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How will NU fare without Osborne?

Tom Osborne's retirement as Nebraska athletic director, announced Wednesday and effective Jan. 1, leaves the school in a precarious spot at a time that may represent a crossroads in its athletic trajectory.

Osborne has always been there when Nebraska needed him. And the Cornhuskers needed him often.

They needed him 40 years ago, when Bob Devaney stepped aside as football coach and handed Osborne the keys to a monster truck. He drove with a steady hand, winning 255 games in 25 years before his 1998 retirement.

The school and the state needed him in 2007, when, after three terms in Congress and a failed bid for governor, Osborne returned to a flailing department as interim athletic director in mid-football season and fired coach Bill Callahan six weeks later.

The interim tag soon disappeared. And in 2010, with the Big 12 Conference on shaky ground and Nebraska at odds with longtime Osborne nemesis Texas, the school needed him perhaps more than ever.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Osborne helped guide Nebraska into the Big Ten -- a move, despite the league's football shortcomings this season and the rebirth of the Big 12, that has paid innumerable dividends for the university at large.

Osborne, for more than half of his life, has served as the rock on which Nebraskans leaned. He is, without argument, the most recognized and revered figure in the state.

It's a bold, new future at Nebraska, almost unthinkable without Osborne in a position of leadership, and a future in which Husker athletics faces challenges on many fronts.

Osborne stabilized the all-important football program under fifth-year coach Bo Pelini, but Nebraska has not won a conference title since 1999. With Brady Hoke at Michigan and Ohio State's Urban Meyer building, now is the time for Nebraska to establish itself as a force in the Big Ten landscape.

In basketball, Nebraska has never won an NCAA tournament game. It last played in the tourney in 1998. Last March, Osborne hired Tim Miles, energetic but unproven at this level, to lead NU hoops into a new era sparked by the opening of a plush practice facility last year and plans to move into a $180 million downtown arena in 2013.

Osborne, as athletic director, oversaw development of new student-life and strength complexes inside Memorial Stadium. The latest expansion project, well underway, will push the stadium capacity to 92,000, keeping Nebraska in line with its elite conference brethren.

He hired six head coaches at Nebraska, including Pelini, Miles and Darin Erstad, Osborne's former punter and a big-league All-Star, for baseball.

With so much at stake, Nebraska could use Osborne's experience and guidance.

He plans to remain as athletic director emeritus for six months after Jan. 1, but Osborne's influence will fade, of course. For the past five years, Nebraskans knew this day would come. Few wanted to face the reality, though.

Perlman learned of Osborne's decision in August. The chancellor hired a search firm and has interviewed candidates.

Associate AD Paul Meyers will be a favorite of many in the state. His department's fundraising efforts have made possible so many of the improvements at Nebraska over the past two decades.

Osborne, no doubt, eyed Jamie Williams as a candidate when the former coach brought his old tight end back to Lincoln in June to fill a leadership spot in the athletic department.

Ex-Nebraska All-American linebacker Trev Alberts, the athletic director at Nebraska-Omaha, will get mention.

Externally, the position is attractive -- leader of a flourishing program, backed by a fan base that has sold out every home football game since 1962.

Perlman said Wednesday he won't allow the search to unfold in public. Good luck, what with 1.8 million sets of eyes trained on the chancellor to see whom he can find to fill the chair occupied by a living legend.

When Osborne retired from coaching 15 years ago, he pegged Frank Solich as his successor. Solich lasted six years.

"The bar was unrealistically high," Osborne said last week.

He made a promise as coach, presumably to Solich, that he would pass the reins.

Nebraska sat at the pinnacle of college football in 1997. Osborne won 60 of his last 63 games. Coaching had never been easier, he said.

This time, it's at a crossroads. And there was no promise. Only a state and a school left to wonder how it will cope without its rock.