Osborne sets sights on Nebraska state house

OMAHA, Neb. -- It is unthinkable, it is incredible, and if the surveys are correct, it might be Tuesday. Nebraskans go to the polls and reject Tom Osborne as their leader? Yeah, and any day now, the North Pole will oust Santa Claus. But as the May 9 Republican gubernatorial primary approaches, Osborne is in a statistical dead heat with the incumbent, Dave Heineman. According to Nebraska StatePaper.com, the latest poll, taken last Wed-Thu-Fri, showed Heineman with 42.5 percent, Osborne with 42.2 percent.

This is Tom Osborne we're talking about, the man who brought Nebraska national respect in the form of 255 victories over a 25-year coaching career. Osborne retired after the Huskers won a share of the 1997 national championship, their third over a four-year span. In 2000, he won a seat in the U.S. Congress, where he is in his third term representing the 3rd District of Nebraska, home of more cattle than any congressional district in the nation. In his three races in the district that represents the largely rural portion of the state west of Lincoln, Osborne won with 93 percent of the vote, ran unopposed, and with 87 percent of the vote. In fact, Osborne hasn't lost since the Big 12 Championship Game in 1996. The following season, his Huskers went 13-0.

This is Tom Osborne, the straightest arrow who ever lived, a stoic with the selfless, self-deprecating presence that this midwestern state values. Osborne is so dry he could apply for federal drought relief, right down to his sense of humor. After he spoke to an assembly of five senior classes at Millard North High on Monday morning, fielding questions ranging from the national immigration debate to sexually transmitted diseases, Osborne walked out of the lobby and said, "I think we survived that without any major bloodshed. But you never know."

This is Tom Osborne, whom, as one woman said, "Everyone loves him. I mean, he has 200 percent name identification." That woman, Sally Ganem, is the wife of Osborne's chief opponent, Gov. Heineman.

Actually, Osborne's name recognition, the quality most cherished by politicians, in Nebraska is somewhere around 97 or 98 percent. The only thing more outlandish than that is the flip side -- there are, in this state of 1.5 million, some 40,000 people who somehow can't identify Tom Osborne.

Everyone knows Tom. Everyone loves Tom. Everyone trusts Tom. Yet Osborne finds himself in what Dave Phipps, the election commissioner of Omaha's Douglas County, called "the most exciting race I've ever been involved in. You've got a living legend in Tom Osborne and a sitting governor who has been involved in party politics for years."

No two political races are ever the same, and no one could have predicted the circumstances that led to this race. Osborne decided early in his third term in the House that he did not want a fourth.

"It is extremely frustrating," said his wife Nancy. "He's used to going after stuff and being able to get it done. When you're one of 435 [representatives] and your state has only three, it is very frustrating."

Osborne massaged his wife's words. "Actually, I don't want to characterize it as, 'I'm totally frustrated.' I've enjoyed it. I'm at an age [69] where I'm never going to be a committee chairman. You usually have to be there 14, 15, 16 years. I can best serve the state by being governor. In Congress, you're pretty much reacting to what the leaders or the White House wants: when to come, when to leave, what to vote on. You have very little control in terms of setting an agenda. I would consider a governor being more like a head coach. Being in Congress is more like being a player."

When Osborne set his sights on the state house, it appeared as if there would be no incumbent running this year. Gov. Mike Johanns could not run for a third term. But shortly after President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, he picked Johanns to be Secretary of Agriculture. Heineman, the lieutenant governor, took over and needed little time to announce that he would run for his own term this year.

Heineman is a West Point graduate who returned to his home state and worked his way up through the Republican party.

"I've been involved in public service for 20, 25 years," Heineman said Sunday night in Grand Island after the sixth and final debate among him, Osborne and Omaha businessman Dave Nabity. "I didn't know if he [Osborne] would get in. If we did a good job, no matter what he was going to do, people would ask, is Governor Dave Heineman doing a good job? They've got to make a determination about us. They're saying, they respect Tom but they're working for us."

That put Osborne in the uncomfortable position of challenging the unofficial leader of the state party.

In his book "Faith in the Game: Lessons on Football, Work and Life," Osborne wrote, "It seems too few decisions are made in our culture out of a concern for the common good. Too often money and self-interest are the only factors given much weight. Loyalty has become an almost forgotten attribute."

Osborne said he decided he had license to run because he had made it known he was considering running before the race took shape, and because Heineman had not been elected.

"On the surface, most people are trying to appear as if things are normal," Osborne said. "I do know that he has quite a bit of appeal among the hard-core Republican people. When I was coaching, I was pretty much apolitical. You got enough problems as a coach. I don't see an open rift. I see more leaning toward Heineman. That's a cause for concern for a Republican congressman."

There aren't many politicians who would utter anything resembling praise of an opponent in the week before an election. But Osborne said at the outset that he would not engage in negative campaigning. When a "push poll" taken last week by the Osborne campaign asked questions that portrayed Heineman negatively, Osborne suspended the poll and called the governor to apologize.

The lack of negativity, Heineman said Sunday night, "is the Nebraska way. I wanted to go do a good job and then carry that job to the voters. As challenging as it is to run against a legend, we've done it in a positive way. The focus is on us. You're got to make a decision about the incumbent governor."

And what is Heineman going to do, criticize Osborne? In this heavily agricultural state, that would be like coming out against ethanol.

"People will stand up and give him a standing ovation," Heineman's campaign manager, Carlos Castillo, said of Osborne. "It would be easy for the campaign to translate that into he would win by a lot. People still ask him for autographs."

There is enough contrast between the two.

Heineman is folksy, friendly and television-savvy. On air, Osborne's ruddy complexion matched his Cornhusker red tie. Even on TV, he is without artifice. Some politicians bask in the adulation of the public. Someone once said Bill Clinton wouldn't be happy until every single person in America loved him. At the other end of that spectrum is Osborne, a private man who has spent more than three decades in two of America's biggest fishbowls.

Let Nabity, who is polling in the single digits, crisscross the state in an RV with his name emblazoned across the side. Osborne's white Ford Explorer has one bumper sticker with his slogan, "You & Tom," on the back door. His yard signs are as understated as he is, which is too bad, because even after ordering 20,000, they don't have enough. Requests for them have come from as far away as Michigan. Of course, Osborne understands the ones he autographs will never be stuck in the ground.

Osborne is just not into flashy. His young Omaha field representative, Joe Gazda, carries a thin mobile phone with a big, bright screen. Osborne carries a old Nokia that looks like it came with a Happy Meal. But it works just fine. Why replace it?

There are a couple of political differences between Osborne and the governor. Heineman is taking money from political action committees. Osborne is not. The governor lined up endorsements from the Republican stalwarts: Nebraska Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, the Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union. Osborne is accepting no contribution greater than $1,000. Among those who have given him the maximum are former Husker players such as Jerry Tagge, Zach Wiegert, 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch and Christian Peter.

Tagge introduced Osborne at a Christian businessmen's luncheon on Monday. Johnny Rodgers, the Nebraska wingback who won the Heisman in 1972, the year before Osborne was promoted to replace Bob Devaney as coach, squired Osborne to four campaign stops in the predominantly black north Omaha Monday night. On the way to the community forum at the Dunn Deal Café, Osborne looked out the window of his Explorer and said, "There have been some awful good football players come out of this part of Omaha: Ahman Green, Johnny Rodgers, Gale Sayers."

After Osborne worked the room of 25 to 30 people, he spoke for 15 minutes.

"It's nice to talk to all of you Republicans here," Osborne began, getting a good-sized laugh. "I'm sure the walls are shaking."

According to Phipps, the election commissioner, about 1,300 voters in Douglas County alone changed party affiliation during the month of April to vote in the Republican primary. There's no way of knowing for whom they will vote, but the Osborne campaign believes his universal popularity means the crossovers will work in his favor.

"I have been a Democrat all my life," said Kathy J. Trotter, an elementary school principal in north Omaha. "I got my Republican card in my purse. I'll switch back afterward."

Trotter leaned back in her chair, affecting a pose of wealth. "I might stay for a little bit," she said. "I kind of like it."

After she stopped laughing, she said, "I love Tom. I respect him. I know he's going to do a wonderful job for Nebraska."

After the forum, Rodgers, an Omaha realtor, said, "A lot of them have changed parties for the first time in their lives. They changed for Tom. Tom is not a career politican, although he has done it a little while. He is more of a servant-leader type. He has 30 years of proven leadership and integrity in the state. We need people who have brought this state together. Before, through football, he has."

Osborne doesn't volunteer football war stories. His references to his Hall of Fame career aren't just veiled -- they're in a burka. Osborne, when he brings up football at all, says, "in my former life," or, "in my previous profession."

"I remember Vince Dooley decided to run for the Senate," Osborne said of the former Georgia coach, who in the spring and summer of 1985 toyed with the idea of running for the 1986 Democratic nomination. "Three months into it, he quit. I called him and talked to him. He said it was just like recruiting every day, and it was a year-and-a-half before the election. Vince saw that time span and quit."

It's not that Osborne is a stranger to shaking hands or signing autographs. He has been doing both for nearly his entire adult life. But the man doesn't have an artificial bone in his rawboned body. Osborne might smile and say, in his laconic way, "Glad to see you!" But the smile doesn't mask his discomfort.

"It's really strange," Osborne said. "Here you are in a political campaign. I really prefer privacy. In coaching, you're always pushed and pulled in so many ways to be at banquets or events. You eventually come to where the thing you most value is time with your family. Once I get to an event, I am fine. Sometimes, the thought of getting in the car and driving another 100 miles wears you down."

According to Nancy, her husband has spent only two weekends in Washington in six years. They want to spend more time in Nebraska to be near their four grandchildren.

At the close of a recent 12-hour campaign day, as they walked out of the cable studio where Tom sat for a lengthy interview on a local show, "People Talking to People," Nancy said, "Somebody said, 'What is he going to do if he loses?'" She put her hands out for emphasis. "He's going to go fishing! It's not so terrible."

Her husband is not ready for his fishing pole. It has been nearly 10 years since Osborne last suffered a loss. Nebraska was upset by Texas, 37-27, in the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game in 1996. He said he didn't have game-week jitters yet.

"Football is so intense," Osborne said. "This has been spread out over a longer term. On the day of an election, I'll be pretty alert and anxious. I'm pretty philosophical about it. I feel like I've done all I can. Vince Lombardi said on Sunday on the way to the stadium, he would probably fall asleep. The preparation is over, and he'd done his part. I don't know if I'll feel that way, but I'll have done all I can do. Once you feel that, there's no sense in worrying about it."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.