The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics is touted as a place where leaders emerge. With its student-athletes, the organization endeavors to balance character and leadership development with athletic opportunities and accomplishments. Tom Osborne is an embodiment of the success of this character and leadership training.
Because of his commitment to character, Osborne was selected as the keynote speaker for the NAIA’s Inaugural Champions of Character Foundation Awards Luncheon today at the Kansas City Convention Center Grand Ballroom. But, that wasn’t the only honor Osborne received this afternoon. At the luncheon, the NAIA also unveiled its new football national championship trophy, fittingly renamed the Tom Osborne National Championship Trophy in recognition of the former three-sport NAIA student-athlete and longtime University of Nebraska head coach.
“The NAIA is excited to unveil the Tom Osborne National Championship Trophy, in honor of one of our most prominent former student-athletes,” said Jim Carr, NAIA President and CEO. “Even before there was a formal Champions of Character program, Osborne exemplified the five core values during his time as a student-athlete and has continued to do so during his tenure as a coach, politician and athletic director.”
Osborne, who played football and basketball and won the state discus throw in track in high school, was clearly a stellar athlete. In 1955, his senior year, he was even named the Nebraska High School Athlete of the Year by the Omaha World Herald. He then stayed in his hometown of Hastings, Neb., to attend an NAIA institution Hastings College, the same school his father and grandfather had attended.
At Hastings, Osborne continued to play football and basketball and run track while earning his B.A. in history. During his senior year in 1959, he was named the Nebraska College Athlete of the Year, becoming the first male athlete to win both the high school and college athlete of the year awards selected by the Omaha World Herald.
Osborne went on to play three seasons in the NFL for the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers before returning to school, earning his M.A. (1963) and doctorate (1965) in educational psychology from Nebraska.
In 1964, he joined the Nebraska football coaching staff as an unpaid offensive assistant to head coach Bob Devaney. By 1969, Devaney named Osborne the offensive coordinator and Osborne immediately overhauled the offense, switching to a balanced attack operated from the I formation. The revamped offense led the Husters to national titles in 1970, the first in program history, and 1971.
After the 1972 season, Devaney stepped down as head coach to focus on his duties as Nebraska athletic director and named Osborne as his successor as head coach, a position he would hold for 25 seasons.
During his quarter-century (1973-1997) at the helm, Osborne was a model of consistency. His teams never won fewer than nine games in a season and they finished in the top 15 of the Associated Press Poll 24-of-25 years. Osborne’s teams won outright national championships in 1994 and 1995, and a share of another in 1997. His Huskers also won or shared 12 Big Eight Conference titles and one Big 12 Conference title. His 255-49-3 record was the best winning percentage (83.6) among active NCAA Division I-A coaches at the time of his retirement.
In 1999, Osborne was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame; and in 2000, he received the Jim Thorpe Lifetime Achievement Award.
From 2001-2007, Osborne represented Nebraska’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives, before returning to Nebraska as athletic director from 2007-2013.
Throughout his storied career, Osborne has exemplified the qualities of leadership and character that the NAIA instills in its student-athletes. Osborne emphasized character in one of his recent talks for TeamMates, a mentoring program founded by Osborne and his wife, Nancy, that provides support and encouragement for school-aged youth with the goal of seeing children graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education. “Character is not inherited, or a trait, it is a choice,” Osborne said. This philosophy on character aligns with the NAIA’s commitment to character-driven athletics, which was commemorated at today’s Champions of Character luncheon where Osborne was the keynote speaker.