By Randy York
OMAHA – For four decades, Tom Osborne has been an Omaha football breakfast fixture. “Anybody here today remember Johnny’s Café?” Osborne asked when he stepped onto a stage at the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Convention Center Friday morning, referring to the South Omaha steakhouse that was the original home of the Big Red Breakfast in the early 1970s.
“Geez,” Osborne said when he spotted a few hands go up, “you guys gotta be about a hundred years old.”
Ted Grace, a builder who lives in Valley, Neb., was one of the few in a room of more than 300 Husker fans whose hand went up. “I’ve been coming to these breakfasts since Bob Devaney and Tom started them in the ’70s,” Grace said. “I’ve seen hundreds of these events, and this is probably the best because it was Tom’s last. He always brings integrity and perspective. He always brings humor and humility. Every time I’ve ever seen him break down film over all these years, he brings credibility not only to the football program, but to the university and the entire state.
“As a fan,” Grace asked, “how can it possibly be any better than to have Tom Osborne be your head coach, your Congressman and your athletic director? You could see how he touches people before, during and after the breakfast. I am amazed at how he stays on top of the football program, how he still breaks down film and how patient he is with every request for an autograph, a picture or just a handshake.”
Signs Shirts, Magazines and His Own Book
Maureen Kopocis of Ralston asked Osborne to sign her new Nebraska shirt. Bob Lodes of Omaha needed the legendary coach’s signature on The Osborne Era – a Sports Illustrated cover commemorating the greatest five-year run in college football history. Omaha’s John Kinney and Jack Kinney, his 10-year-old son, made a joint request for Osborne to sign Faith in the Game, an Osborne-authored book they’ve been reading together one chapter at a time.
And that’s just a quick snapshot of what happens when a Hall-of-Fame football coach and soon-to-be retired athletic director makes his final football-related public appearance in the heart of Nebraska’s largest city.
“I remember when Tom would come up every week and show us the game film before he’d head over to the TV station to tape his weekly show,” Grace said.
“It used to be we went through the whole film, and at the end, there was about eight guys left,” Osborne said with a smile and a nod that those who raised their hands might still be the same eight from yesteryear.
Three Bellevue Men See First Sunrise Service
Three fans who never had a chance to see Osborne analyze film or pour a cup of early morning wisdom found their first sunrise service a memorable one. The three attend the same Bellevue church, and they all insist their first-ever breakfast breakdown film session could not have been more entertaining. Tom Skinner, 74, Wes Hansen, 70, and Ed Hanline, 54, left their inaugural T.O. event fully impressed.
“We’ve never met Tom until today, but we all feel like we know him,” Hansen said. “(Former Husker quarterback) Tom Sorley’s parents lived right down the street from us, so we always heard stories about his integrity.”
Skinner was particularly impressed hearing Osborne describe how he involved everyone in the Athletic Department to write five core values and develop a mission statement. “Integrity’s No. 1,” Skinner pointed out. “You can see it in the leadership Tom showed today.”
Show Integrity, Leadership; Recruit Character
“It helps you understand why his teams were so successful,” Hanline said. “He recruited character to go with the integrity and leadership. You can see how his short list of guiding principles created life success, not just football success.”
Osborne would leave later Friday morning on the team flight from Lincoln to Indianapolis for Saturday night’s nationally televised Nebraska-Wisconsin Big Ten Championship game, but he accommodated two dozen people before his presentation and another three dozen after his post-presentation radio interview.
“He was nothing but class every minute he was here,” said Jim Kalal of Ralston. “He’s inspired so many people in this state and affected so many lives throughout the country.”
Within seconds of getting out of his SUV in front of the hotel, Osborne was asked for an autograph. A few yards later, another fan asked for a picture. Osborne graciously accommodated both 6:40 a.m. requests. He signed jackets, sweatshirts, helmets, footballs, books, magazines, posters, pictures, CD’s and videos. When he told a classic yarn about hunting with Tony Davis and a familiar tale about golfing with Bob Devaney, the banquet room lit up with laughter, even for those who had heard them before.
The Blackshirts: New Take on an Old Legend
Pat Lawlor of Omaha had flashbacks of growing up in Lincoln where his father owned the sporting goods store that supplied the first Blackshirt practice jerseys in Nebraska football history.
“My grandfather (JohnLawlor) told me that (former Devaney assistant) Jim Ross came into the store one afternoon and wanted some jerseys that weren’t red,” Pat recalled. “He took Jim about four floors upstairs and had a whole section of black jerseys. He threw an armful at Coach Ross and said: ‘Here, take these. I’ve never been able to get rid of ‘em … take ‘em all … nobody wants ‘em.”
Lawlor said his family sold Nebraska football gear to the University of Nebraska in the 1890s when the Huskers launched their program. “We still have every newsletter from the 1930s that covers all of our days in the Big Six Conference.”
The Big Six, Seven, Eight, 12 and Ten
The Big Six morphed into the Big Seven, then the Big Eight, then the Big 12 and now the Big Ten. Lawlor is well aware that Nebraska has not won a conference championship in 13 years. “I think we’re all ready to see that happen tomorrow night,” he said, knowing full well how important the Blackshirts will be in that history-making moment.
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