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‘Coach’ Mulls a New Ballgame

Osborne Could Leave House for Governor Bid

Every lawmaker who has spent time with Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) seems to have a story about the football legend’s unusual star power. Most of them, however, don’t take place in Uzbekistan.

During an official trip to the Central Asian nation last year, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and Osborne were each assigned an Uzbek security guard. The two lawmakers went to their hotel gym for a workout, but the security guards knew all about Osborne’s college coaching exploits. They grew so excited about meeting Osborne that when he departed the gym, both guards followed him, leaving Rehberg unprotected.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got to come all the way to Uzbekistan and have the coach recognized,’” Rehberg said.

For Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), the moment came during last year’s President’s Dinner, when two Nebraska natives sitting at his table at the fundraising event were far more excited about the prospect of meeting Osborne than the commander in chief.

“The president was put on the back burner,” Boozman recalled with a laugh.

The soft-spoken Nebraskan has become a quiet Member of Congress, rather than a high-profile legislator. Indeed, well into his fourth year in the House — following a quarter-century leading the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers to regular bowl appearances — Osborne is still known to many voters, and most of his colleagues, as “Coach.”

Even as he maintains a low profile on the Hill, Osborne is trying to decide whether his distaste for partisan brawling outweighs his interest in seeking higher office, particularly the governorship of his home state.

Before Osborne decided to run for the House in 2000, some Nebraskans, including Rep. Doug Bereuter (R), tried to persuade him to jump into the open-seat Senate race instead.

“He said, ‘I want to make sure this is a job that’s right for me before I take on a six-year commitment,’” Bereuter recalled.

Bereuter and many other Republicans are still convinced Osborne would have won that seat — which was taken instead by current Sen. Ben Nelson (D). Now many Nebraska Republicans would like to see him make a gubernatorial run in 2006, when Gov. Mike Johanns (R) must step down due to term limits.

Osborne’s renown and favorability could essentially clear the GOP field and discourage top-tier Democrats from making a run.

“A number of potential candidates have decided not to challenge him if he runs for governor,” Bereuter said.

But coronation or not, Osborne has not yet made up his mind about 2006.

“I’m really not a very partisan person,” Osborne said in a recent interview. “I don’t enjoy politics, so to speak.”

Osborne is running for another House term this fall. After that, he hasn’t ruled anything out. “Beyond that, I might run for the House again. I might run for governor. I might decide to go fishing. …

“I have no ego need to be governor. If there’s a case where I think there are some things I could contribute that maybe others couldn’t, then I might take a shot at it.”

Given his play-calling power as a coach, some of Osborne’s colleagues suspect that he must be frustrated in the House and that he might be happier in an executive office like the governorship.

“It’s especially difficult for someone who comes from being a head coach,” Rehberg said. “But he keeps his impatience well in check.”

While Osborne won’t complain about being a House Member, he acknowledged that the career switch has taken some getting used to.

“I don’t feel that I’m terribly ego-driven, but it has been different,” he said. “When you set the agenda, you know what time you’re going to practice, you know who’s going to play quarterback. Now you’re in a situation where you don’t even know when you’re going to leave [work] and you have no control over the agenda.”

Regardless of where his own future lies, Osborne is much in demand on the campaign trail.

While lawmakers usually ask Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to campaign for them, in Osborne’s case it was Hastert who picked up the phone and invited his fellow ex-coach to make an appearance in Illinois. Plenty of other Members have made similar requests for help.

“I’ve done a fair amount of that,” Osborne said of campaigning. “I try to focus pretty much in the geographical region around Nebraska [where] more people know me.”

For example, Osborne said, there are “lots of Nebraska fans in South Dakota,” where the ex-coach recently did events for state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R), who is running in the special election to replace ex-Rep. Bill Janklow (R), and former Rep. John Thune (R), a personal friend of Osborne’s who is taking a second shot at the Senate.

Osborne also expects to campaign for Colorado Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) and Missouri Rep. Sam Graves (R). In the Cornhusker State, he plans to aid Rep. Lee Terry (R) and the eventual GOP nominee to replace the retiring Bereuter.

In that race, Bereuter has endorsed state House Speaker Curt Bromm. Lincoln City Councilman Jeff Fortenberry and Nebraska Cattlemen executive Greg Ruehle are also seen as legitimate candidates.

But just as he did in his previous career, Osborne plans to stay neutral until after the primary.

“I don’t endorse anybody” at this stage, Osborne said. “That goes back to when I was a coach. A lot of times I’d have people come to me and say, ‘I’d like to have your endorsement’ and, you know, as a coach that really wasn’t a good thing to do to start endorsing political candidates, so I turned them all down. … I’ve just maintained that practice.”

While Osborne’s help is much sought-after elsewhere, he hasn’t needed much assistance in his own district. He had no Democratic opponent in 2002 and spent just $81,000, while in 2000 he won with 82 percent.

“When I first came here I didn’t have to purchase name recognition, so I was fortunate,” Osborne said. “I only took contributions of $300 or less from individuals and no money from the party.”

Not having to campaign constantly gives Osborne more time to travel around the sprawling, economically troubled 3rd district, where he has focused on the issues of rural poverty, education and dwindling agricultural jobs.

“I’ve got a district that’s 85 percent of the state, and I try to be really conscientious about covering that district so I’m out there two or three days a week,” Osborne said. “I drive 50,000 miles a year and fly another 120,000.”

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