Lincoln, Neb. When Nebraska beat Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century, when Johnny Rodgers took that punt return the distance, Tom Osborne was there.
He made the call when the Cornhuskers fell short on the 2-point conversion try for the win against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
He won three national championships and went 60-3 in his last five seasons, the final two coming in the Big 12. As much as anyone, Osborne epitomized the Big Eight and had a hand in building the Big 12 into a BCS power.
“He made the Big Eight what it was,” said Barry Switzer, Osborne’s friend and coaching counterpart at Oklahoma in the 1970s and ’80s.
Now, with Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten, Osborne is one of the key architects in putting the Big 12 on the brink of irrelevancy, if not destruction.
Osborne said the nostalgia he felt for the days Nebraska played Oklahoma for league titles waned years ago, and he leaves longtime opponents Kansas, Missouri and others behind with a touch of sadness — but no regrets.
“We’re going to miss them, and we feel bad about that, but we’re looking forward to some other competition. Life goes on,” said Osborne, Nebraska’s 73-year-old athletic director.
Switzer said he knows Osborne based his decision on what was best for Nebraska, just as Arkansas’ Frank Broyles, long a fixture in the old Southwest Conference, did when the Razorbacks jumped to the Southeastern Conference in 1990.
“Frank made Arkansas healthier,” Switzer said. “Tom is making Nebraska healthier.”
Osborne and Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman said they could see the Big 12 begin to splinter months ago and that no one was willing to commit to stay put as football-driven expansion talk started heating up in other leagues.
The Big Ten offers a safe haven — prestige, a history of stability and the opportunity to make significantly more money.
Yet the foundation for Nebraska’s football success was built on associations the Huskers have had as far back as the 1890s. Kansas, which is now sitting on the outside looking in as expansion unfolds, has played Nebraska every year since 1907 — the longest-running series in college football. That will end when the Huskers start playing in the Big Ten in 2011.
Osborne was head coach for 25 years, the longest tenure in program history, and went 255-49-3 from 1973-97. Of those 255 wins, 152 came against the old Big Eight. He never lost to Kansas, Kansas State or Oklahoma State.
The only team that gave him fits was Oklahoma. He went 13-13 against the Sooners in a series that once was among the fiercest in the nation.
When Big 12 scheduling started in 1996, Nebraska played Oklahoma only two out of every four years.
“There’s no question that was our rival,” Osborne said. “But to be a true rival, you have to play every year. Things began to change at that point.”
Osborne said he hopes Nebraska can make room on its future non-conference schedules for games against the old Big Eight opponents.
“I don’t want members of the Big 12 to feel like we look down on them or we’re glad they’re gone,” Osborne said.
As the move to the Big Ten became imminent, the hardest phone call Osborne had to make was to new Kansas coach Turner Gill.
Gill quarterbacked Osborne’s 1983 “Scoring Explosion” team, and the two became so close that Osborne was best man in Gill’s wedding.
Gill left the University of Buffalo after last season to take a step up the coaching ladder, to the Big 12. But after Colorado left for the Pac-10 and Nebraska for the Big Ten, and with the Big 12 South teams expected to make their plans known next week, Gill faces the prospect of being a man without a conference.
Osborne said Gill expressed no hard feelings.
“He said you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for your school,” Osborne said.
Though he’s convinced the Big Ten is the right place for Nebraska, Osborne acknowledged that he’s concerned about what happens to old conference mates he’s leaving behind.
“Believe me, I agonized about those people, and if I could wave a magic wand, raise my hand and fix everything in the Big 12, it might have been a little different,” Osborne said. “We came to the conclusion this wasn’t going to hold together for any great length of time. We might be proven wrong, but that was a decision we had to make.”