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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More of Our Interview with Coach Tom Osborne

Tom Osborne

Osborne explained to me that the roots of the walk-on program were set in pragmatic ground. “In the mid 70’s, the NCAA dramatically reduced the number of scholarships that Division I schools could award. It went from 45 initial football grants each year with no total limit to a limit of 105 total.  In 1978 the limit was lowered to 95 and in the early 1990’s to 85.”

The reduced number of scholarships meant that there were now a lot of high school players who may have the potential to play Division I football, but were now passed on due to the limit on scholarships . “That became the basis for starting our walk on program at Nebraska,” Osborne said. “There were years, especially when we still had freshman programs, that we might have 100 walk-ons. With numbers like that, you will always be able to find a few players, at least, who have Division I ability, but for some reason were overlooked out of high school.”

Nebraska quickly earned a reputation where a walk on would be given a real chance to compete for a playing spot. “We treated the walk-ons the same as we did scholarship players. The person who earned the spot in practice is who would play on Saturday. We would normally try and keep five to seven scholarships open each year to award to players who had come to us as a walk-on. We did a study over a five year period and it averaged that of our 60 players on our travel squad each year, 24 had come into the program without a scholarship.”

An added benefit, Osborne told me, was the way the program cemented the loyalty of the entire state to Nebraska football. “Football is a developmental game,” the coach said. “So much more than say basketball where most kids out of high school are ready to play. A small town Nebraska kid might not be physically ready to play at age 18, but give him a couple of years and get him into our strength program and he goes from 6’4 220 pounds to 6’4 290 pounds. Now he can physically compete. Our strength and conditioning program in the 70’s and 80’s was well ahead of most others. That really helped a lot of our small town Nebraska kids who came to us as walk-on lineman. We found a lot of good players that way. High school coaches around the state knew their kids would get a fair chance with us and would encourage their players to come here. Anytime you can play a lot of in-state young men,  that will create interest and loyalty in that boy’s home town and that loyalty will build over the years.”

But beyond the above mentioned benefits; roster depth and state wide interest, Osborne said that the most important contribution the walk-ons gave to the NU program was the culture it created in the locker room. “I always felt we had the hardest working teams in the nation,” Osborne said. “Year in and year out, we would win because out kids just worked harder than they did at other schools. I contribute that to the tone set by the walk-ons. Just by the nature of a young man who is willing to turn down a scholarship at other schools, and many did, to come walk-on here, with no promise of a scholarship, then that is a player who is confident in their own abilities and is going to overachieve. They are going to be hard workers. Remember, we had so many of them, often times 40% of our roster. If you are a scholarship player and you see a guy without a scholarship who plays your position who is working twice as hard as you are, then that is going to get your attention. You can either buy-in and pick up your effort level, or you will not be around here very long.”

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