- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

Along Interstate 80 in Nebraska, the state's big east-west thoroughfare, there is mile after mile of corn and wheat fields. There are more cows than cars. And lately, there is another commodity: a rippling field of redundancy.

"Hi, I'm Tom," the candidate says.

No kidding.

Here on the campaign trail, of which I-80 is a major artery, the greeting is always the same: "Hi, I'm Tom," uttered in a low, soft, ever-so-slight Midwestern twang. It's like that in Sutherland and Hershey and Ogallala and all the other places with their own downtown grain elevator, scattered throughout Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District, a vast plain of cardboard flatness larger in area than 30 states. Tom Osborne introduces himself even though he is a man who needs no introduction, not here.

Now it's a Wal-Mart in North Platte. Osborne is positioned at checkout aisle 13. Heads are turning. The buzz is spreading. That broad, wide face, those sharp features, the tall, erect figure. Can it be? It can. It's him all right, Dr. Tom, Coach Tom, running for the Republican congressional nomination yet never once uttering the words "Congress" or "vote," and he's standing … right here.

A little while ago, his campaign chairman, John Hanson, had asked the store manager if he could hand out some leaflets. Hanson forgot to mention who the candidate was. The manager said no. But now he knows, and the guy's in Cornhusker heaven.

"Hi, I'm Tom," Osborne says, with a hint of shyness, as if his face never adorned a T-shirt or a poster, as if a photograph of himself as a boy holding a fish was never hung on the wall of a sports bar, as it does down the street in North Platte amid a whole slew of Tom Osborne pictures. He says it as if he is stepping out in public for the first time as opposed to being the most famous, the most recognized and, according to the polls that now prove it quantifiably, the most revered, respected and even beloved person in the whole state.

Osborne's main opponents are John Gale, a lawyer and political veteran, and Kathy Wilmot, a member of the state Board of Education. But the game ended, oh, early in the first quarter. Osborne is expected to win tomorrow's Republican primary by a landslide. The latest poll has him with 76 percent of the vote. Gale, who figured to get the nomination until Osborne stepped in, was next at 9 percent.

A Washington Redskins defensive back in 1960 and 1961 before an injury ended his pro career, Osborne is guaranteed to return to the city because a victory in November's general election is a given. The 3rd District has never elected a Democratic congressman and it isn't about to start now.

Here at the Wal-Mart, as everywhere, men, women and teen-agers, many of whom are flashing the Big Red colors of Nebraska even though they had no idea Osborne was coming, all have something to sign. Caps, shirts, business cards. Osborne is prepared. He carries a Sharpie, which is what baseball players use to sign bats and balls.

But in Nebraska, Osborne is bigger than any baseball player. Or football or basketball player or the governor or Bob Kerrey, the U.S. senator and former war hero who is retiring from office. Osborne is bigger than Michael Jordan who, for all we know, has never set foot in the state. In Nebraska, Tom Osborne is bigger than anyone.

For 25 years, from 1973 through 1997, Osborne was the head football coach at the University of Nebraska, where his teams went to 24 straight bowl games and averaged more than 10 victories a season. He retired after the Cornhuskers won their third national championship in four years (although until the first one, in 1994, many were wondering if ol' Tom could get it done). From there, he went straight to the college football Hall of Fame, which waived its waiting period.

Going back to when Bob Devaney, Osborne's predecessor, took over a dormant program in 1961, Nebraska football has provided a powerful, unifying force that bonds a state with no big league teams, nor any other major college programs, a state where life often can seem a bit harsh, especially in the rural areas, which means most places.

Osborne's platform focuses on reversing the declining fortunes of farmers, who have seen their prices drop and their costs rise, and on stimulating economic development so the small-business owners can stop boarding up their stores. Osborne also addresses the disintegration of the family and what he calls the "unraveling of the culture." As a coach, Osborne was amazed and distressed by the growing number of children who came from unstable, turbulent home lives.

It also disturbs Osborne that young people are leaving Nebraska and not coming back. "I think I can bring some visibility to the district," he says. "There has been some discouragement and even some hopelessness on the part of the [farmers]. I think maybe I can provide a little bit of vision or a little sense that something's gonna happen here."

Meanwhile, something's happening right here at the Wal-Mart. A woman approaches Osborne and says because she's a Christian and he's a Christian, she does not want an autograph, only the chance to say, "God bless you." She does just that, smiles, and walks away. Later, as Osborne walks behind the store to check out the new, gigantic Super Wal-Mart being built, a young mother with two tiny children breathlessly chases him for an autograph. "Your daddy will be so happy," she says to her little girl after Osborne signs.

Later, at the mall, a young man will gingerly walk up to Osborne and gush, "I just came to shake your hand. Is that OK?" At a store that sells nothing but items related to Nebraska football (but curiously, none of the three books Osborne has written), Osborne seems both incredulous and wistful at the same time, while scanning the orgy of Big Red merchandise. The store is empty except for a female employee. As Osborne departs, she grabs a shirt right off the rack. He signs.

"Hi, I'm Tom," he says over and over, dozens, if not hundreds of times a day. He says it at the bank and the bowling alley where he is mobbed by the Centennial Ladies League at the Jack and Jill grocery store, at the church salad lunch (cranberry curds and whey, calico cole slaw, it's all there) and at the high-tech company yes, there are some of those in the wilds of the 3rd District that has replaced the farm as the symbol of the future.

How did Osborne get here? Very carefully. After Rep. Bill Barrett decided to retire, the thought of running crept up on Osborne. He announced his candidacy on Jan. 27 after months of hard thought and receiving the go-ahead from his wife, Nancy. He also talked it through, trying to get a read on what a new life in politics might be like.

One person with whom Osborne spoke was Steve Largent, the former NFL star and now an Oklahoma congressman. Another was J.C. Watts Jr., the ex-Oklahoma Sooners quarterback who operated the wishbone offense with deft and deadly precision in the early 1980s. Watts repeatedly carved up Osborne's teams. Now he's an Oklahoma congressman, a Republican, and Osborne needed some advice.

This was it: Run, he said.

"When we talked, I knew it was more than just a passing fancy," Watts said, inadvertently using a pun. "I just told him that I felt he had a lot of productivity left. We talked about what goes on, but the main thing was, I told him, 'Coach, you're gonna do fine whatever you do. But this business is much different from football and athletics. In football, you measure success every week. In politics, sometimes it takes years.' "

Osborne says he understands this. People have warned him about the political gridlock and the partisanship inside the Beltway. But Osborne plans to spend as much time as possible way, way outside the Beltway. "I feel I can be of benefit as much, or more, in Nebraska than Washington," he says.

Wherever he goes, the same question trails Osborne: Why do this? You're 63, fit and trim, healthy after undergoing double-bypass heart surgery 15 years ago. You're loved and revered by your own people. You have Nancy and the children and the grandchildren and the home in Lincoln and the other home at Lake McConaughy, where you can go fishing any time you want. Why do this?

The answer is always the same. Meeting with a group of businessmen at the Chamber of Commerce in Ogallala, he starts off by asking the question himself, and then responding, "I still had a pretty good level of energy and I still felt I could make a contribution to society."

Later, he will expand on that: "I think it's important, at some point, if you really have some strong feelings, and would like to see some things happen, to take a risk," he says.

Osborne also pre-empts a question about his residency that immediately came up after he announced. He lives in Lincoln, where the university is located, and that's in the 1st District. Believe it or not, the c-word, carpetbagger, actually came up. But Osborne's second home, by the lake, is in the 3rd District. And besides, he grew up in Hastings, which is also 3rd District territory and where his campaign headquarters is located.

"I've always considered myself to be a native of Hastings," he tells the men, who are drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and boring in on every word. "This is where my values were shaped."

Those values, along with strong beliefs in God and family shapes Osborne, his campaign and his message. He is a rock-solid conservative, a practicing Christian. He is against abortion. He will not accept political action committee (PAC) money for his campaign. He favors enforcing existing gun-control laws, but seems disinclined to push for anything beyond that. On the other hand, he also supports a moratorium on the death penalty, believing if you're going to be pro-life, you have to be consistent on both ends.

The qualities people seem to most identify in Osborne are character, honesty and integrity, and these are the themes he pushes in his speeches. His critics, mostly outside the state, like to point out the aberrant behavior of some of his Nebraska players, and how Osborne handled it. The name of Lawrence Phillips still comes up. Phillips was the Nebraska tailback who in 1995 beat up his ex-girlfriend and was convicted of misdemeanor assault, only to serve what many considered a too-light, six-game suspension.

Osborne took a lot of heat for that, and still does, occasionally, even though he insists he was acting in the best interest of Phillips and not his team (which, frankly, was good enough to win without Phillips). But Osborne acknowledges that today, in light of Phillips' numerous problems, post-Nebraska, he might have been too lenient.

And yes, other fine, upstanding Cornhuskers, like Christian Peter, also hurt people and ran afoul of the law. But on balance, Osborne is viewed as running a clean program with a decent graduation rate. The prevailing sentiment is that Osborne represented the university with class and dignity. Winning helped, too.

"I think he's gonna be great for the state," said Larry Schlem, who owns a glass company in Ogalalla and got to hear Osborne in person, "because of his stature, where he's at, the Christian and the athlete part of things. He brings everything into one. He's got the mentality, he's got the people behind him"

It still bugs Osborne that some see him merely as a football coach trying to capitalize on his name, even though his intelligence, his drive and his interests extend beyond the goal posts. He earned his doctorate in educational psychology 35 years ago, and his TeamMates mentoring program for students has been going strong for nearly a decade.

Yet despite wanting to sublimate the guy-with-a-whistle image, Osborne almost unconsciously drops in football metaphors and stories from his coaching days. He likes to compare campaigning to recruiting, in that you can travel a great distance only to be disappointed by a recruit not showing up or, now, by a small crowd. Osborne frequently tells the story of the old Nebraska coach who, in the 1950s, said the program would never amount to much because the state had so little to offer. Osborne ties that in to some of the problems in the 3rd District, and how he believes he can fix them.

"I think, possibly, some vision and encouragement would be appropriate," he says.

His vision and encouragement, he means.

Hanson, the campaign chairman, insists Osborne is no lightweight. Hanson was a month into his own campaign for Congress when Osborne announced. Hanson immediately withdrew and signed up with Osborne. So did Bruce Rieker, who was Hanson's campaign manager and now does the same thing for Osborne.

Hanson, a blond, affable fellow built like one of Osborne's linemen, said when he heard Osborne was interested, they met for a brief chat. "That's when it hit me," Hanson said. "It was so obvious that all the things I want to accomplish, he stood for. The best thing I could do is back away."

A farmer by trade and one of Osborne's "ag" advisers, Hanson hands out the literature bearing the campaign's "You and Tom" slogan and does most of the driving back and forth across the district. Osborne is pretty quiet during the trips, he says, using the travel time to study. "He's one of the most intelligent and one of the most focused people I've ever met," Hanson says.

Indeed, Osborne can now discuss price supports and transition payments, and dispense statistics on the water table that lies under Nebraska's fertile soil with the same facility as he used to explain why the Cornhuskers were switching to the 4-3 defense. Already, he's thinking about possible appointments to agriculture and education committees.

Osborne has been asked more than once if he has seen the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a tall, skinny, idealistic, plain-talking guy with no political background from a Midwestern state. Smith is appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat as an unwitting puppet for the corrupt, greedy politicians back home. Then, when he finds out the ruse, he uses his honesty, integrity and passion to turn on his handlers, and he emerges a hero.

Osborne said he has not seen it, but he is somewhat familiar with the story.

"Apparently, some people see a parallel," he said. "But I don't really see myself as a babe in the woods. I'm sure I'll get roughed up some. It probably won't be a bed of roses. I understand that."

But he also says, "My feeling is, if you can survive intercollegiate athletics for 25 years, you've probably got a chance to survive this."

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