LINCOLN — The course of Nebraska football history could’ve changed dramatically in mid-December of 1978. That’s when Tom Osborne announced he wouldn’t accept a job offer from Colorado.
The Buffaloes were looking for a coach to replace Bill Mallory, who was fired after five seasons in Boulder. His record was 35-21-1 but only 18-16-1 against Big Eight teams.
So Athletic Director Eddie Crowder thought it was time for a change.
Osborne was Crowder’s second choice, according to the Boulder Camera. His first choice was former Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson, who had stepped aside in 1964 only to return to coaching with the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals in 1978. He was fired after two seasons, with a record of 6-20.
Wilkinson’s time at Oklahoma was much different, of course. His record in Norman was 145-29-4, with three national championships and an NCAA-record 47 consecutive victories.
Crowder played for Wilkinson from 1950 to 1952.
After he retired from Oklahoma, Wilkinson became a color analyst for ABC Sports. He was in the broadcast booth for the Nebraska-Oklahoma “Game of the Century” in 1971.
In any case, despite his connection to Crowder, Wilkinson remained with the Cardinals and Osborne moved to the top of Crowder’s list. Osborne hadn’t made the initial contact. Colorado track and field coach Dean Brittenham, a former Frank Sevigne assistant at Nebraska, had.
Brittenham and Osborne were friends.
Osborne’s record after the 1978 regular season was 55-15-2. Included among those 55 victories, however, was only one against Oklahoma, 17-14 on Nov. 11 that season.
With that victory, Nebraska had climbed to No. 2 in the rankings and positioned itself to play No. 1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. But a week after the Oklahoma victory, the Huskers were upset at home by Missouri, 35-31.
And Nebraska had to play (and lose to) Oklahoma in an Orange Bowl rematch.
Such frustration merely reflected a greater fan frustration with Osborne’s lack of success against Oklahoma – Barry Switzer had become the Sooners’ head coach in 1973, the same year Osborne succeeded Bob Devaney.
Switzer replaced Chuck Fairbanks, who left Norman for the NFL’s New England Patriots amid controversy involving recruiting violations.
Osborne said he “thought there was enough unhappiness here that maybe I ought to look for a job.” That despite at least nine wins and a bowl game in each of his six seasons.
Colorado reportedly offered a $100,000 contract, considerably more than what Osborne was making. But money wasn’t the reason he was looking at the job, according to Osborne, who traveled to Boulder with wife Nancy in mid-December to meet with the Buffs and make a decision.
A significant factor in his declining the offer was players, not at Colorado but those at Nebraska. Osborne couldn’t envision coaching against those he had recruited and coached.
Ironically, perhaps, Crowder hired Fairbanks, whose teams were 7-26 over three seasons.
Fairbanks was fired and replaced by Bill McCartney, a Michigan assistant. When he arrived in Boulder, McCartney immediately declared Nebraska the Buffaloes’ rival, a designation the Huskers and their fans refused to acknowledge; Oklahoma was the Huskers’ rival.
Nebraska won at Boulder in McCartney’s first season 40-14 and in Lincoln his second season 69-19. The Huskers’ “Scoring Explosion” offense racked up 48 points in the third quarter of that game. But McCartney’s fifth team upset No. 3 Nebraska 20-10 at Boulder in 1986, Colorado’s first victory against the Huskers since 1967, and four years later, the Buffs won a national championship.
McCartney’s teams were 93-55-5 in 13 seasons, including only 3-9-1 against Nebraska. But the foundation for a rivalry was set, enhanced by the formation of the Big 12, when Colorado replaced Oklahoma as the Huskers’ final regular-season opponent in 1996.
Colorado’s 62-36 victory at Boulder, under coach Gary Barnett (who succeeded Rick Neuheisel in 1999), in 2001 symbolized the end of Nebraska’s national relevance. Had Osborne taken the Colorado job in 1978 that national relevance might well have faded long before.
Mike Babcock is a long-time Husker beat writer and editor at Hail Varsity Magazine.