Big year for dome-based teams; Heisman vote may be close after all

It appears that 1987 will be known as the year of the dome in sports. Just look at what three dome-based teams have done. Baseball's split-personality Minnesota Twins, a below .500 club on the road but a power in the Metrodome, parlayed the home-field advantage into a World Series championship. In college football, Syracuse completed its first perfect regular season since 1959, and three of its most dramatic victories - over Penn State, Boston College, and West Virginia - were secured at home in the Carrier Dome. In pro football, meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints are assured of their first winning season ever and have been a big story in the National Football League, where, with four games left, they are 8-3 and 3-1 in the Superdome.

If things break right, Syracuse could conceivably win the national championship by beating Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, played in the Superdome. Last March, the Syracuse basketball team nearly won the national championship in this same facility, only to lose to Indiana on a last-minute shot.

Whatever negative memories that may have left with Syracuse doesn't change the fact that the football Orangemen are most at home playing on artifical turf in a dome.

They did beat two opponents on grass this year, Virginia Tech and Navy, but those schools have a combined 4-17 record. Consequently, Syracuse is still something of an unknown on grass. For this reason, it may be better off playing in the Sugar Bowl than in Miami's Orange Bowl, where an invitation (extended to the U. of Miami) would have provided a chance to meet top-ranked Oklahoma - but on natural turf. ...and the envelope, please

In a live, late-afternoon telecast Saturday (5:30-6, ET, on CBS), New York's Downtown Athletic Club will present the Heisman Trophy to this season's best college player. Notre Dame flanker Tim Brown is still considered the front-runner, but voters who waited until last Saturday's games were over to send in their ballots, might not have Brown on the top line anymore.

For fence-sitting sportswriters and broadcasters, the last two weeks represented something of a runoff election, one in which the stock of Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson may have risen, and Brown's declined. In fact, this writer finally decided to fill out his ballot in the following manner: 1) McPherson, 2) Brown; and 3) Holy Cross receiver Gordie Lockbaum. It wasn't an easy ordering job, and leaving Craig Heyward, Pittsburgh's prolific running back, off the ballot altogether, was especially difficult.

As for the McPherson-Brown duel, it came down to what I perceived as the greater impact McPherson has had in igniting Syracuse's incredible season. Particularly impressive was his ability, on an otherwise lackluster day, to rally the Orangemen to a 32-31 victory over West Virginia in their final regular-season game. Trailing 31-24 with a minute and a half to play, he completed 5 passes during a last-gasp 74-yard touchdown drive, which set up the winning two-point conversion. Overall, McPherson's play was worthy of the Heisman, too, as he was the nation's passing efficiency champion.

Brown often was a marvel when he had the ball, reminding some observers of Gale Sayers with his open-field skills. Through no fault of his own, Brown didn't get as many opportunities to shine as McPherson, partly because of his position and partly because the Irish passers didn't get him the ball that regularly. Then, too, when Notre Dame really needed his offensive spark against second-ranked Miami last Saturday, Brown dropped three catchable passes in a 24-0 loss and had just 93 all-purpose yards. Briefly speaking

If you think all the controversy and uncertainty about who really is No. 1 would be cleared up by a major-college playoff, think again. Just look at the ruckus raised by Howard University, which was left out of the Div. I-AA playoffs despite a 9-1 record. The school was so upset it claimed in a suit that the NCAA selection committee was racially motivated in leaving out the predominantly black institution. Committee members, however, said the real problem was Howard's schedule, which was padded with a handful of games against Div. II opponents. This situation points out that there are always judgment calls involved in choosing a playoff field. A federal judge, incidentally, denied Howard's request to delay the 16-team playoffs, which began last weekend.

To publicize players for All-America consideration, colleges sometimes reach pretty far to get people's attention. Occasionally the efforts are in questionable taste, such as the campaign by the University of Georgia to gain recognition for linebacker John Brantley. Brantley's nickname is Rambo, and on one side of a glossy promotional flyer, Brantley is made to look like Sylvester Stallone in the movie about a macho, one-man fighting machine. He's outfitted in camouflage pants and a muscle-revealing tank top, wears a bandana on his forehead and a bracelet of rifle shells, and holds an automatic rifle. It's a convincing portrayal, but is this menacing depiction really in keeping with what an All-American player should be? One has to wonder.

The University of Maine may not be at the heart of the national football picture, but it manages to play some pretty interesting games on the periphery. Last weekend, in the school's first post-season game since the 1965 Tangerine Bowl, the Black Bears squandered a 28-10 halftime lead and eventually lost an overtime playoff thriller, 31-28, to Georgia Southern, the defending Division I-AA champion. Earlier this season, Maine beat Delaware 59-56 in another overtime contest that produced the highest losing score in NCAA football history. That point-fest, and others like it, aren't too uncommon using the Yankee Conference's tiebreaker format, in which opponents alternately take possession at each other's 25 yard-line. In 1982, Maine was on the short end of the stick in a 58-55 six-overtime loss to Rhode Island.

After allowing South Carolina State four chances to boot a game-winning field goal, Grambling had only itself to kick after this season's most incomprehensible series of errors. Certainly Eddie Robinson, Grambling's coach of 46 years, had never seen any team commit three such costly penalties in succession as his Tigers did in losing, 15-13. The penalties literally moved South Carolina State, which trailed 13-12 with five seconds left, into makeable field goal range. Grambling was first guilty of roughing kicker William Wrighten on a missed 41-yard field goal attempt. Wrighten missed again from 29 yards and then from 26 yards, but Grambling was offside each time. Wrighten's fourth kick, from 21 yards away, split the uprights as time expired.

University of Minnesota football coach John Gutekunst on regrouping after a defeat: ``One of the great things about sports is that you don't have to form a task force or a committee. You come back and play again next week.''

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