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Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: To Teach or To Coach?

September 05, 2017

When she and Tom Osborne were married in August of 1962, wife Nancy has said her “perception” was that he had joined Bob Devaney’s staff as a grad assistant in order to get football out of his system. She figured his career path would soon take him into school administration.

Osborne, a grad assistant for three seasons, earned a master’s degree – his thesis was “A Study of Programmed Instruction as Applied to the Learning of Football Plays” – after which he began doctoral studies, earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree in August of 1965.

He had the rank of instructor in Teachers College beginning that fall semester and divided his time with duties as offensive ends coach on Devaney’s staff.

Following the 1965 season, Osborne also applied for the job as head coach at South Dakota. But Joe Salem, who had been an assistant at Minnesota, was hired.

Ironically, perhaps, Salem coached at South Dakota for nine years and then four years at Northern Arizona before returning to Minnesota, where he had played, in 1979. He was the Gophers’ coach in 1983, when Osborne’s “Scoring Explosion” team won at Minneapolis 84-13.

It probably should be noted that the 1983 season was Salem’s last at Minnesota.

Osborne also looked at a coaching-teaching position at Augustana College but was persuaded to remain at Nebraska. After two years of teaching educational psychology – Frank Solich was among those in one of his classes – and coaching, Osborne had to decide between the two.

The Teachers College wanted him to be an academic advisor as well as publish. Devaney wanted him to recruit and focus on coaching responsibilities full-time. So Osborne discussed the situation with Devaney, told Devaney how much he needed to be paid, and became a coach full-time in 1967.

Also by that time, Osborne had decided if he continued with football long-term, he wanted to be a head coach by age 35. He was 30-years-old in 1967. One of three children, son Mike, had been born.

Osborne has said he didn’t want to follow Devaney as head coach at Nebraska, however, that he “could intuitively sense that the inevitable comparisons of following someone like Bob would make it tough.” It would be like following Bear Bryant at Alabama or John Wooden at UCLA.

In 1969, on the bus ride home following a 10-7 victory at Kansas State, the fifth in what would be a 32-game unbeaten streak and include back-to-back national championships, Devaney asked Osborne to come to the front of the bus and talk with him. Devaney, who had also become the athletic director in 1967, told Osborne that he was growing weary of the demands of both, was thinking of stepping aside as head coach in the not-too-distant future, and wanted Osborne to succeed him.

Despite the opportunity, a certainty given that the choice of a successor would be Devaney’s as athletic director, Osborne was reluctant, enough so that he pursued the job as head coach at Texas Tech when J.T. King moved from head coach to athletic director in Lubbock following the 1969 season.

Osborne interviewed for the job during the Huskers’ preparations for the Sun Bowl, but finished second on King’s list – or so he was told – behind Jim Carlen, who had been the head coach at West Virginia, compiling a 25-13-3 record over four seasons, with one conference championship.

Carlen’s Red Raider teams were 37-20-2 in five seasons.

Fortunately for Nebraska, wife Nancy’s perception had been wrong and King had picked Carlen, just as South Dakota had picked Salem. Osborne, who never got football out of his system, succeeded Devaney. His passion for teaching remained, however, and served him well as a coach.

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.

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