LINCOLN, NEB. (AP) - It was homecoming 1991. Ninth-ranked Nebraska was favored by 35 points over Kansas State, still thought of as a woebegone program at the time and whose best days were still far on the horizon.
A quarterback named Paul Watson was shredding the Huskers’ secondary, and the Wildcats led by a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Rob Zatechka, a redshirt freshman who later would play on Nebraska’s famed “Pipeline” offensive line, remembers pandemonium on the sideline. Teammates were yelling at each other, assistant coaches were yelling at players and other assistants.
Then Zatechka caught sight of head coach Tom Osborne, the picture of calm as he chewed his Big Red gum and spoke through his headset, seemingly removed from the chaos around him.
“I was taken aback by it,” Zatechka said. “I thought, `He’s not panicking. If he’s not panicking, we shouldn’t panic, either.’
“Someone asked Osborne why he never cut loose emotionally. I remember Osborne making the point that if the players see you losing emotional control, whether good or bad, they’re going to lose emotional control, and that’s where you see games spiral out of control.”
Nebraska won 38-31 thanks to a last-minute goal-line stand. More than the result that day, Zatechka remembers Osborne.
“Sometimes if you maintain an outward sense of control over a situation,” Zatechka said, “it has an amazing effect on the people around you.”
Osborne will retire as Nebraska’s athletic director Jan. 1 and end an association with the university that began in 1962. He turns 76 in February and will stay at the school through July 31 as athletic director emeritus to ease the transition of new athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
Perhaps as much as anything, Osborne’s 25-year Hall of Fame coaching career and five-year run as a can-do AD are characterized by his strong and steady leadership, often in difficult circumstances.
“No matter how crazy things were going on around him, you knew Coach was going to be calm,” said Terry Connealy, who played defensive tackle on the 1994 national championship team. “We weren’t going to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. He’s a calming influence. That’s what the program needed when he came back as the athletic director, with all the perceived turmoil.”
Chancellor Harvey Perlman asked Osborne to return in 2007 to stabilize an athletic department whose flagship sport was in a free fall under coach Bill Callahan and whose staff was burdened by low morale under Steve Pederson.
Osborne’s first acts were to fire Callahan and hire Bo Pelini, who has won no fewer than nine games in his five seasons and led the Huskers to three conference championship games, and mend fences with boosters and former players who felt alienated by Pederson.
In addition to guiding the school’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten two years ago, Osborne saw through key building projects.
The Student Life Complex, which opened in 2010, houses the academic support arm of the athletic department and has been voted the best facility of its kind in college athletics.