LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -The last thing Tom Osborne wanted was to be a distraction.
He left Nebraska as a dynasty, with three national titles in his last four years, and a perennial place in the top 10. The Cornhuskers were one of those handful of football programs that everybody envied and everybody wanted to emulate.
But it was his choice to leave in 1997, his choice to turn his beloved Cornhuskers over to somebody else. To linger would cast a suffocating shadow across his successors, and self-aggrandizement is not the Tom Osborne way.
So he taught classes here and there, and tried his hand in politics. His name was on the posh new athletic center, but Nebraska was no longer his domain.
``I thought there would never be another connection with the athletic department of any significance,'' he said.
The Huskers are in trouble, though, and when they came calling Osborne could not say no. He could no more turn his back on the program he shaped than he could on a member of his own family.
``I thought the athletic department, the football program was very important to this state. Whatever I could do to help, I should do it,'' he said. ``It would have been hard to walk away from it and say, `Well, it's not my problem.'
``It is ingrained in our family and my life. So it would be very hard to say, `Well, I won't try to help if they think I can help.' I just couldn't do that.''
Once again, Nebraska's fate is in Osborne's hands. The 70-year-old won't be on the sidelines, or teaching the triple option, or traveling the country trying to entice high schoolers to come to Nebraska. But he will decide who will.
As the interim athletic director, Osborne will decide after the season whether coach Bill Callahan stays or goes. The course he sets will determine whether the Huskers return to the ranks of college football's elite or slide into irrelevance, a shell of the program it once was.
``He cares so much about that program, he wants to see it back to where it was when he got out of coaching,'' said Scott Frost, quarterback of Osborne's last team, the 1997 squad that went undefeated and won a share of the national title.
``Tom Osborne is such a good man,'' added Frost, now an assistant at Northern Iowa. ``His team is important to him, doing everything he can for other people is important to him, and the success of his program and the well-being of the state of Nebraska are what matters to him.''
These are, suffice it to say, tough days at Nebraska. The Huskers take a five-game losing streak into Saturday's home finale against Kansas State, their worst stretch since 1958. After going 43 years without a losing season, they're in danger of their second in four years. The 76 points they gave up to Kansas last weekend were the most in school history, and they've been playing football for 118 years at Nebraska.
Worse, the Huskers have lost their identity. The home of the triple option gave way to yet another version of the West Coast offense. The defense, a bedrock of Nebraska's dominance, is ranked 112th out of 119 teams, giving up almost 478 yards a game. Only the University of Alabama at Birmingham gives up more yards on the ground.
``It doesn't necessarily hurt me to see Nebraska lose - I don't like it, but what really hurts me is if I see them not being competitive,'' Osborne said. ``If we go out and it appears as though we don't have much chance to win in a given game, that's difficult to watch.''
Even as the Huskers stagger to the end of the season, there is excitement and optimism among fans again, simply because Osborne is back. At Husker Headquarters, a sporting goods store a few blocks off campus, the ``got tom!'' and ``Order ResTOred'' T-shirts sold out within days of his return.
``The fact Osborne is back has given people hope,'' said Shawn Wright, a part-owner of Woody's Pub and Grill in downtown Lincoln, where a Nebraska flag flies proudly outside the door. ``He's pretty much a hero around here.''
Little wonder.
Nebraska football is much more than a sport to this unassuming, hardworking state. With no professional teams and little exposure beyond I-80, the Cornhuskers are Nebraska's identity. They're the one thing that unites everyone from Omaha to Ogallala.
``They invest in it - and I don't mean dollars,'' said Dan Cook, a longtime benefactor whose family's name is on the Huskers indoor practice facility. ``From the time you are able to roll over in the crib, you have a red pair of diapers on.''
And like Bobby Bowden at Florida State or Joe Paterno at Penn State, Osborne is as much a part of the Nebraska fabric as that ``N'' on the helmet.
After serving as offensive coordinator to Bob Devaney, who first molded the Huskers into a Big Eight power that rivaled Oklahoma and Missouri, Osborne took over in 1973. In 25 years, he had 17 top-10 teams, and never won fewer than nine games. He had three undefeated seasons, and went 60-3 over his last 63 games.
By the time he retired, it was hard to tell where he left off and the Cornhuskers began.
``It's a special place,'' said Trev Alberts, the former All-American linebacker who is now an analyst for CSTV. ``The reason all those people have those feelings and the pull to that place is because of how coach Osborne made a place that was family, that was comfortable, that treated us right.
``Some of the greatest experiences we had in our life were those few years we were cared for unlike any other time.''
Osborne was only 60 when he retired after the 1997 season. Though he had a history of heart problems - he had bypass surgery in 1985 - that wasn't why he left. He'd promised someone in 1992 - he's never said who - that he would only stay for another five years.
When those five years came and went, he still wanted to coach, but he had given his word, and where Osborne comes from, you honor your word.
``I look at it with mixed feelings,'' he said. ``To leave with a winning season, an outstanding season, was something not many people get to do. And it forced me to broaden my horizons.
``I probably would never have run for Congress. I really value that experience. It wasn't always easy, and it wasn't maybe my cup of tea because of the partisanship. But it caused me to stretch a little bit, and that was probably a good thing.''
After three terms in the House of Representatives, Osborne decided he could better serve Nebraska as governor. But he lost in the Republican primary in the spring of 2006.
Retired once again, he and his wife, Nancy, traveled. They spent time at their house in the western part of Nebraska, and Osborne was able to indulge in two of his favorite passions, hunting and fishing.
He also returned to the classroom, teaching two hour-and-15-minute classes on leadership on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Nebraska's business school.
``It's something I really enjoy. It's something I like to do,'' said Osborne, who has a doctorate in educational psychology and is often called ``Dr. Tom.''
Then came that call from Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman.
``I didn't see it coming,'' Osborne said. ``I talked to Nancy, my wife, because it would mean that she would be sacrificing some things again because we'd had more flexibility. We were able to travel when we wanted to, do what we wanted. Now this is taking some time. (But) she thought it was important, too.''
On Oct. 16, a day after athletic director Steve Pederson was fired, Osborne was back in charge.
``It is a little bit unique,'' he said. ``Most athletic directors today are people who have MBAs and come out of the business world. Some of them have very little athletic background. I think we lost something in the process. I'm not saying those people can't be good athletic directors. But it really helps to have experienced losing your No. 1 quarterback the day before a big game, or to have a loss that's really devastating or to have people on your back. I think I bring an understanding of what coaches and athletes go through on a regular basis to the table.
``It doesn't mean that I can't learn some of the things that I need to learn about the business aspects. But I think it's really important that we maintain that human side of the athletic department.''
Though Osborne's title is interim athletic director, he isn't going anywhere anytime soon. His spacious office at the Osborne Athletic Complex looks as if he's been there for months. After looking drawn and worn out when he left politics, he appears rejuvenated. There's a sparkle in his blue eyes, and it's as if 10 years have fallen away.
Nebraska's won-loss record may be the most immediate problem, but Osborne said there was more to the change than that. There was growing discontent among fans and donors, and even some former players had begun to feel alienated from the place they always thought they could consider home.
But Osborne is the great unifier, the one thing all Nebraskans can agree on. Even now, Alberts said he makes two phone calls when something big happens in his life: one to his parents, one to Osborne.
``It's character, the quality of the human being,'' Cook said. ``Tom is not Mr. Excitement. He's not glib. Humor comes somewhat difficult for him, although he can tell some awfully cute stories. But he's as solid a human being as I know.''
There is, of course, the danger that Osborne's return could ultimately hold the program back. That, regardless of his title, his presence will loom so large that no matter who is Nebraska's coach - Callahan or someone else - he will be found wanting.
Those who know Osborne best, though, say he would never let that happen. He is not one for the spotlight and never has been. He cares more about the process than grand pronouncements, and he truly does have the best interests of Nebraska - the players, the program, the school and the state - at heart.
``What he thinks is right and wrong, he'll never compromise that. It's not like him to run a puppet regime or get involved where he doesn't belong,'' Frost said. ``One of the quotes that he told us a lot was ... `The only life worth living is a life spent in service of other people.'
``Tom doesn't just talk that, he lives that.''

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