Tom Osborne, Nebraska|
Three-time national champion (1994, 1995, 1997).
Finished No. 2 in the polls twice (1983, 1997).
Led his team to 18 Top 10 finishes in 36 seasons at NU.
Coached first school since Oklahoma in 1955-56 to post back-to-back perfect national championship seasons.
Career record: 25 seasons, 255-49-3 (.836).
At what point in the season -- spring football, two-a-days, November - at what point does it hit you that your team has a legitimate shot at a national championship?
Osborne: Well, I would say usually, probably after the first difficult game of the season. I'm not talking at the end of the year, but usually at some point there is a difficult, challenging opponent in first three, four or five games. Usually, how you played in those games was a pretty good measuring stick for your season.
Sure, you begin to get some impression in January and February, and in spring ball you get a first-hand look at any obvious deficiencies on your team. And summer is really a great indication of work ethic and unity if guys are sticking around and working hard. You can see just how committed they are. But the first time I'd feel comfortable and confident, though was when finally played a top 10 team or somebody like that and came out on top.
How -- if at all -- does that change things?
Osborne: Not at all. I don't know what you would change. For every game, you always prepared the best you could. Honestly, if you were a 40-point favorite or two-touchdown underdog, you prepared the same. You leave no stones unturned. And that approach was probably helpful in the fact that we only lost to a handful of teams we were strong favorites over.
If there was a formula for producing a national champion, what would it be?
Osborne: I think most teams that win a national championship have a very good defense. They're sound and usually prevent you from being down 21-0 before you blink. I think, also, it's important that you have a sound kicking game and not give up a lot of cheap yards and points.
Offensively, you want to have an experienced quarterback with talent. An inexperienced quarterback will usually lose you at the very least a game or two based on what he doesn't know.
Turnovers, of course, are always nice to have. And you want an offensive line that controls the ball.
But I'll tell you, as time went on at Nebraska, the factor that I began to notice and focus on more and more was chemistry. I always felt some teams were closer, more goal oriented and driven than others. And that always hinged on senior leadership. It revolved around a few special players. In 1997, it was Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom. They were the guys that set the tone on that team, the guys that demanded a certain level of play from their teammates, especially on defense. And yet they were great players.
How much does luck play a factor?
Osborne: I don't know if I'd call that chemistry or good fortune. There's probably, in my opinion, and this number may fluctuate some, 12 to 15 schools a year that I would say legitimately contend for the national championship. And things like an injury, especially long ones, the loss of a key person or a tipped ball you end up getting or don't get, can decide the title. In 1997, we beat Missouri in our first-ever overtime game on a last-second touchdown pass that deflected off a receiver's foot into the arms of another receiver. Stuff like that is part of the game. And it goes both ways. It could be an official's call at the wrong time or the right time.
Once in awhile there are exceptions, like in 1995, when we were undefeated and the closest anybody came to us was 14 points. But most years, it all comes down to a turnover, an official's call, a penalty at a key time. And as a coach, it kills you that many of these things are all but out of your hands.
How important is team chemistry? Or is it something that talent and execution can overcome?
Osborne: I felt that it was definitely critical. But it's not something you could force. You can't say we're going to be close, hold hands and have a picnic after practice everyday. You had to do it by starting with the chemistry between players and coaches.
Some teams tend to have more of a bond than others and I think some of that depends on the leadership of the coaches. Is there a healthy level of respect both ways? Is there genuine affection for one another? Is everyone committed to the same goals?
My last 7-8 years at Nebraska, we had a unity counsel where each segment of the team -- two offensive linemen, two defensive linemen, two running backs, etcetera, etcetera -- represented the team. There were 16 players I believe that met once a week, with their sole mission to bring up anything that got in the way of us moving in the same positive direction as a football team.
I can't tell you how helpful that was to solving all the little minor irritants and problems that a head coach doesn't even know about. And during those years, we were exceptional on the football field.
Strategy wise, do you approach decisions differently during a national championship year, whether it's going for two, going on fourth down, things like that?
Osborne: Maybe a little, but not very much. We did have the game with Miami at the end of the 1983 season where I decided to go for two with 30 seconds left or something like that and we didn't get it and thus lost, 31-30. There was no overtime back then and everybody told me that if we would have just kicked the extra point and tied, we would have been national champions.
My opinion on that, though, was that if you win a national title, you win it. Not tie for it. Sure, everybody says kick the PAT and you still win, but I don't think of it that way. And if it were a regular season game, I'd go for the two points anyway. So I can't really think of many distinct occasions where I coached any differently or did anything differently because we had a chance to win the national title.
|Tom Osoborne led the Huskers to three national titles in 25 years.|