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Nebraska's Tom Osborne quietly steps away as college football icon

George Diaz

COMMENTARY

6:54 PM EST, January 1, 2013

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His last day on the job wasn't filled with any pomp and circumstance. No special proclamations or gold watches or one final ride on the field, with shoulder pads propping up one of the legends of college football.

Tom Osborne mingled outside the University of Nebraska locker room at the Florida Citrus Bowl, chit-chatting with a handful of staff members, shaking hands with a couple of players who reached out to him, and taking exactly one picture with a Cornhusker fan in front of one of the team busses.

And then he walked away. Quietly. Unpretentiously.

"I don't have much to say," he said after the Cornhuskers lost to Georgia, 45-31, in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day. "Our team played hard. We didn't get it done."

Understated eloquence is the best way to define Osborne.

He step aside in a calendar year that's been rough for college football icons. Joe Paterno was dismissed amid shame and scandal, only to die months later. Osborne retired as the school's athletic director Tuesday afternoon with barely a mention in the game notes.

You'd have to delve into the fine print to note his indelible impact on the game: Three national championships. A coaching career at Nebraska that spanned 25 years and included 255 victories and an .836 winning percentage. Leading a 23-sport smorgasbord as Nebraska's athletic director since 2007. Oh, and a stint in Congress, too.

College football will miss him. Our divisive political teammates, too. Which is why at a team dinner this week, someone noted the fiscal cliff debacle and said this of Osborne "With everything going on, we need you back in Washington."

No thanks.

Osborne, 75, plans to stay on campus for an additional six months as a consultant to the new AD, and then fade away quietly to do what most retirees do: Chill out, spend time with his family, go fishing (one of his favorite leisurely pursuits). He most definitely does not want become a cliché as an older-generation guy who overstayed his welcome.

"At some point, whether you're able to function or not, the perception that you're getting old gets in the way," he said recently.

It would be disingenuous to paint an incomplete portrait of Osborne. He has not been free of controversy, most notable during the national championship run in 1995, when he embraced a renegade cast of players, including Lawrence Phillips and Christian Peter.

Too many second chances. Not enough tough love.

Peter had problems with alcohol and a history of abusive behavior against women. All in all, Peter was arrested a total of eight times and convicted four times. Osborne's benevolence came into question in 1995, when Kathy Redmond, one of Peter's alleged rape victims, filed a federal Title IX sex discrimination lawsuit against the university.

But it speaks to the character of Redmond and Osborne that in 2000, Redmond accepted an apology from Osborne. Then, as athletic director in 2008, Osborne helped reach out to Redmond to have her speak to the football team.

Labels can be tricky. No man or woman is free of some moment in life they would like to take back, a do-over.

But with Osborne, there have been few do-overs. His life has been a principled one, with little time for self-introspection. Note his response to my question about what he's most proud of as he retires.

"Relationships with players and former players staff members. That's the thing that's more permanent. I'll always remember those."

And he will be remembered forevermore, as one of college football's role models, as a man who wasn't swayed by money and power and the need to feed his ego by going to another campus or defecting to the NFL.

So let's set the record straight:

Here's a heartfelt farewell to Tom Osborne for a job well done, whether it's on the plains of Lincoln, Neb., or in the upscale landscape of Washington, D.C.

In a world of movers and shakers, he is both.

Godspeed.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com