Give Tom Osborne credit for reading between the lines.
It was the summer of 1959 and he was a young quarterback looking to latch on with the San Francisco 49ers. Problem was, there were a couple of talented players in front of him on the depth chart, and they weren’t going anywhere any time soon.
“Red Hickey was the coach and he called me into his office,” Osborne said. “He said, ‘We’ve got two quarterbacks – Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie – and we’re only going to keep two. If you think you can beat one of them out, go ahead and do it.’
“I kind of got the drift of what he was saying, so I just said, ‘Well, I guess I could try to be a receiver.’”
Osborne, the architect of Nebraska’s football dynasties of yesteryear and the program’s current Athletic Director, is responsible for molding young men like Roger Craig, Tom Rathman and Jamie Williams in college before they joined the 49ers. As it turns out, the 49ers are partly responsible for Osborne’s rise to football coaching’s highest echelon.
Tittle and Brodie – the first two great quarterbacks in the franchise’s rich lineage of signal-callers – proved to be insurmountable competition, so Osborne eventually made the switch to wide receiver. Still, Osborne found himself buried on the depth chart behind such players as the late, great R.C. Owens, Clyde Conner and Billy Owens.
He stayed on the 49ers taxi squad (it’s now known as the practice squad) until the 1960 season, when he played a few preseason games and eventually got picked up by the Washington Redskins. Following a two-season stint with the Redskins that ended with a nagging hamstring injury, Osborne decided to trade in his cleats for a clipboard and a whistle.
“I gave up pro football and came back to the University of Nebraska, went to graduate school and started coaching,” Osborne said.
With 255 wins, three national championships and countless awards during his time at the helm of Nebraska’s program, it looks like Osborne made the right decision.
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