Archive for Tuesday, August 8, 2000

Osborne tackling politics

August 8, 2000


— Howard Johnson that's his real name, honest to Pete watched bemusedly as Tom Osborne stepped gingerly into the show ring at the 125th annual Fillmore County Fair.

The Republican nominee in Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District, Osborne had come seeking votes in the November election. But Osborne quickly was roped into presenting the awards for the finest swine in the county.

President Clinton, left, and former Nebraska football coach Tom
Osborne show off Cornhuskers football jersey during a ceremony
honoring NU as the NCAA college football co-champions in 1997.

President Clinton, left, and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne show off Cornhuskers football jersey during a ceremony honoring NU as the NCAA college football co-champions in 1997.

"I was absolutely amazed he decided to run," said Johnson, a local farmer. "He's a gentleman and a good Christian. Why put yourself through this?"

Osborne, the legendary former Nebraska football coach, might have been asking himself the same question at that moment.

As Osborne handed out ribbons and trophies to youngsters in overalls and heavy boots, an ornery Yorkshire Cross hog decided it wanted to become acquainted with Osborne's neatly pressed trousers.

Although Osborne is a native Nebraskan, his familiarity with pork products mostly has been limited to the breakfast table. Somehow he maintained his poise until the hog's handler swatted it on the snout with a leather crop. The brown-and-white speckled swine squealed and loped away.

As many in the crowd of farmers chuckled, Osborne grinned and said, "It's a pleasure to be here."

It was just another day on the hustings for the unlikely candidate from Hastings, a town not far away. Osborne is seeking the House seat in the sparsely populated 65,000-square mile district in central and western Nebraska.

"I don't feel like a politician," Osborne said later. "But if you're running for office, I guess you are a politician. You are what you are."

Never a glad-hander, the 63-year-old Osborne has had to open up to the public a bit more than he's accustomed. But he still is guarded around reporters.

When a handful of correspondents from across the country met up with him the other day, Osborne greeted them with, "What are you all doing here? I don't think it's going to be too exciting."

Perhaps not. But a day with Osborne on the campaign trail provided a glimpse into a private personality who has thrust himself back into public life.

As he told a group of Rotarians in Geneva, "I got out of coaching (in 1997) still relatively in one piece. People thought I'd go fishing and just go off into the sunset. I felt I could make a difference."

He added later, "I guess it was maybe an effort to be relevant."

Osborne's longtime friend and rival, Penn State coach Joe Paterno, said he called Osborne when he declared his candidacy last January.

"I said, 'You're serious?"" Paterno recalled. "He's a bright man, a very moral man. He's too young not to do something to make use of his talents."

Before he settled on a congressional bid, the restless Osborne considered two offers to return to college coaching.

One was from Houston, a downtrodden program seeking an injection of respectability. Osborne wouldn't identify the other program but said it was rich in history and had enough talent to contend for the national title.

Michigan State, which promoted assistant coach Bobby Williams to replace Nick Saban last December, fits the profile. MSU President Peter McPherson has been a longtime admirer of Osborne and he even tried to lure Osborne in the search that led to Saban's hiring in 1994.

"It was pretty tempting," Osborne said. "But I didn't want to leave Nebraska."

So he opted for politics, a field that shares much with big-time athletics. There's teamwork, acute competition and clear-cut winners and losers.

"I don't think this will ever replace football," Osborne said. "I miss football a lot. It will be something of a substitute but will never be the same."

When Osborne hits the campaign trail it is almost as if he is recruiting again. Instead of talking about I-backs, he's discussing the price of corn. And instead of courting 18-year-olds, he's courting their parents. But the main message is the same: Trust me.

Nebraskans seem ready to do so, even though many haven't the slightest idea where he stands on issues. Osborne political might derives from his awesome coaching record 255 victories and three national titles in 25 years at the Huskers helm. He finished his Hall of Fame career with an .836 winning percentage, fifth-best in major-college history.

"Because of his stature and his reputation, people have a lot of trust in him," said Bob Bettger, who owns a 4,500-acre spread in the 3rd District.

That's a contrast to the way Osborne is viewed nationally or at least the way he believes he's viewed. Osborne remains touchy over his controversial handling of the Lawrence Phillips episode in 1995.

The coach suspended the troubled running back after he was accused of assaulting an ex-girlfriend, then let Phillips play in the Fiesta Bowl rout of Florida, which gave Osborne a second consecutive national title.

"I know sometimes nationally my image is not very good," Osborne said without specifically mentioning Phillips. "But most people in Nebraska feel I tried to do the right thing."

Indeed when Osborne makes a public appearance, he doesn't work the crowd. The crowd works him. Five minutes after he showed up at the Fillmore County fair, Osborne was swarmed by autograph-seekers.

"It's a real different campaign," said Brad Penner, a reporter for Nebraska's public ETV Network.

Doesn't poor Rollie Reynolds know it? Reynolds, 69, a Democrat from Grand Island, is Osborne's opponent. If this were a football game, he would be in the role of Akron to Osborne's Nebraska.

Polls taken after the primaries showed Osborne with a 90 percent to 10 percent lead over Reynolds, a real estate investor. The 3rd District hasn't elected a Democrat since it was drawn up in 1960. There's even a Republican City down near the Kansas border.

Reynolds knows it's dangerous to attack a local legend, but he's secure in his superior knowledge of the agricultural issues so important to district residents.

After all, Reynolds graduated from the University of Nebraska's College of Agriculture a decade before Osborne arrived as an assistant to then-Cornhuskers coach Bob Devaney.

"I have a specific plan for agriculture," Reynolds said. "When (Osborne is) asked about things, either he doesn't know or he won't say. He's saying, 'Well, let's talk about first downs.' It's time to stop talking about first downs and starting talking about making it possible for farmers to make a living."

It's true that Osborne's grasp on agricultural issues is tenuous.

"I own a couple, three small farms, but I all I know is that I get 2 to 3 percent returns on them," he told an audience in Geneva. "That's all I know about farming."

But it's not fair to say Osborne would rather talk football than issues. There's no mention of the sport in his campaign pamphlet and he adopted blue and white as his campaign colors, so no one may accuse him of trying to cash in on Big Red fever.

Reynolds has been pestering Osborne to debate, but Osborne has agreed only to an Oct. 15 debate in North Platte. That's probably too late to help Reynolds.

Osborne is playing this election as conservatively as he used to coach football. Why risk a long pass when a handoff up the middle will ensure victory? As long as the handoff isn't to Phillips, Osborne will be fine.

Osborne's profile is so high he might not even have to campaign. But he said he wants to get to know the voters, so heads out four or five days a week, wheeling his white Ford Explorer down dusty back roads.

He estimated he'll cover more than 40,000 miles by the end of the campaign.

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