From the beginning it was apparent Tom Osborne was a “student of the game.” Those were the words Jim Ross once used, hence the quotation marks. Osborne studied a lot of film, not only of Nebraska but also of opponents. Ross said the young coach “really” kept up with the game.
Ross was a long-time Devaney associate and close friend. They coached together at Alpena (Mich.) High School for 11 years, and Ross was with Devaney for all five years at Wyoming before coming with him to Nebraska in 1962. So Ross knew Osborne from the time he was a dorm supervisor.
When Osborne became a full-time assistant in 1965, he helped coach the ends, a job Ross had done. After Osborne’s promotion, and with NCAA rules changes allowing for two-platoon play, Ross coached defensive ends and backs, while Osborne worked with the offensive ends.
“That’s why I was interested in the passing game,” Osborne said during a 2013 interview. And, he was quick to add: “Also blocking.” Those who played for him needed to be well-rounded.
Fan disaffection following Nebraska’s 6-4 seasons in 1967 and 1968, the last of the eight losses coming by 47-0 at Oklahoma, led to Devaney’s decision to effectively turn over the offense to Osborne for a redesign. Much of the offense had been run with an unbalanced line, a full-house backfield, a tight end on the unbalanced side and a receiver split wide. In 1965, Osborne coached a pair of senior players who earned All-America honors: Freeman White and Tony Jeter.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound White was listed as a “split end,” Jeter (6-3, 225) a “tight end.”
How the game has changed. Consider the sizes of those in the middle of the offensive line: center Kelly Peterson (6-0, 223) and guards LaVerne Allers (6-0, 209) and Wayne Meylan (6-0, 239) , who would move to defense the next season and earn All-America honors as a middle guard.
In any case, in the wake of the 12-8 run, Osborne began restructuring the offense, experimenting with a spread formation and incorporating more pass plays, though the Huskers had led the Big Eight in passing in 1964, averaging 122 yards per game with Bob Churchich at quarterback.
Churchich, the Big Eight Sophomore of the Year, had stepped in for junior Fred Duda, who suffered a broken leg in the third game of the season at Iowa State.
Nebraska also led the conference in passing in 1967, again with a sophomore at quarterback, Frank Patrick. The Huskers averaged a school record 154.7 passing yards per game. But Patrick threw 13 interceptions, compared to seven touchdowns and had what the 1968 media guide described as 222 yards in “pass rush losses.” Sacks were not kept at the time. Patrick finished with minus-22 yards rushing.
Nebraska had problems holding onto the ball as well in 1967, losing 25-of-46 fumbles to finish with what remains a school-record minus-18 in turnovers – in just 10 games.
The 6-7, 225-pound Patrick gave way to Ernie Sigler in 1968 and was moved to tight end as a senior. Between them, they threw 11 interceptions and six touchdowns in 1968.
At one point during that time “it seemed like our quarterback wasn’t really seeing the field very well, often not making good decisions,” said Osborne. “Even though I was meeting with them, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. So I figured, well, I would give them a test, have ‘em draw out the pass patterns and depth of the cuts and the way they were reading and who the primary receiver was.”
The tests became a regular part of the preparation, on Friday nights before games. “You assume people know things that they apparently don’t know at all,” Osborne said.
Nebraska led the Big Eight in passing in 1971, when the Huskers won a second-consecutive national championship, and again in 1972, when they ranked eighth nationally.
Osborne didn’t have the title “offensive coordinator.” Offensive line coach Carl Selmer also had input in how the offense ran. But Osborne was in the pressbox on game day, communicating with Devaney on the sideline. Occasionally, Devaney would call the plays. But more and more that fell to Osborne.
The quarterback could always audible and check into a different play, based on what he saw from the defense. The meetings with Osborne, and the tests, made for better decisions.
Recruiting was a factor in the turnaround that produced back-to-back national titles as well, including the arrival of Johnny Rodgers from Omaha Tech in the class of 1969, Osborne said.
Tom's Time, a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.