Steelers' Mission: Reverse Recent Super Bowl Trend

When the Pittsburgh Steelers hunker down to Super Bowl business Jan. 28 in Tempe, Ariz., they will face two opponents: the rampaging and determined Dallas Cowboys and the bogeyman that says American Conference teams can't win the National Football League's top prize anymore.

Given the competitive parity the league is generally known for, recent Super Bowl results seem almost an apparition. The National Conference has won 11 in a row, with San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, the New York Giants, and the Chicago Bears all notching victories during this period. Few ever imagined that the AFC would ever enter such a prolonged tailspin since its last Super Sunday triumph, scored by the Los Angeles Raiders over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XVIII.

Now we're approaching Super Bowl XXX, and the Steelers are going to stiff-arm away a mountain of media insinuations that AFC is an inferior brand.

Pittsburgh may be the conference's perfect emissary. The Steelers, after all, have a 4-0 Super Bowl record. The National Conference's domination, hasn't been achieved at their expense. And even though these Steelers are a generation removed from the franchise's glory years, they look and play like the old Steelers. The black helmets and the blue-collar toughness haven't changed.

There is still an aura about Pittsburgh's football team, much as there is with Dallas's. As a result, the NFL has a Super Bowl that should play well with its audience. Certainly the book's cover looks much more engaging than the one to last year's Super Bowl mismatch between San Francisco and San Diego.

In the AFC playoff game last year, Pittsburgh came up three yards shy of beating San Diego before time ran out. The Steelers used that loss for inspiration this time with an Alamo-style ''Three More Yards'' reminder. They emerged triumphant in an equally dramatic game with the Indianapolis Colts. The 20-16 win wasn't official until Indianapolis's desperation pass narrowly fell incomplete on the game's final play.

Green Bay played the Cowboys very tough in Dallas before succumbing 38-27 in a game in which Packer tempers flared over a perceived illegal block by the Cowboys. This distraction seemed to drain as much poise from the Packers as the warm temperatures did perspiration. Of course it didn't hurt that Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith was having a vintage day (running 150 yards) or that quarterback Troy Aikman was passing like he did in leading the Cowboys to wins in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.

Timely win for Cowboys

From a local standpoint, this seems an especially good season for the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl. A victory might help Texans cope with the double loss of the Houston Oilers (who plan to move to Nashville) and the Southwest Conference, an 81-year-old college conference that was synonymous with the Lone Star State.

The parochial nature of the league, made up of eight Texas schools since Arkansas left in 1992, may have contributed to its downfall. Many observers, however, trace the first signs of trouble to 1960, when pro football arrived on the local landscape. The National Football League expanded to Dallas that year, and the new American Football League placed teams in Dallas (the Texans) and Houston (the Oilers). This ate into attendance at college games. Eventually, the Cowboys became the toast of Texas, symbols of the state's football fervor and pride.

Perhaps not coincidentally, no Southwest Conference school was ever national champion after the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl in 1972.

College convention to slim down

National Collegiate Athletic Association conventions produce a lot of rubber-stamp legislation. At this year's annual meeting, held in Dallas earlier this month, delegates voted on 120 items in the final two days. As breathless as that pace sounds, the voting was often very tedious. NCAA president Gene Corrigan points to lopsided, ''800-to-3'' roll call votes lasting five minutes.

Partly as a result of such inefficiency, the theme of this year's convention was ''we've got to stop meeting like this, '' Corrigan says. And that's just what the delegates agreed upon, passing a restructuring plan that will streamline conventions beginning in 1997. In place of unwieldy, one-school, one-vote meetings with hundreds of delegates, much smaller gatherings, led by 16-member panels of school presidents from all three NCAA divisions, will be held.

Touching other bases

* Pop quiz: When Miami's Don Shula recently called it quits after 33 years coaching in the National Football League, he retired with more victories (347) than any coach in league history. Whose record did he break? (See answer, at end.)

* The Phoenix metropolitan area just hosted the Fiesta Bowl, the biggest game of the college football season. On Jan. 28, it brings in the Super Bowl. Landing Super Bowl XXX is a nice plum, especially given the National Football League's decision to withdraw the championship game from Phoenix several years ago. That decision stemmed from Arizona's failure to make Martin Luther King Day a paid state holiday, a decision since reversed by voters.

* The cost of this year's Super Bowl field in Tempe, Ariz., is an estimated $60,000. That covers the removal of the grass used during the Fiesta Bowl and its replacement with all new sod brought in from California. The old turf was ripped out because there wasn't time to ''erase'' the Fiesta's painted field designs.

* After nearly two feet of snow fell on Boston last week, the National Hockey League's Boston Bruins had to postpone a home game against an its aptly named opponent, the Colorado Avalanche.

* Quiz answer: George Halas's. Shula surpassed Halas by 23 victories, but Halas owns the better winning percentage, .671 to .665. Halas's 40 years of NFL coaching were spent entirely with the Chicago Bears. Shula divided his tenure between Baltimore and Miami.

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