Earlier this week, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos announced that Fred Hoiberg would replace Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. For a long-suffering fanbase, Nebraska basketball fans were very excited, and Moos received a lot of praise for his hiring of Hoiberg and head football coach Scott Frost.
Of course, Moos deserves a lot of credit. In fourteen months, Moos has basically remade the face of Nebraska’s two most prominent revenue sports. And with that praise, inevitably there came some discussion about how Moos’ performance as athletic director compared to Tom Osborne. As summarized by a smart and particularly handsome analyst:
Initially I had thought that criticizing Osborne for anything amongst the Nebraska fanbase would be a dangerous proposition. But it turns out there is a contingent of the fanbase more than willing to question Osborne’s tenure at the helm of Nebraska athletics.
That tenure is, of course, open to criticism. It was Osborne’s decision to hire Bo Pelini as a replacement for Bill Callahan. Pelini ended up being a very divisive figure in the Nebraska fanbase, and was not able to deliver the success fans wanted in his seven-year tenure. Osborne also hired Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. Miles’ inability to deliver an NCAA tournament win in his seven-year tenure, combined with fans’ frustration about Osborne-hired head baseball coach Darin Erstad, has soured some on Osborne’s tenure as athletic director.
It’s fair comment. Osborne’s major hires as athletic director were certainly defensible at the time, but none have panned out. And coach hiring is one of the primary metrics you would ordinarily use to judge the success and legacy of an athletic director.
But notice the word “ordinary” there. Osborne was not Nebraska’s athletic director in ordinary times. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for the summer of 2010. Nebraska was still in its unhappy marriage with the Big XII conference, but the problems were growing. Northern schools like Nebraska were always concerned about how the league tilted in favor of Texas, and the announcement of the Longhorn Network made those concerns even more stark.
Things really got serious, though, when rumors began to swirl that Texas was in conversation to take Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech to the then-Pac-10 conference. With Missouri already having flirted with the Big 10 and Colorado with the Pac-10, it seemed almost a certainty that the Big XII would not survive for long. And for a program like Nebraska, without a massive population base, being frozen out of a conference home was an existential threat.
It was Osborne that faced down that threat, along with then-university chancellor Harvey Perlman. Osborne and Perlman ultimately pulled off the biggest pre-emptive strike, convincing the Big Ten Conference to accept Nebraska as a member.
The move was, to say the least, contentious. Nebraska would be abandoning rivalries with its former Big 8 partners that had lasted for over a hundred years. It would be sailing into uncharted territory, having to be the new guy on the block and competing for attention with blue-blood programs like Michigan and Ohio State.
But in retrospect, the move has paid off. Indeed, the decision to move Nebraska into the Big Ten is the most important one in the history of the Nebraska athletic program. Doing so has all-but-guaranteed Nebraska’s ability to continue as a top-flight college athletic program for the indefinite future. It has funneled more money into the program’s coffers (to the tune of $37 million dollars for fiscal year 2018, according to USA Today).
The importance of that decision, though, can only be seen in imagining the counterfactual. Take, for example, Connecticut athletics. Sure, UConn and Nebraska don’t have the same history or national brand. But it’s not like UConn has no history – in basketball terms, UConn has been a blue-blood for a long time.
Before the conference realignments in the early 2000s, UConn was a founding member of the Big East conference, which was a premier college basketball conference and a member of the BCS. Big East membership for UConn guaranteed the Huskies a seat at the table as a major program in both NCAA revenue sports.
Then the Big East fell apart. Between 2011 and 2012, West Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Notre Dame all left the conference for different homes. Seeing the danger, UConn tried but failed to get itself into the ACC. Trying to stay relevant in football – the all-important sport for revenue purposes – the remaining Big East school made a last-gasp grab and added Tulane.
But adding Tulane – and the travel to Louisiana that the addition would require – was enough for the Big East’s basketball-only schools (St. John’s, Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, DePaul, and Villanova) to break off and form a new conference. That left UConn truly without a home.
Now, UConn is competing in both football and basketball in the American Athletic Conference, a “non-power-five” conference. In addition to being all-but-frozen out of the College Football Playoff and being a “mid-major” in basketball, the move has had significant financial implications for UConn. The AAC’s television payout for 2016-17 was $74.47 million – compared with the Big Ten’s payout of $531 million for the same period, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
(A great breakdown of the Big East’s collapse can be found at SB Nation.)
Again, Nebraska isn’t UConn. But it’s not hard to imagine a dystopian future for Nebraska if Osborne wasn’t able to secure Big Ten membership. Imagine a world where Texas takes those four schools and Colorado to the Pac-10. Texas A&M and Missouri bolt for the SEC. And let’s imagine that Notre Dame rather than Nebraska becomes the Big Ten’s twelfth member.
Where would Nebraska be in that scenario? The remaining five teams (Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, and Nebraska) would have been without a conference home and scrambling. While Nebraska would certainly be the most attractive of those remaining, it’s easy to see how NU could have ended up in the Mountain West with schools like Wyoming, or in a far-flung nationwide conference like Conference USA.
Either of those scenarios – which would be best-case scenarios without the Big Ten golden ticket – would put Nebraska athletics in a very similar circumstance to UConn’s current plight. It was Osborne’s leadership (along with Perlman and the rest of the Nebraska brass) that helped NU avoid disaster and protect its place amongst the elite of college athletics.
So criticize Osborne’s coach hires all you want. But solely on the basis of getting Nebraska into the Big Ten, Osborne deserves a statue for his tenure as Nebraska athletic director.