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Osborne is proof that athletics and politics can live together

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.”

Former Texas swimmer also made congressional splash

Former Texas swimmer and wrestler J.J. (Jake) Pickle (D-Texas) was elected to Congress by special election in 1963. A protégé of President Lyndon Johnson, one of Pickle’s proudest moments was when he joined seven other Southern Congressmen in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a vote he feared might make him a one-term representative.

Pickle went on to serve 14 more terms from 1963 to 1995. An affable and well-loved representative, Pickle handed out tiny plastic pickles at community events and parades.

Pickle’s nephew, NCAA Director of Digital Communications David Pickle, remembers him as a warm but intense person. “He was all-in on everything,” David Pickle said. “It didn’t matter if it was the family reunion or writing tax policy, he was always full speed.”

Jake Pickle was student body president while at Texas and a member of the 1934 Southwest Conference championship swim team. He was a life-long supporter of college athletics and regularly attended Texas games.

“I know he swam in college, but of course it was a different time,” David Pickle said. “I’m guessing it was more of a voluntary activity back then as opposed to what it is now, but I know he enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. But his true passion was student government.”

Pickle retired in 1995 as the third-ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. His legislative accomplishments included contributing to a bipartisan 1983 reform of Social Security that was signed into law by President Reagan.

Pickle’s legacy at Texas includes the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, a technology center located near the main Austin campus.

Jake and his daughter Peggy wrote a book together in 1977, Jake, chronicling his life. In the book, he wrote, “Other than the long commute to and from Washington and, starting in the 1980s, the increasing partisanship of Congress, there was little I didn’t like about being Congressman Pickle.”