THE Big Red engine that couldn't, can. The mighty Nebraska football team threw off its considerable postseason frustrations with Sunday night's 24-17 come-from-behind Orange Bowl victory over Miami.
During Coach Tom Osborne's 22 years at Nebraska, the Cornhuskers had turned into a paradox in shoulder pads - a team stamped with greatness except when it most counted, which is to say on or around New Year's Day.
Osborne has been a pillar of stoic virtue throughout Nebraska's bowl ordeal, which many believe dates to a failed two-point conversion in a 1984 Orange Bowl loss to Miami that probably cost the Huskers the national championship.
When Osborne was asked in a pregame interview if he had ever chalked up Nebraska's postseason disappointments to fate, he showed no interest in the notion. He cited the period when Oklahoma kept beating Nebraska, and his approach was that renewed effort, not resignation, would ultimately achieve the desired result.
It did in Nebraska's 7-year bowl-victory drought, too, when superb conditioning and power football won the night in Miami against a team that seems the woofing, strutting counterpoint to the quiet plains plowboys.
Miami cockily carried a 17-9 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Huskers wore out the Hurricanes on their home field, sending fullback Cory Schlesinger bulling his way in on touchdown runs of 15 and 14 yards.
Since Nebraska (13-0) entered the game top-ranked, the victory almost assured it of the national championship, despite anything undefeated and second-ranked Penn State could do to impress pollsters against Oregon in Monday's Rose Bowl. Not surprisingly, Penn State coach Joe Paterno, whose team has found itself in similar situations, has called for a playoff. .
That discussion can hold for another day. The news of the moment, as NBC's Bob Costas explained during the Orange Bowl signoff, is that a new sports year has begun brightly, with a solidly middle-American team in the limelight.
Sportswriter advocates player power
IN some quarters of society, today's coaches are occasionally pitied for having to tolerate challenges to their authority and command. Don't expect any sympathy from Bob Oates, though. The Los Angeles Times sportswriter is of a mind that big-time college and pro-basketball and football coaches are endowed with too much power, more than they need or ``should be allowed to keep,'' he writes.
``In nearly every instance,'' he continues, ``the role of America's football and basketball coaches is incompatible with modern trends in leadership.''
Oates would like to see American sports move away from autocratic rule to a more democratic model. This is happening in the business community, he points out, at the same time coaches are becoming more intrusive into ``the moment-by-moment action.'' This is evident in all the play-calling from the bench, where most of the decisionmaking power resides.
Oates reminds us that in football's formative days, coaching by nonstudents was forbidden. He advocates re-empowering players by focusing on what he says are ``neglected areas: teaching players to be effective play-callers and productive captains.''
Touching other bases
* Pop quiz: At its Jan. 8 honors dinner in San Diego, the the National Collegiate Athletic Association will present its most prestigious individual accolade, the Theodore Roosevelt Award, to the only American to twice win the Olympic decathlon. Can you name this Stanford University graduate? (Answer below.)
* Green Bay turned in the defensive gem of the National Football League season when it limited Detroit's Barry Sanders to negative yardage in Saturday's 16-10 playoff victory over the Lions. After rushing for 1,883 yards during the regular season, including 188 when Green Bay and Detroit last met on Dec. 4, Sanders lost one yard overall on 13 carries.
* With his next coaching victory, which could come tonight against Portland, Lenny Wilkens will move ahead of Red Auerbach as the National Basketball Association's career coaching leader. The bittersweet side to his quest for win No. 939 is that Wilkens's team, the Atlanta Hawks, is not winning as often as he'd like - a 12-17 record leaves them fifth in the Central Division, well back from first-place Cleveland, where Wilkens last coached.
* Quiz answer: Bob Mathias.