A Sweet and Surreal Saturday Night

A young man, covered in head-to-toe bronze paint rode the long escalator down to the main floor of CenturyLink Center in Omaha on Saturday. He was a living Heisman Trophy on his way to somehow help salute retiring Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne.

If you got within 10 feet of him you could smell the paint. If you got within two feet of him you could see that the paint was covering a Ryan Klachko jersey. A fitting disposal, I suppose, of a jersey no longer needed in the Nebraska football offices, but a fitting choice as well. Concussions forced Klachko to give up football.

Half of the proceeds for Saturday night’s, tribute to Tom Osborne will go to the new research facility in East Stadium that will devote major resources to studying concussions. The other half will go to Osborne’s Teammates mentoring program.

Osborne’s passionate about those things. It’s hard to imagine that there was any other way to lure the laconic coach out on the town on a rainy night to be feted by nearly 2,000 fans, former players, and colleagues other than with that promise – it will do some good.

That was always the motivation behind a career as an administrator, teacher and coach and this was to be it’s big sweet and surreal send-off.

Ninety minutes before the event started Osborne was asked what he thought about being the featured guest.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “Probably a little overwhelming.”

Not long after that, Barry Switzer showed up. The party could officially begin.

***

On the floor above where the living Heisman Trophy was posing for pictures, a living Heisman Trophy winner was explaining what Tom Osborne meant to him.

“He taught me how to catch a BB at midnight with no moon with my sunglasses on,” Johnny Rodgers said because Johnny Rodgers talks like that.

Barry Switzer interrupted him. He entered the room, drink in one hand, waving the other, and yelled, “Johnny! Fair catch! Fair catch!” because Barry Switzer enters rooms like that.

“I brought this for Bob Devaney,” Switzer said of the drink. “I just didn’t feel right being in Nebraska, sitting in front of a mike, and not having a drink to sit there and think of Bob. It just makes me feel more comfortable.”

Truth is Switzer’s comfortable anywhere. It’s his most redeeming quality. He dominates the room, even if the room is 95-percent full of former Nebraska greats. He talks about mortality – “I’m in the fourth quarter. I hope I’m not near the two-minute warning, I don’t think I am, and I plan to play overtime.” – and it’s okay, even at a retirement ceremony. It’s all in the delivery.

Osborne isn’t present at the rowdier reception room upstairs, but just about everyone else is. They all got there via a woman’s dress that served as the red carpet.

Mike Rozier wears a newsboy cap, of course. Guests lounge on strategically placed sofas, their feet up on ottomans covered in artificial turf, their arms slung over custom-screened Tom Osborne pillows. Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez has his photo taken with Dennis Haysbert, either the Allstate guy or Cerrano from “Major League” depending on your era. Nobody is quite sure why he’s there and nobody really cares.

None of it makes sense, but none of it needs to. This is the answer to the night’s burning question: How do you celebrate a man who had an almost inhuman aversion to celebration?

The answer? You go big and hope it works out.

***

“Football is a game for not very well-adjusted people,” former Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said at the opening of dinner.

On Saturday, the maladjusted seemed to feel perfectly at home among each other. Bob Stoops and Tim Beck chatted in the corner. Matt Davison and Scott Frost joked back and forth. Jerry Moore and Craig Bohl, two former Osborne assistants who’ve won national titles of their own at the FCS level, held court at one of the 150 tables in the CenturyLink Center’s ballroom. Vince Dooley, Grant Teaff, and R.C. Slocum sent their regards via video.

A good portion of college football’s history is here, but also it’s present and future. Frost, an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, shared that Osborne’s hands were shaking when he called the play that became the famous flea-kicker of 1997.

“It was the only time I saw him nervous,” Frost said.

“My hands were shaking because I realized we were going to have to throw the football,” Osborne says later in the night. It’s a counter punch to a good-natured jab Frost had thrown earlier regarding his willingness to campaign on Nebraska’s behalf following the 1998 Orange Bowl and Osborne’s sub-standard campaigning abilities as evidenced by his failed 2006 gubernatorial bid.

The stories and memories fly all night long. Irving Fryar captivates the room with the story of calling Osborne moments after he crossed the podium and received his doctorate degree in Theology. He tells of the story of Osborne’s in-home recruiting visit, where the coach listened to Fryar’s sister play piano and drank the Kool-Aid Fryar had mixed up. That was enough to get the New Jersey kid to Nebraska.

Tommie Frazier shared his Husker origin story too. Osborne visited him the day after losing 22-0 to Miami in the 1992 Orange Bowl. Most of college football’s royalty had spent some time in the Frazier living room that year and Tommie’s dad didn’t talk to any of them. But Frazier’s father spoke to Osborne that day. “That’s when I knew I was going to Nebraska,” Frazier said.

The stories and memories flew all night long, interrupted by occasional bits of live entertainment. Osborne’s career was interpreted through dance. There were Las Vegas impersonators in the house. Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t have blue eyes and Neil Diamond was a little pudgier than I remember but Osborne took it all in quietly.

Somehow, Chris Fowler, who earned every penny he was paid, kept it all moving. “This is the craziest program I’ve ever seen,” the ESPN analyst said.

Before Osborne closed the night by thanking the crowd and accepting the gift of a fishing trip to Belize from UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, the Michael Jackson impersonator, the best of the night, worked through a spot on version of Jackson’s famous “Smooth Criminal.”

It was that kind of night – a fake Michael Jackson directly addressing Coach Osborne as “Tom.” One man had made a career being somebody else. The other had made a career out of being unlike anyone else.

When their paths crossed on Saturday in Omaha, neither of them ever could’ve seen it coming. It was probably a little overwhelming.

Originally published at HailVarsity.com

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