The doctors who operated on Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne last February said they liked his large internal artery system. And there it was, in the local paper, a rough drawing of a heart, the heart that belonged to the second-winningest coach in college football, leader of the Big Red nation.
As hearts go, the story said, Osborne had a good one. His daily jogging regimen had kept him strong and fit. And he was a peaceful 48-year-old man who enjoyed a clean life; that would make a difference. He "will absolutely be ready for spring football April 1," everyone learned the day after Tom Osborne's double bypass heart surgery. The same doctors who said they enjoyed working on his large internal artery system were asked if Osborne could coach another 10 years. And you know what they said? They said maybe even 20.
The masses rejoiced. The recruiting year was not lost, after all.
Go Big Red!
Now, on a day that will bring four inches of snow and prevent his team from practicing on the turf at Memorial Stadium, Tom Osborne walks across a room crowded with pictures of every great player this school has known -- players such as Mike Rozier and Johnny Rodgers, Larry Jacobson and Jeff Kinney and Dean Steinkuhler, and right by old Charlie Brock wearing his funny-looking head gear. There are trays of cupcakes and celery stalks and cisterns of iced tea and soda set up against the south wall, and a pretend fire flickering through a huddle of cellophane logs in the center of the room.
Osborne takes a chair under a picture bearing his own likeness, one that shows him sitting at a great oak desk and handing an invisible person a piece of blank paper. In the picture, and in person, Osborne looks like a loan officer at the local bank and trust, and when he begins to speak, he does so with the same tolerant whisper of a Jesuit priest admonishing some poor reprobate for a lifetime of disobedience.
A reporter says he's noticed that Osborne has quit looking at his watch, as he often did during his previous 12 years as head coach. And he wants to know if the surgery has changed him. "I don't feel any different than I did a year ago or a year before that, though maybe I am," Osborne begins. "I'm concerned about those things that will make a difference. I try to let go of those things I can't control. When I tried to control the weather, for example, I had a hard time doing it. It snowed even when I ordered it not to."
He stops and looks up, no doubt remembering that Nebraska plays Oklahoma Saturday in Norman, Okla., for the Big Eight title, a berth in the Orange Bowl and a shot against Penn State for the national championship. Last year, this same celebrated contest saw the Cornhuskers lose, 17-7, to the Sooners and end up tied for the conference crown.
"I've heard comments over the years," he says, "that I get too uptight playing Oklahoma. There's a lot of projection that occurs that contributes to the feelings of other people. If I fidget before we play Kansas State, I fidget. But if I fidget before Oklahoma, I'm uptight. Nobody pays much attention to your facial expression before the Kansas State game.
"To be frank, I was a little more uptight last week (against Kansas) than I am this week. Last week, my biggest job was keeping everybody's mind on what they should be doing. These (big) games are not so tough. If we lost to Oklahoma, people would get upset and say our team is bad and I'm stupid. But if we lose to Kansas State, then we're really bad and I'm really stupid."
Some people wondered about Osborne after the first game of the season, which the Cornhuskers lost to Florida State, 17-13. They wondered if he had started the right fellow at quarterback, senior Travis Turner. Prompted by what Osborne called unwarranted criticism, he said he hoped the Nebraska fans were "sophisticated enough to know that it takes more than one player to lose a game."
But the following week, against Illinois, Osborne started sophomore McCathorn Clayton in place of Turner, a strong passer whose running skills off the option were less than impressive. Now, some followers determined to keep the quarterback controversy alive are calling for Osborne to hand the offense over to freshman Steve Taylor, who is talented at both the run and pass.
Even though his so-called "football factory" came into the season equipped with 220 bodies, many of them walk-ons, Osborne was returning only four starters from the 1984 team. This was the apology you heard for the Cornhuskers' clumsy start, although it went largely without merit.
Dissenters pointed out the return of players such as multitalented Doug DuBose, who did not start last year but led the league in rushing with 1,040 yards as backup to fellow all-Big Eight selection Jeff Smith. After that first loss, the one hope was that the team could come on as well as the 1978 and 1981 squads had. Both of those teams suffered opening-day losses but came back to make hard runs for the national championship.
Now, after winning nine straight and cornering the No. 2 spots in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls, the word from these parts is that the Cornhuskers need only get by the Sooners and the national title comes home for the first time since Osborne took over in 1973.
Said fullback Tom Rathman, "We all feel that this game is for the championship, and I'm sure they feel the same way. The team that wins this game is going to go on to beat Penn State. I don't think Penn State is that tough a team. They've played a lot of games where their opponents weren't very good and it was still close. They finally came out and looked pretty good last week against Notre Dame."
But of Notre Dame, defensive tackle Jim Skow said, "My high school team could beat 'em."
Although Osborne is much more guarded in his statements about his team's position in the polls, it's no secret that the lone No. 1 vote Nebraska received in the UPI coaches' poll came by his hand. Penn State received the other 41. "Apparently, everybody who voted but one thought Penn State was the best team," is all he'd say about it.
But Skow, who is willing to speak his mind on almost any subject, said, "With Nebraska ranked second and Oklahoma third, you're not going to get any closer to No. 1 than that unless, of course, somebody talks Penn State into getting on the field with us Saturday and working this little problem out."
Skow is one of several players who says he's seen little change in Osborne since the operation. "He's the same, still very subdued and unemotional," he said. "He was a psychology major in college, and sometimes you wonder if he's playing with people's minds out there. He's really not my coach. I hardly ever talk to him. Unless I swear in practice or get in a fight or something. Then he comes out and says, 'Jim, you can't swear on the field.' And I say, 'Yes, coach.' "