Tom Osborne famously almost left for Colorado in 1979.
The legendary coach’s Nebraska Cornhuskers had won at least nine games and had finished in the college football AP top 12 in each of his first six seasons since succeeding Bob Devaney. But they were just 1-6 against rival Oklahoma, and when they had finally gotten over the Sooner hump in 1978, winning a 17-14 thriller, they proceeded to blow their national title shot by losing to Missouri the very next week. They had to face OU again in a unique Orange Bowl six weeks later and lost.
Recognizing impatience in the fan base — and realizing how much Colorado life would fulfill his love of fishing — Osborne seriously considered CU athletic director Eddie Crowder’s offer to take over the Buffaloes. He had second thoughts about leaving his Lincoln project unfinished, however, and stayed.
The project remained unfinished for quite a while. On paper, Nebraska was the best football program in the country in the early 1980s but came up one win short multiple times. Then it fell behind OU again. As athletic director, Devaney’s confidence in Osborne never wavered. But a scroll through the letter-to-the-editor archives for the Lincoln Journal Star suggests fan confidence did.
After more than 20 years, Osborne finally broke through. The Huskers won or shared three national titles from 1994 to ’97, and Osborne retired, fully recognized as the legend he had been for quite a while.
Patience is often rewarded. Bobby Bowden finally won a national title in his 18th season at Florida State. Mack Brown finally won a national title in his 22nd year as a head coach and his eighth at Texas (after an Osbornian run of futility against OU). Coaches who “can’t win the big one” often suddenly do.
You don’t always get the happy ending, though. Michigan’s Bo Schembechler … Ohio State’s John Cooper … Auburn’s Pat Dye … Georgia’s Mark Richt … plenty of coaches have come close to the promised land but never arrived. Your fortunes are determined by a combination of luck, timing and great quarterback play. Not everyone gets the best of those three things all at the same time.
Among the Best Coaches Not to Win a National Title list, Kirby Smart, Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin all rank quite high. They have accomplished remarkable things in their respective head-coaching careers and boast the requisite number of what-ifs.
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