Coach Osborne encourages Gina Mancuso and Sheridan Zarda at breakfast.
By Randy York
Rarely is Tom Osborne surprised, but he was a bit taken aback Tuesday morning when he visited the Training Table at the Athletic Department’s annual Breakfast during Finals Week to encourage all Nebraska student-athletes to finish their first semester with a flourish.
As he has for the past five years, Nebraska’s athletic director walked around to each table to pat each Husker on his or her shoulder to thank them and to inspire them at the same time. But in a grassroots effort driven by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, the student-athletes were the ones thanking their AD, and Osborne was clearly touched by every single gesture.
Their thank-yous included a signed hurdle bar from men’s and women’s track and field, signed jerseys from the football and baseball teams, a gun case from the rifle team, a carry bag and giant-sized tennis ball from women’s and men’s tennis, a framed golf glove from men’s and women’s golf, fishery gear and a framed signed jersey from women’s and men’s gymnastics, a wooden cross and a medallion from volleyball, a framed swimming cap from the women’s swimming and diving team, framed team and field pictures and a blanket from softball, a framed signed team picture from soccer and bowling pin wallpapered with all kinds of photos from the past.
Event Was Driven by Student-Athletes
“On his way out the door, Coach told me the event was very nice and that he really appreciated it, and it meant a lot to him,” said Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills. “I knew it would because it was student-athlete driven. I told Coach it was something they wanted to do because they appreciate everything he stands for and all that he’s done for every single sport.”
Osborne appreciated the program’s informality. There were no speeches, microphones or fanfare – just a dining room full of student-athletes preparing for their scholastic home stretch while honoring a man they respect in the same quiet, humble manner that he’s shown them since he became Nebraska’s athletic director in October of 2007.
Because Osborne will retire as AD on Jan. 1, 2013, Finals Week was the Final Time for Nebraska student-athletes to say goodbye and thank you.
“Every one of our student-athletes knows that Coach models the values we try to teach every day in Life Skills,” Zimmer said. “They watch him and they see how he leads and they observe how he directs, facilitates, encourages and critiques. He does it all in such a caring, comfortable and non-threatening way that he’s just a great model for our student-athletes to try and live up to.”
Barrefors: Osborne Best Leader He’s Seen
Björn Barrefors, the 2012 Big Ten Conference decathlon champion, most likely will become the first Nebraska student-athlete to receive Academic All-American recognition four times during his career. Because he’s a native of Stockholm, Sweden, “I didn’t even know that Tom Osborne was a football coach,” Barrefors said Tuesday. “But I could tell there was an aura about him the first time I met him. He was there to listen to me. You feel so honored just to know him, let alone be able to sit down and talk to him.
“He’s been so inspiring for me that I want to become more like him,” Barrefors said. “Everybody talks about being a better person, but so much of that is just talk. There’s no real action. But every time I work with him, he inspires me to be more like him. I mean, I’m not anywhere close to that, but some day in the future, with more experience, I hope I can improve enough to become someone who always does exactly what he says he’s going to do. He really does that better than anyone else I’ve ever seen or met. What he’s shown me is you can be wildly successful and yet still hold onto the values that are important to you – like humility. He really is the best leader I’ve ever seen.”
Dan Kendig, Nebraska’s highly successful women’s gymnastics coach, said it’s hard to say goodbye to a man he considers the greatest leader in Nebraska history. “To see someone start here as a volunteer coach, then become a grad assistant, then an assistant and then a coordinator before succeeding Bob Devaney and becoming so successful for 25 straight years as a head coach is amazing,” Kendig said. “It’s not so much what he did, but how he did it. He changed people’s lives as a coach, a Congressman and an athletic director. What he’s done for this university and this state is a testament to his character. Nobody lives values on a daily basis like he does.
“Coach came in to fix things in a short period of time and look at all that he’s accomplished in just five years as our AD,” Kendig said. “The legacy he’s leaving all of us in five years is amazing. He started with a new complex for the training table, academics, life skills and compliance and just kept adding things on to make a difference for everyone – from the East Stadium and all it’s going to stand for recruiting-wise and otherwise to a new downtown arena and what will become a completely new Devaney Center … amazingI”
A Model to Become an Adult and a Woman
Desire’ Stephens, a sophomore gymnast coached by Kendig, marvels at the new facility and locker room the Huskers now enjoy. “I’m from Omaha. My parents have season football tickets, so I’ve been a Husker all my life,” Stephens said. “I grew up admiring Coach Osborne, and the influence he’s had on me is amazing. When he got here, he took everything down about him but the statue with Brook Berringer. He cut his salary in half and concentrated on everything he could do to help all student-athletes, not just football. He’s shown me something that I want to aspire to be. I’d like to have some of that same mindset as I come into adulthood and become a woman.”
Amanda Burau, a member of the Nebraska bowling team, wants to be in the same line as Stephens. “I’ll never forget going up to Tom Osborne’s office last year to get an autograph for my dad,” said Bura, a junior from Lake in the Hills, Ill. “He had every interest in seeing me and talking to me. I could tell immediately how genuine he was and how much he cared about every athlete on the campus and all of us as students. He loved the bowling pin we gave him today with 66 pictures from all the previous teams at Nebraska. He thought it was creative and thanked us for everything we’ve done. We thanked him. Our team is so small, and we’re located on the East Campus. But since he’s been here, we’ve always felt like he appreciates us and cares about us just as much as he cares about any other sport.”
Ryan Grassel, a junior golfer from Chesterton, Ind., gave Osborne a shadow box with a picture frame in the middle and a golf glove signed by both the men’s and the women’s team. “He was so very appreciative,” Grassel said. “When I see Rex Burkhead, I don’t see the football player … I see the person. And when I see Tom Osborne, I don’t see the Hall-of-Fame football coach … I see the man … the man that my dad has always admired and a man that I spent an hour listening to a week ago when he spoke at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathering on the third floor. He guides you in the right direction, focuses on the right things and stays positive. Instead of telling you what’s wrong, he reinforces what’s right. I’m a mentor for TeamMates for the Lincoln Public Schools, and I try to listen to everything he says because it’s always helpful. I can’t believe I’m in a mentoring program that he started.”
Darin Erstad: A Living Legend’s Legacy
Kyle Kubat, a sophomore left-handed pitcher from Waterloo, Neb., and Omaha Creighton Prep, presented Osborne with a throwback Nebraska baseball jersey. “It was an idea I had. Coach (Darin) Erstad supported it and everyone on the team loved it and was more than happy to sign it,” Kubat said. “As a kid, I just kept watching the tape of Nebraska beating Tennessee and Peyton Manning in the Orange Bowl over and over and over. It was his last game as Nebraska’s head coach, and it’s hard for me to believe that we’re getting close to his last day as our athletic director.
“I remember all the big games he coached,” Kubat said. “They were fun to watch because of the way we’d win. He always got the very best from his players and all the people around him. The legacy he left Nebraska baseball is just as fantastic. He hired Coach Erstad, who, in my mind, is one of the best coaches in all of college baseball. He loves the game, the passion and the intensity behind whatever he does. He comes every day with the same mentality and the same focus, and it’s fun to play for him.”
Erstad, of course, was a key part of Osborne’s first national championship team in1994. He was the team’s placekicker and punter, so count on him to keep the Osborne torch lit as Nebraska prepares to see a living legend add “Emeritus” to his honorary AD title for the first six months of 2013.
Osborne Leaving Department in Great Hands
Tuesday’s comprehensive student-athlete thank you to Tom Osborne “was a simple deal, but the right thing to do,” Zimmer said. “My guess would be if you ask Tom Osborne out of all the retirement celebrations that will be held in his honor, my hope would be that this one would be the most meaningful because the group that honored him is the group that we all serve every day … it’s our No. 1 clientele … the group that matters most … our student-athletes. They’re the ones our fans, staff and donors support. That’s why I think he was so touched. He’s leaving this place in great hands because we’re all focused on what matters most to him. That’s the legacy he’s leaving, and the one we all must continue to embrace to be successful.”
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