Osborne passed on many coaching lessons to QB pupils
LINCOLN — The way Mickey Joseph remembers Husker quarterback meetings, Tom Osborne might as well have been a professor teaching a 400-level course somewhere else on the campus.
You dissected film and defenses until your eyes hurt. You went over the plan and the play checks each week until they were memorized. Every detail was addressed.
“And never once I heard a quarterback sit in that room and doubt what he put on the board,” Joseph said. “He got us ready to the point that we knew the game plan inside out. He made sure you were mentally right.”
That helps explain why — 20 years after Osborne’s retirement as NU coach — so many of his former quarterbacks are sprinkled around the coaching profession, including the newest Husker head coach, Scott Frost.
“It doesn’t surprise me because I know if you sat in that room you had to know football — because you had Coach Osborne with you and he tried to pour everything he had inside of you,” Joseph said. “If you sat in that room, you knew football. So I’m not surprised those guys are in those positions they are today.”
In addition to Frost, who finished a 12-0 campaign in his second season at Central Florida, Turner Gill also was a head coach at the FBS level (Buffalo, Kansas) before taking over at FCS Liberty in 2012. Former NU quarterbacks serving as Division I assistants are Joseph (LSU), Gerry Gdowski (Vanderbilt) and Mike Grant (Wyoming).
Matt Turman, meanwhile, has taken Omaha Skutt to four of the past five Class B finals in Nebraska.
Not only do they carry the knowledge and expertise gained at NU, but they often see things in their own coaching style that replicate their mentor.
“I think if you talk to guys I’ve worked with and players I’ve had, even-keeled is probably a word or term they’d use,” said Gdowski, the quarterbacks coach at Vanderbilt. “And, obviously, that’s from being around Coach Osborne and his approach and the way he was — trying to stay in the middle, so to speak, and not get too high and not too low.
“Whether it was one day at a time, one play at a time, one game at a time — whatever mantra you want to use — that’s probably the biggest thing that rubbed off on me.”
Gdowski and Turman were sons of high school coaches and already had that kind of guidance before NU. Turman said it only escalated from there.
“Being around Coach Osborne, you don’t really have a choice but to become a teacher because he was such a great teacher,” Turman said. “And in reality, coaching is teaching. Just the way he did it, you learned so much, and when you left there you just thought you could share it with others.”
Turman also remembers those quarterback meetings. He called the first few almost surreal for an in-state player who grew up idolizing the program and former Husker quarterbacks.
“He just had a way of instilling knowledge about the game into you, and he could do it in a way where you kind of taught yourself,” Turman said. “Not saying it wasn’t stressful, though, because he expected you to know everything he did. He had this way about him, where he wasn’t mad at you if you didn’t know an answer, but you sat there and felt like you had let him down.”
Frost was Osborne’s last starting quarterback in 1996 and ’97 and helped lead Nebraska to a national championship as a senior. Their closeness is well documented.
Gill spent a half-dozen years with Osborne on the Husker staff as his quarterbacks coach. Gdowski also got to play and coach under Osborne, spending three seasons as a graduate assistant after working an accounting job for a year.
What never changed, Gdowski said, was how Osborne dealt with people, no matter how high or low they sat on the depth chart or within NU football operations.
“There’s different coaching styles, different approaches that work,” Gdowski said, “but it was always just the way he treated people, as far as how he treated everybody with respect.”
Former NU quarterback Tommie Frazier also went into coaching, serving as a Baylor assistant before two seasons as coach at Doane in 2005 and ’06. Mark Mauer started as a Husker GA in 1982 and ’83, then made multiple other college stops before becoming a high school coach in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Joseph said one thing he always appreciated was that Osborne had success “coaching his way.”
“As you know, he wasn’t a yeller and he wasn’t a guy who cussed,” Joseph said. “Not one time did he cuss at me, and it’s a miracle because of some of the stuff that I did sometimes.”
Joseph said quarterbacks were allowed some leeway in his system, once earned, but Osborne was always about his pupils staying locked in and paying attention.
“He made sure you were mentally right,” said Joseph, LSU’s receivers coach. “That’s one thing that I take from him, is to try to get my room mentally ready to go. Because physically these days they can all play. But the ones that can think and the ones that can go the right way, that’s the ones you can win with.”
What also sticks with Gdowski is Osborne’s day-to-day approach, no matter what had happened or was approaching.
“You always kind of knew what you were going to get when you walked into the room with Tom as far as just his demeanor, what you were going to do that day,” Gdowski said. “You hear a lot of people today say ‘the process,’ talk about the process, the process you have to go through to be successful ... and I don’t know if we necessarily looked at it that way, but when I look back at it, it was definitely a day-to-day process that you went through.”
You can find pieces of Osborne’s offense used by some of his protegés, and Turman said his immediate plan after taking over at Skutt was to install the Nebraska system. Once he realized the complexity was a little much for a high school team, he scaled it back to some option and some specific plays from those 1990s teams.
When Skutt won state championships in 2013 and ’14, Turman said, he already had voicemails from Osborne before the SkyHawks’ on-field celebrations were complete.
“He would say congratulations, and that some of our plays were stuff that he recognized, and I’d play those for my players in the locker room,” Turman said. “It’s cool that he still takes time to call a second-string quarterback from 20 years ago, 25 years ago, and say, ‘Hey, I like what you’re doing.’
“And as a former player of his and quarterback of his, it makes you proud.”