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Inside the mind of Tom Osborne: how he built the Husker machine and how it can be done again

August 10, 2018

Tom Osborne could draw up option plays during his REM cycle. He could demonstrate the complexities of a pulling tackle and recite the nuances of holding penalties. He could watch a three-second play and evaluate all 22 participants.

But Osborne didn’t own a doctorate degree in educational psychology for nothing. He understood intangibles. Perhaps none more important than the culture of a locker room.

He initiated college football’s best walk-on program not simply because it insured his roster against injuries or defections, but because volunteers fight harder than mercenaries.

Years ago, Osborne shared an airplane row with Doug Colman, a linebacker on the 1994 - 95 national championship teams. Colman told Osborne that he came to NU because it was his next step to the NFL. After a year or two, he realized what he was missing. The walk-ons rubbed off on him, permeating — Osborne loves that word — everyone in the program.

This interview with the coach details the pursuit of in-state players, the advantages and challenges of building a 180-man roster and how he stomached local recruiting failures of the past 20 years.

(The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity.)

“We divided the state where every coach had an area. A lot of times, you talked to high school coaches and they’ll say, ‘I haven’t seen these guys for eight years, and now all of a sudden I got this high-profile guy and then they show up.’ The high school coaches really appreciate when you come by and when you’re in contact every year. Not just about players on their team, but about players they’ve seen. A lot of times a coach on an opposing team will have a really good, honest perspective that you may not even get from his own coach.”

“We said that we’re gonna take kids out of Nebraska that we think are reasonably close to scholarship level — we’re going to give them a scholarship. These are kids that are maybe recruited by Wyoming or North Dakota State. I looked at the last six or seven teams that we had. We averaged offering six players a year from Nebraska. Of those kids, 72 percent ended up starting for us. The average of all the kids from out of state was 51 percent. So even though those from Nebraska most times were not quite as finished … they were more productive for us. We got a higher return out of those six scholarships. We tried to offer them early and make sure they knew right off the bat that they were not a second chance. That they were really a high priority for us.”

“The second-team players got as many snaps in practice as the first-team players. By running two offensive stations, the first team would get 100 snaps. But the second team would get 100 snaps. In the traditional practice, you’d maybe have the first team getting 70 percent of the snaps and the second team getting 30 percent. So we had years where we would lose four of five offensive linemen and it would look like we were going to drop off. We’d plug those second-team guys in and we usually didn’t miss a beat.”

“Everyone wants to feel like they’re engaged. A lot of times the scout-teamers realized that they were making a real valuable contribution. We had a scout-team player of the week on offense and defense. The other thing is, if you go back and talk to them, they would all say that they were appreciated. We did not treat them any differently than the first-team player. They knew we cared about their education and their family. I think that made a difference, too.”

“The main thing is you have to be willing to trust your coaches. Most people, when they practice, they want every offensive coach at the same station. After the play is over, those coaches will run up and correct a guy. And they have a defensive station with all the defensive coaches there. When we practiced, we might have Milt Tenopir and Frank Solich at one station primarily dedicated to the inside running game. Then we’d have Dan Young and Ron Brown at the other station emphasizing the passing game and screens a little bit more. But everything was on film.”

“The next morning, we’d look at every snap, offense, defense, for both the first team and second team. The offensive coaches would be in one room, defensive coaches in the other. I’d sit in with the defense first, then move to the offense. There wasn’t any play that we didn’t scrutinize. Then we’d go over that with players before practice. A lot of people don’t, for whatever reason, want to split their coaches up. They want to have them all at that one station. As a result, you have a lot of players just standing and watching.”

“I don’t want to put the idea out there that everyone has to do it like we did. For instance, Scott may not run more than two stations, but he recognizes the importance of repetition. Of course, they run tremendously fast tempo. So he may get the same number of snaps that we did. He understands the importance of the walk-on program. He understands the importance particularly of the strength and conditioning. They’ve really been hitting that hard. He’ll make sure he gets the bases covered.”

“I felt bad about (seeing guys like Harrison Phillips and Drew Ott leave). But if you’re an athletic director or a fan, you can’t interfere. You might suggest. Usually when I was athletic director, I’d go in and say, ‘These are some of the things that we did that we thought worked well, and I just want you to be aware of this. But you’ve got to coach the team. I’m not gonna sit and second-guess you or tell you what you have to do. But I want to give you that perspective.’ But they’ve got to go do it. If you make them do something that they don’t really believe in, it’s not gonna work. It’s got to be something that they understand is critical.”

“There’s all these recruiting lists. The stars. Five star, four star, three star. Some people chase the lists. They’re interested in how many stars a player has. Of course, that’s all from analysts. I guess you develop stars depending on who’s recruiting you. If Michigan and Ohio State and Stanford and USC and Florida are all recruiting one player, then he might be a five-star player. And a lot of kids from eight-man football or small towns aren’t gonna get a lot of a stars. They’re not even going to get two stars for the most part. When we had our football camps, we usually had three camps that lasted about five days each. So we spent a lot of time. We’d usually have 1,100 or 1,200 at each one of those camps. Most of those kids, or at least a lot of them, were from small towns in Nebraska.”

“So we’d get a chance to time them and watch their agility and get an idea of their character and their attitude. Sometimes those small-town kids would just jump out at you. You’d say, ‘Hey, this guy’s a little rough around the edges, but he can be a great player.’ So we’d either scholarship him or talk to him about walking on. A lot of those walk-on kids, we were in their living rooms and we recruited them just like we did scholarship players. It wasn’t like we just wrote them a letter. We let them know that we really wanted them.”

“For instance, a guy like Tom Rathman. Now he was from Grand Island. He had no scholarship offers when we offered him, so he committed right away. Now today they would know about Tom Rathman because there’s such a web of communication regarding scouting. So it may have been that there were a few players that we knew about that nobody else knew about. A lot of it came from our football camps and then just being in those high schools as much as we could. Talking to coaches.”

“If you had a player that had a good frame, for instance Terry Connealy from Hyannis — there’s a guy who was 6-4, 6-5 and probably weighed 215 pounds. But he played basketball, he participated in track. But since he didn’t specialize and didn’t have a sophisticated strength program, he wasn’t 6-5 and 280 and all of those things that you see in some of the four-star players. But after a year or two, he became a great player. We looked a lot at potential and frame and athletic ability.”

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