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Ex-Neb. Football Coach Eyes Congress

August 10, 2000

LEXINGTON, Neb. (AP) _ Two rough-and-tumble pastimes are going hand-in-hand this year in Nebraska’s sprawling 3rd Congressional District: Football and politics.

Retired University of Nebraska coach Tom Osborne has had little trouble with name recognition in a pigskin-crazed district that spans 65,000 square miles _ nearly 85 percent of the state’s land mass.

Although he hadn’t lived in the rural district since leaving nearly 40 years ago, the Republican faces a little-known real estate investor and is the odds-on favorite in November.

``I hope that people who vote for me would do so because they think I could do a good job, not because I was a football coach,″ Osborne said during a recent campaign break at Kirk’s Restaurant near Lexington.

``I’ve tried not to play up the football aspect,″ he said.

That’s hard to ignore in a state where most boys grow up aspiring to be Cornhuskers and most families own a Big Red T-shirt or ball cap, mouse pad, sweat pants or flag. Games on Saturday afternoons are piped into grocery stores.

Husker football is the unifying force in this sparsely populated farm state, and Osborne was at the helm of it all for 25 years as he led teams to three national championships, creating a dynasty. The team is ranked No. 1 again this year in preseason polls, two years after Osborne left.

Smiles greet Osborne almost everywhere in the state. When he stood up to leave Kirk’s Restaurant, a trucker rose to shake his hand _ and as Osborne exited, he hollered: ``You got my vote in November!″

Is the trucker a Husker fan?

``Isn’t it a requirement in Nebraska?″ he replied.

Osborne left football to spend more time with his family and the youth-mentoring program he started by matching Husker players with at-risk youth. He also cited concerns over heart problems, but since has received a clean bill of health.

Despite a full schedule of speaking engagements and appearances at charitable events, Osborne grew bored of retirement and decided to give politics a try.

``I guess I’m not good at retiring,″ the 63-year-old said.

The grandson of a former Nebraska state senator, Osborne saw an opening when Republican Rep. Bill Barrett announced that he would retire from representing the 3rd District at the end of his fifth term.

Before Osborne started his campaign in January, no one knew for sure his political affiliation or where he stood on major issues. It didn’t matter.

``I leave town, come back and find out God is running against me,″ said Carroll Sheldon, one of four Republican candidates who dropped out after Osborne entered the GOP primary race.

Barrett himself said the party found someone who can ``walk on water″ to replace him. Against two little-known opponents in the May primary, Osborne won 71 percent of the vote.

Having the support of the state’s football faithful in a district where two out of three voters are Republicans, Osborne nearly has a lock on the district seat. Even his opponent admits that.

``I’m running against one of the most popular men in America _ based on his football success,″ said Democrat Rollie Reynolds, 69.

Even though Osborne doesn’t accept money from political action committees or any individual contributions of more than $300, he has amassed more than $200,000. Reynolds has raised $1,375.

``People haven’t given me much of a chance,″ he said.

Osborne’s campaign is rooted in his call to revitalize agriculture by lifting trade embargoes, stopping the brain drain of Nebraska’s youth and thwarting what he calls the unraveling of culture.

He opposes abortion and gun control, supports increasing legal immigration quotas and questions the fairness and deterrence of the death penalty.

To run for the district’s seat, Osborne recently took up residence at a cabin he owns at LeMoyne, 260 miles west of Lincoln.

Call him a carpetbagger, point to his lack of political experience or refer to his so-so support of the death penalty in this conservative district and you’ll get nowhere.

``Tom Osborne is so highly regarded,″ state Democratic Party Chairwoman Anne Boyle said. ``Anybody who wants to go negative on Tom Osborne is probably not going to be well-received.″

Even one of the darkest chapters in Osborne’s life is not likely to be rehashed during the campaign.

The coach was sharply criticized by some for his handling of Lawrence Phillips, a star Nebraska running back who pleaded no contest to assaulting his ex-girlfriend during the 1995 season.

Osborne suspended Phillips for six weeks but allowed him back on the team to play in the Fiesta Bowl and help the Huskers win their second consecutive national championship.

His critics claimed the incident proved that Osborne was willing to win at any cost.

``Many people were outraged at the way it was handled,″ said Mary Beck, a member of the University of Nebraska’s women’s commission. ``The coaching staff seemed to be quite willing to close their eyes.″

``I tried to treat each player like I would want my son to be treated,″ said Osborne, who is clearly tired of reliving his Phillips decision.

But even Beck admits voters likely will only recall Osborne’s successes.

``If you poll most Nebraskans, they wouldn’t care because football is a very big deal here,″ she said. ``It won’t come back to haunt him.″

__

On the Net:

Tom Osborne: http://www.youandtom.com

Nebraska Democrats: http://www.nebraskademocrats.org

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