Tom Osborne and Harvey Perlman are a formidable tandem for change.
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By Randy York
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne are changing the perception of Nebraska with a speed that almost astonishes news directors throughout the Big Ten Conference and beyond. In mid-June, Lincoln hosted the league’s university news directors (not sports media relations specialists), plus news managers from four other schools (Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, Rice and Washington University in St. Louis). Those four prestigious academic institutions joined 12 Big Ten member schools at their annual communications conference. Perlman was the keynote speaker at UNL’s Visitors Center and Osborne followed the next day with a luncheon speech that kept everyone on the edge of their seats inside the North Stadium’s Skyline Suite level.
Obviously, the speed of change is in the eye of the beholder, so please consider the following 10 observations as expeditious ways that Perlman and Osborne are changing the perception of Nebraska in the minds of writers and editors whose primary job is to influence students, alums and fans everywhere:
No. 1: Nebraska’s Big Ten leadership role in athletic research is enough to make even a Wolverine jealous. “I’m intrigued, amazed and looking forward to the concussion research that Coach Osborne was talking about,” said Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today, an electronic magazine distributed monthly to 350,000 Michigan alumni. “It’s really impressive to combine the expansion of Nebraska’s football stadium with some really rigorous research. It goes well with the chancellor’s thoughts about agricultural research and his priorities in water and food production research. All seem to be very wise moves, and I found Chancellor Perlman and Mr. Osborne both to be really down-to-earth and amazing people. Their academic and research priorities are really impressive and when I found out what Nebraska’s up to, I was a little jealous, so I can’t wait to get this group to Michigan in two years and dazzle them with our brilliant advances.”
No. 2: Nebraska invests in what matters most and reinforces its priorities. “When I saw Nebraska’s academic center and everything in it, I thought of Andre Agassi and his camera ads where he says ‘Image is everything,’ said Richard Lewis, a Duke and Columbia grad and now a senior research editor at Iowa. “Nebraska supports what it says and makes it very evident to every student-athlete who walks in the door. They’re saying ‘When you do well here, we will glorify you and put you up on a wall to honor you academically.’ That feeds well into an educational mission, and it should be one of the pillars to every big university. I was a varsity athlete at Duke (fencing), and they didn’t have this kind of display for academic achievement. I think it’s very important when your academic accomplishments get equal treatment to your athletic accomplishments.”
No. 3: Every move Nebraska makes has each student-athlete at the focal point. “The first thing that comes through so clear is Tom Osborne’s sense of integrity and in this day and age, that’s a quickly disappearing concept,” said Bill Gilroy, the assistant director of public relations making his eighth straight Big Ten media tour (Yes, Notre Dame has been a longtime staple of this group). He (Osborne) is a living treasure that dates back to the days when coaching was instilled with people of integrity. What was so striking in his remarks is how genuinely concerned he is about student-athlete welfare. So many see players as movable pieces, almost as chattel. With Coach Osborne, you can see his view is reflective of a deep, genuine concern for what’s going to happen for these athletes when their playing days are over, and that is so refreshing.”
No. 4: The Big Ten Conference is the best cultural fit for Nebraska. “I thought both (Perlman and Osborne) were extremely knowledgeable and offered great insight into why Nebraska joined to Big Ten,” said Julie Christensen, an Arizona State graduate who worked five years in the Pac-10 Conference office and earned her master’s at Minnesota before becoming assistant director of Minnesota’s news service. “Coach Osborne has such a good grasp of all the issues, and I enjoyed hearing why he thought the Big Ten was a better cultural fit for Nebraska. He was honest with his opinions and explained how the Big Eight and the Southwest Conferences merged and how that affected Nebraska in the long run. I was also interested in what he thought about a football playoff and why he thinks the way he does. He’s very polished and so genuine.”
No. 5: Nebraska brings a strong national brand to the North, even to a Spartan. “Growing up in Gaylord, Mich., I was a huge Nebraska football fan,” said Andy Henion, a manager/writer on Michigan State’s communications staff. “I fell in love with Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar and the option. That (1984) Orange Bowl loss was one of my lowest moments as a teenager because I loved Nebraska and hated Miami, so I was really invested in that national championship game. I just thought Tom Osborne was so gutsy then and hearing him now, he’s still so self-effacing and modest. He sees himself as another man on the street, someone you can talk to. He’s not full of himself, even though he’s been a Congressman, a national championship coach and has a doctorate degree. He’s such a down-to-earth man of the people, I could listen to him all day.”
No. 6: Nebraska’s facilities are second to none in the nation’s oldest intercollegiate athletic conference. Count Margie Smith-Simmons, director of news and media at Indiana, as one of those who came to Lincoln thinking one thing and left Nebraska’s Capital City thinking another. “I thought Lincoln would be very similar to Bloomington with a lot of green, rolling hills,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking cornfields, but what I found is definitely more urban than rural. The campus is very nice, and all of the athletic facilities are just completely overwhelming to me. Clearly, Tom Osborne is a very influential figure. He’s someone who obviously serves the university well, his students well and his athletes well. He’s a coach who became an athletic director and a great asset to the university. We can all take a note out of Nebraska’s book on academics.”
No. 7: Nebraska has a vision that can benefit the student-athlete like never before. As a media relations associate at the University of Minnesota, Matt Hodson was struck when Tom Osborne recognized the need for the safety of every athlete and the obligation each school has to prepare their students for life. “To listen to somebody who’s been such a large part of college football for so long and to hear him talk about the need now to do something really different for the student-athlete, including stipends, I just thought it was all right on point,” Hodson said. “Coach Osbornetalks about life skills and success in life with the same gusto and pride as athletics. It was fantastic. I wish every AD had that kind of emphasis. If they did, we wouldn’t be talking about what’s wrong with the NCAA. That was a genuine AD who wants student-athletes to come in and leave as better people.”
No. 8: Nebraska is just as proud of Perlman’s and Osborne’s leadership as the visiting Big Ten schools. Don’t think the schools visiting Lincoln for the first time were the only ones impressed with Perlman’s and Osborne’s leadership. “For this audience, I think Tom Osborne was just tone perfect, just like he always is,” said Steve Smith, the national news editor for UNL Communications. “He can adapt to any room, and that’s what makes him great. When he was talking, you could have heard a pin drop. Those people were that into it. They were just like a roomful of Nebraskans. He talked about things they wanted to hear. What was most stark to me was the escalating arms race in college athletics and how the student-athlete through the whole time has pretty much stayed the same in terms of the scholarship money they get. I didn’t realize that.”
No. 9: Nebraska tells it like it is, and everyone appreciates the honesty. Just about every media/communications manager attending the Lincoln conference mentioned Perlman’s and Osborne’s candor and how refreshing it is. Minnesota’s Hodson said: “They (Perlman and Osborne) go against the flow, and it’s good to see because I’ve always wondered when enough money is enough and why you have to have a 15-game season.” Notre Dame’s Gilroy said: “It’s really refreshing to see somebody like Tom Osborne stand up there and say how it’s time for colleges to step up and do the right things.” Iowa’s Lewis said: “Based on what I heard the chancellor say and what I heard the athletic director say, we need more kinds of folks who tell it like it is. That’s what everybody wants to hear. Nobody likes to hear people mince words. Nebraska doesn’t.”
No. 10: Standing up for what’s right often is a very lonely feeling. National columnists have every right to criticize Nebraska for being one of the few schools in the country to question the scope of a four-team playoff and the dangerous road that could create for the future of college football. “Nebraska shares our commitment to academic excellence and to overall student-athlete welfare,” Notre Dame’s Gilroy said. “The programs that Nebraska has instituted and the scope they’ve taken the student-athlete through speaks volumes. I was struck by Coach Osborne’s comments on how to prepare student-athletes for a job and for life and even for marriage. Their commitment to the individual is much deeper than what you’re seeing in college athletics. We try to do the same things at Notre Dame.
“To be honest, it’s often a lonely feeling in some sports, such as college football and college basketball,” Gilroy said. “For me, it was a real honor to hear Tom Osborne speak for the first time. I’ve been a college football fan all my life and particularly a Notre Dame fan. When he passed up kicking that extra point against Miami (in the ‘84 Orange Bowl), I think that spoke to the integrity he has. Honor was more important to him than the national championship and even though college football has changed today, I don’t think he would change his decision.”
Bill Gilroy is right on. Last fall, I asked Osborne if he would still go for a 2-point conversion if the situation was the same, and the overtime rule was not in effect. If he knew the almost automatic PAT kick would win the national title because Nebraska would finish as the only unbeaten team in the country, would he kick it? “No,” Osborne said. “We’d do the same thing. We’d try to win it the right way.”
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