Had it been “a plain business proposition,” Tom Osborne said, he would have left Nebraska to coach at Colorado following the 1978 regular season.
According to newspaper accounts, Colorado offered a $100,000 annual salary, nearly three times Osborne’s base salary at Nebraska. Plus Osborne figured there would be greater security in Boulder. The expectations following Bob Devaney, who had coached the Huskers to a 101-20-2 record with back-to-back national championships in 11 seasons, were considerable, certainly greater than at Colorado.
Osborne was 55-15-2 in six seasons at Nebraska, with five bowl games and a sixth yet to play. His Huskers had shared the Big Eight title twice, including that season, though they would have won it outright if not for a 35-31 upset loss to Missouri in the final game of the regular season.
That had come a week after Nebraska defeated Oklahoma for the first time since 1971. Five losses to the Sooners under Osborne had led to fan disaffection. And because of the Missouri loss, the Huskers faced a rematch with Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl rather than an almost-certain national championship match-up against Penn State.
Crowder had fired Bill Mallory after five seasons in which the Buffaloes were 35-21-1 with a share of one conference title and two bowl games. Crowder, who had been athletic director and coach like Devaney, had picked Mallory as his successor after 11 seasons as coach.
His record was 67-49-2 with five bowl appearances.
Dean Brittenham was a key figure in the Crowder-Osborne connection. Brittenham, Colorado’s track and field coach, had been an assistant to Frank Sevigne at Nebraska.
Brittenham was from Brady, Nebraska, and had competed in basketball and track and field at Nebraska. He finished third in the javelin in the Big Seven meet in 1957. He also was Boyd Epley’s pole vault coach and would go on to be a strength and conditioning coach in the NFL.
Brittenham and Osborne were long-time friends.
Eight Big Eight coaches had been replaced during Osborne’s brief tenure, and “I thought there was enough unhappiness here that maybe I ought to look for a job,” Osborne said at the time.
He discussed the opportunity with his assistants, who supported looking into it.
Crowder’s first choice, according to the Boulder Camera, had been Bud Wilkinson, coaching the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals after 17 seasons at Oklahoma, which included 14 conference championships, three national titles and an NCAA record 47-game winning streak. His record was 145-29-4.
Wilkinson had just returned to coaching after stepping aside in 1964.
UCLA Coach Terry Donahue was Crowder’s third choice, according to the Boulder Camera, but he hired Chuck Fairbanks, head coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots for six seasons after abruptly leaving Oklahoma amid controversy over recruiting violations.
Barry Switzer succeeded Fairbanks in 1973, the same season Osborne succeeded Devaney.
Fairbanks was 7-26 in three seasons at Colorado. Crowder then hired Bill McCartney, who had been an assistant at Michigan. McCartney’s record at Colorado was 93-55-5 in 13 seasons, including a national title in 1990. Osborne’s record against McCartney was 9-3-1, 21-3-1 against the Buffs overall.
Osborne’s consideration of the Colorado job reached a point at which he and wife Nancy traveled to Boulder in early December, when he met with what would have been his new team. “I thought about when it would come time to line up next fall against the Nebraska players I had recruited and coached,” he was quoted in the Lincoln Journal. “That was an over-riding factor in my decision” to stay put.
Osborne discussed his decision with newspapers in Nebraska by teleconference from Kansas City International airport. He had immediately returned to the recruiting trail from Boulder.
Tom's Time is 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.
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.