No debate - Student-athletes benefit from presidential experience: This year’s presidential election is an experience dozens of NCAA student-athletes will never forget. With all three of the debates being held at college campuses, student-athletes were among the attendees candidates were hoping to influence. Read more
By Marta Lawrence
When it comes to politics and college sports, one of the most recognizable names is Tom Osborne, who coached the Nebraska Cornhuskers to 255 wins and two national championships in football and then became the school’s AD.
But Osborne also served in Congress from 2000 to 2006, and he used the skills he learned both from intercollegiate athletics and the political arena to flourish in each.
Osborne likes to tell the story about a handful of congressmen who decided to take on the Capitol Police – 20 years their junior – in a friendly game of flag football. Who did they ask to be their coach? None other than Osborne, who managed to mentor the legislators to a tie.
“How we ever tied those people,” he said, “I’ll never know.”
While Osborn joked that coaching a group of Congressmen in flag football was “one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” he admits the skills he learned through athletics proved useful in the halls of Congress.
“Being in a competitive arena certainly is helpful,” he said. “There’s always going to be some disappointment. Sometimes there are injuries and sometimes you don’t play as much as you want. So you learn to deal with adversity.
“The only people in athletics who survive the process are able to somehow take a positive, active approach to some negative circumstances. Endurance, tenacity and the ability to handle failures is important, and it’s something that’s part of athletics.”
These lessons helped Osborne rebound from an unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2006 and paved the way for him to accept the athletics director role at Nebraska in 2007.
In September he announced his retirement – a step about which he said he has mixed feelings. In the 25 years he coached the Cornhuskers, he claimed two outright national championships (1994 and 1995) and one shared title (1997). He compiled a 255-49-3 lifetime record.
Prior to running for Congress, Osborne consulted several former student-athletes who severed in office to assess whether it was “possible for someone from the athletic arena to survive in that setting.”
Former Oklahoma quarterbacks Steve Largent (R-Oklahoma), who served in the House from 1994 to 2002; and J.C. Watts, who served from 1995 to 2003, were encouraging. Osborne said he also drew inspiration from Jack Kemp, who served in Congress from 1971 to 1989 and was later appointed as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Former Kansas Representative and Sen. Bob Dole later selected Kemp as his running mate in the 1996 presidential election.
While in Congress, athletics was a strategic networking tool, said Osborne, who remarked that he made friends on both sides of the isle while working out in the House “gym.” Osborne also developed a close relationship with then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who was a former high school wrestling coach.
“Denny always thought of himself first and foremost as a coach,” he said. “There’s no question that had something to do with our relationship.”
Osborne’s commitment to teamwork proved valuable shortly after beginning his first term when he was approached by Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee) to co-sponsor the Student-Athlete Protection Act (H.R. 1110). The bill was also supported by the NCAA and eventually passed into law by President George W. Bush.
During his tenure. Osborne also worked to implement changes to the enforcement of Title IX through the Office for Civil Rights.
Reflecting on his time in Congress and at Nebraska, Osborne cautions young people: “There’s a lot of emphasis in our culture on what appears to be success, and that may have to do with how much financial success you have or how many awards and trophies you have won, and I don’t know if in the long run that’s all that productive. Something I always thought was really critical was the issue of character, not so much what your trappings and visible signs of success might be, but rather, who you are as a person.”
These lessons, said Osborne, are learned through athletics.
“You can’t always control circumstances, you can’t always control what an official does or if the ball bounces a certain way,” he said. “There’s a lot of chance factors you can’t always control, but you can control your own character and your own sense of worth, and you can always decide to be a servant rather than someone who’s going to be served. That makes a huge difference.”