Charlie “The Horse” Osborne arrived on the Hill in 1957 as a highly touted recruit from the small mountain town of Flat Gap, Ky., and by the time his collegiate career was complete, he had firmly established himself as one of the all-time leading scorers and rebounders in Western Kentucky history.
One of the most popular Hilltoppers ever, the
6′ 6″ 230-pound Osborne was best known for his physical and punishing style of play that drew respect, fear, and occasionally blood from his opponents!! In fact, Hilltopper legend Johnny Oldham, who was at that time coaching OVC rival Tennessee Tech, calls Osborne one of the toughest and most physical players he has ever witnessed in college basketball.
As a freshman in 1957-58, Osborne quickly displayed the greatness that Coach Diddle and others had predicted of the former Kentucky High School All-Star when he led the freshman team in scoring with a whopping 32.1 ppg average! Over the next three years, Charlie was to become a major force on some of Mr. Diddle’s last great teams.
As a sophomore, Osborne moved right in and posted impressive averages of 14.1 ppg and 9.5 rpg, but unfortunately the 16-10 Toppers missed out on a chance at postseason play. However, the team’s fortunes were soon to change, as two other former Kentucky prep stars……Bobby Rascoe from Daviess Co. and Harry Todd from Earlington moved up to the varsity squad. Over the next two seasons, Osborne teamed with Rascoe and Todd to form the nucleus of two of the finest teams in Western history.
The 1959-60 Toppers, paced by Osborne’s 17.8 ppg and 10 rpg, posted a 19-6 regular season record en route to another OVC Championship, despite facing an extremely brutal schedule along the way. And for the first time since 1940, Western accepted only their second-ever NCAA tournament bid (Ever since 1942, the Toppers had of course been participating in the NIT Tourney at Madison Square Garden). Up first was Miami (Fla.), the nation’s 10th-ranked team. And in front of over 1,200 Western fans who made the trip up to Lexington, the Toppers completely dismantled the Florida squad 107-84, earning Western their first ever NCAA Tournament victory.
However, waiting in the wings was the ultimate test…..the #1 ranked team in the nation; a fully rested and prepared Ohio State squad led by two of basketball’s greatest players ever……6′ 9″ Jerry Lucas and former Celtic great John Havlicek.(Note: Lucas’s high school coach in Middletown,Ohio, was Paul Walker, a former Hilltopper who played for Mr. Diddle in the early 1930’s. And in fact, Diddle came very close to swaying Lucas to the Hill) Undaunted by the task at hand, the Toppers played one of their finest games of the season, and the fans on hand in Louisville’s Freedom Hall witnessed one of the most exciting contests of the 1960 NCAA Tournament. Ohio State clung to a small lead for most of the first half before Western’s fast break began to click, and with 3:28 remaining the Toppers held a 40-30 advantage over the Buckeyes before settling in at the half with a 43-37 lead.
The second half was a see-saw affair as the two powerhouses inflicted blow after blow upon one another in an attempt at the knockout. The Toppers led 65-64 with under nine minutes remaining, but the Buckeyes then jumped out to a seven-point advantage until four quick points by Osborne cut it down to 76-71 with 5:57 remaining. At the five minute mark however, fatigue began to set in and the Buckeyes capitalized on numerous Western turnovers. The lead quickly ballooned, as OSU’s size and depth wore the Toppers down, resulting in a final score of 98-79. Obviously, the game was much closer than the final score indicated, and it proved to be the only real test that OSU faced as they marched on to the 1960 national championship. Charlie Osborne led the Toppers with 18 points while Bobby Rascoe finished with 16. In reference to that game, Rascoe states, “We really had those guys in disarray, we had them down by several points at halftime and really had them on the run.” Rascoe continues, “but not only did they have great starters but they had great reserves, and we basically had five or six guys that we played, and we kind of…….more or less I believe, ran out of steam in that game and got very tired in the second half.” (Note: After Western’s first-round victory over Miami (Fla.) in Lexington, a blizzard left the team stranded in E-Town for two days before they were finally able to make it on up to Louisville on Thursday, the day before the game w/ OSU. Thus the team was unable to return to campus at anytime during the intervening days between the games.) Western, behind Osborne’s 23-point effort, then went on to defeat Ohio University 97-87 to finish in third place in the NCAA Mideast Regional, and close out the season with a final record of 21-7.
Buoyed by the return of their “big three” and their impressive NCAA showing, particularly the battle with OSU, Western opened the 1960-61 campaign sporting a preseason ranking of #5 in the nation. And Osborne’s senior season of ’60-61 proved to be his greatest ever, as he finished second on the team in scoring at 19.0 ppg and second on the team in rebounding with 10.7 rpg. Osborne had established himself as one of the finest and toughest players the OVC had seen in many years, and teammate Bobby Rascoe echoed Oldham’s statement about Osborne’s punishing style of play, “Charlie was one of the most physical players I ever saw play. He had a semi-hook / push-shot from in close around the basket and he carried his left elbow when he would swing around in that hook shot motion, and he carried that elbow high. I saw a lot of guys get injured as a result of that big elbow of Charlie’s (Laughs). I saw him knock out teeth and almost literally be-head some guys.”
Once again the Toppers claimed the OVC Championship and posted impressive victories over highly-ranked teams such as DePaul, Xavier, La Salle, and ul, but unfortunately Charlie & Co. didn’t get the opportunity to return to the big dance as they were upset (80-72) in overtime by Morehead St. in the OVC championship playoff game. The preseason’s #5 ranked team had finished with a somewhat disappointing 18-8 record and a world of unfilled promise and expectations. Sportscaster Cawood Ledford called the ’60-61 Toppers, “A near-great team which might have gone all the way.”
Thus ended Osborne’s tremendous career on the Hill. However, his impact is still very evident in the WKU Record Books. Osborne was the fourth all-time leading scorer in Western history when he graduated in 1961, and today he still ranks #11 on the all-time list with 1,359 points and a career average of 17.0 ppg. He also holds down the eleventh spot on the all-time rebounding list with a career average of 10.1 rpg, including the third highest single-game total of 25 rebounds versus East TN. in 1960. Osborne was also one of the greatest Free Throw shooters in Western history, as he still holds the record for the best career FT% (3-season career) with an .801% mark. He likewise holds the record for the most Free Throws attempted and made in a three-year career (511 of 638).
Individual honors bestowed upon Osborne include: All-OVC in 1960 & 1961; WKU MVP in 1961; Sugar Bowl All-Tourney team in 1958 and 1960; and NCAA Mideast All-Regional Team in 1960. Charlie was soon thereafter drafted, and later signed, by the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals, and he seemed primed and ready to continue his basketball career on the professional level for many years to come. However, an injury during training camp in Syracuse effectively ended Osborne’s hopes at NBA success.
With his playing days then over, Charlie made a brief return to the Hill in 1962 where he shared duties as Western’s freshman coach with former Topper great Dan King. In fact, in 1963, Osborne was alongside Coach Diddle in Louisville, Ky. to witness Mike and Robert Redd become the first African-Americans to sign letters-of-intent to play basketball for the Hilltoppers.
Charlie later relocated to the Louisville area where he spent several years working for the Ford Motor Co. However, he eventually returned to his boyhood home in Johnson County, where he became self-employed as a restaurant owner.
On the night of April 17, 1979, while traveling on KY Highway 172, near his home of Flat Gap, Osborne suffered a tire blowout on the convertible which he was driving, causing the car to leave the highway and flip over several times before coming to rest in a nearby bottom. Less than an hour after the accident, Charlie Osborne died in a Paintsville, Ky. hospital at the age of 40. He was survived by his wife, a son, and two daughters.
Charlie left behind family, friends, and fans who I’m sure will never forget the impact he had on their lives, the least of which was accomplished on the basketball court.
As of 1999, Charlie “The Horse” Osborne has yet to be inducted into the Western Kentucky University Hall of Fame.
Name: Charlie Osborne
Basketball Letters: 3 (1958-61)
High School: Flat Gap, Ky.
All-OVC: 1960, 1961
Pro Basketball: Drafted by the Syracuse Nationals. Career ended by injury.