has been revived.
Anyway, at the risk of alienating readers, while I was in the sports information office, I recounted the “incident” to Steve Pederson, in his first year as publications coordinator after three years as a student assistant. Steve had a great sense of humor. Seriously, he did.
His advice was when I went to interview Osborne after practice—he talked to reporters each day, as well as at Friday’s walk-through—I should fall down, like Chevy Chase, as if the “incident” had been intentional, an attempt to get a laugh out of the coach.
Yes, the Huskers won at Boulder in 1980, 45-7
No, I didn’t take Steve’s advice.
And yes, there was loose gravel in the intersection.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.