NEBRASKA'S WIZARD OF THE PRAIRIE
One afternoon in the autumn of 1994, as his team steamrolled
toward its first national championship in 23 years, Nebraska
football coach Tom Osborne explained the Cornhuskers' muscular
offense thusly: "Oh, you know, same old thing, run up the
middle, pass every 10 plays." Then Osborne squinted into a low
prairie sun and let the corners of his mouth rise to form the
barest approximation of a smile. Have a laugh if you want, he
seemed to be saying, ever so politely, but I get the joke better
than you do, and I'll be laughing last.
He is. And maybe now that Osborne has announced his retirement
(effective following Nebraska's Orange Bowl date with Tennessee)
after 25 years at the helm of a modern college football dynasty,
we'll finally get it.
Nebraska teams of the Osborne era were an easy target. From
1973, the year Osborne took over, until 1994, the Cornhuskers
were ridiculed because they couldn't win the Big One, failing to
add to the two national championships that predecessor Bob
Devaney's teams had won in 1970 and '71. At one point Osborne
lost seven consecutive bowl games and nine straight games to
opponents ranked in the top three. He was accused of keeping his
offense in the dark ages, clinging to a beefy ground game with
no hope of beating more creative opponents. Then after Nebraska
won its second consecutive national title, on Jan. 2, 1996,
Osborne was painted by many as the paradigm of the coach who
turns his program over to talented criminals in pursuit of
victories. Through all of this he spoke in the measured tones of
a small-town doctor and dressed like a Sunday-school teacher,
inviting the venom of an increasingly cynical public.
December 22, 1997
Yet while his program was so often being held up as an example
of some socioathletic malady or universal football shortcoming,
Osborne piled up a staggering record. In 25 seasons he won 254
games, more than any other college football coach over such a
span. His record for the last five seasons: 59-3. Memorial
Stadium, whose capacity of 72,700 is more than the population of
all but two cities in Nebraska, has been filled every time he
has stood on its sidelines. He coached 46 Academic All-Americas,
far more than any other football coach in history, and was on
NCAA probation just once (for a year beginning in October 1986,
after his players were caught selling complimentary tickets).
The '95 squad, a lethal combination of speed, power and attitude
that trampled Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl, must be included
in any discussion of the greatest teams in history.
Further, the Cornhuskers' walk-on, strength and nutrition
programs are so advanced that other coaches no longer even
mention Nebraska as the standard for success, attaining
efficiency on the Osborne level being an unrealistic goal.
The criticism Osborne received as a strategist was often unfair
and occasionally wrongheaded. Opposing defensive players and
coaches marvel at the number of sets from which the supposedly
unimaginative Cornhuskers run their basic plays and the creative
ways in which they use their offensive line. When Osborne called
the plays for Devaney, he was considered a young offensive
genius. As he leaves a quarter century later, he deserves to be
called an old one.
When he attempted a winning two-point conversion, instead of a
tying point-after kick, in the 1984 Orange Bowl against Miami,
he also became a gutsy genius. He failed, and Miami won the game
31-30, but everybody learned that Osborne didn't play for ties.
Osborne's name is inextricably linked to that of Lawrence
Phillips, the gifted running back whom the coach let return to
the field in 1995 after Phillips pleaded no contest to assault
for a vicious incident in which he dragged his former girlfriend
down a flight of stairs by her hair. Phillips's contributions
were essential to both of Osborne's national championships.
Osborne's overly lenient handling of Phillips, and of several
other Cornhuskers of the title era who were booked and
fingerprinted, was understandable if not defensible: He
believed, as other coaches have believed, that he could save
Someday Phillips's shameful Nebraska tenure will be forgotten,
and freed from the constraints of social commentary and
sports-bar humor, Osborne's reputation will grow. He wasn't
stupid, he was smart. He wasn't simple, he was complex. His
record will look more remarkable with each passing year. --Tim
DO PLUS-FOURS AMOOOSE YOU?
Golfweek recently revealed that pint-sized Hollywood tough guy
Joe Pesci is set to unveil a signature line of golf wear. The
clothing, which will bear the label Piagga and will be available
at department stores beginning next month, should bring a touch
of goodfella class to the links. Caddies, meanwhile, may want to
tuck a baseball bat in with the metal woods.
The subject of recycled coaches has become a hot-button issue in
the NBA these days, particularly after the fireworks in Golden
State between Latrell Sprewell and his recycled coach, P.J.
Carlesimo. Against all odds, baseball, where the coaching
carousel once spun nonstop, might have learned a lesson. All
four major league teams with job openings this winter passed
over unemployed big-name skippers like Davey Johnson, Cito
Gaston, Jim Fregosi and Kevin Kennedy in favor of little-known
candidates: The Toronto Blue Jays hired Tim Johnson, the
Baltimore Orioles selected Ray Miller, the expansion Tampa Bay
Devil Rays chose Larry Rothschild, and the Chicago White Sox
went with the jaw-dropping choice of Jerry Manuel. Only the
52-year-old Miller, who went 109-130 with the Twins in 1985 and
'86, has managed in the bigs.
The four new skippers share certain traits: They have low-impact
personalities, can communicate with players and the media and
are likely to create a warm and fuzzy atmosphere in the
clubhouse. They may be short on big league bench experience, but
as one National League executive says, "Running a game is not
the most important quality in a manager." Three of the
four--Manuel, Miller and Rothschild--worked under the
archetypical modern manager, the Florida Marlins' Jim Leyland.
(Manuel and Rothschild, both of whom are 43, were with the
Marlins last season as bench coach and pitching coach,
respectively, while Miller was Leyland's pitching coach in
Pittsburgh in 1996.) Tim Johnson, 48, is fluent in Spanish and,
in five years as a minor league manager, has built a reputation
for being accessible to his players.
Each member of the managerial class of 1998 is also a good
organization man. That could mean that each is more likely to be
influenced by his bosses than a more experienced manager would
be. Miller has already agreed to have lunch with Orioles owner
Peter Angelos a few times a month to, as he says, "kick around"
what's happening on the field. Blue Jays general manager Gord
Ash explained his reluctance to hire Davey Johnson by saying he
"wanted a manager who was going to be here a while and grow with
the club. I didn't get that feeling from Davey."
The newcomers' salaries are relatively low--Miller's two-year,
$1.4 million deal in Baltimore is the most lucrative of the
lot--and that can't be overlooked as a factor in the hirings.
Even so, the new ponies on the managerial merry-go-round are a
welcome change. As Blue Jays chairman Sam Pollock asked last
week, "Who is anybody till they get a chance?"
GRETZKY TO GARTNER
Until Sunday night Mike Gartner of the Phoenix Coyotes was known
primarily as one of the NHL's fastest skaters--he won the
fastest-skater competition at the 1990 and '93 All-Star
Games--and for being president of the NHL players' union. But
when he wristed in a goal at 10:41 of the first period against
the Detroit Red Wings, he became known as something else: an
Well, maybe that's a little strong. But only four other players
in NHL history have scored 700, and their names are Wayne
Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne and Phil Esposito. But
Gartner would gladly trade it all for one sip from the Stanley
Cup--he has appeared in more games without winning a
championship than any other active player.
George Foreman, who announced his retirement on Nov. 22, moments
after losing a highly questionable 12-round decision to Shannon
Briggs, now says that he intends to fight again. To borrow from
Claude Rains: "We're shocked, shocked!" Even that news wasn't
enough to divert attention from the stink that lingered after
the decision in Briggs-Foreman. So egregious was the verdict in
Atlantic City that it left even the most jaded fight fans
shaking their heads and gave rise to allegations of corrupt
judging involving Briggs's manager, Marc Roberts; Roberts's
promotional company, Worldwide Entertainment & Sports; and New
Jersey boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard.
Foreman forced the pace and landed more punches than Briggs. Yet
one judge, the relatively experienced Steve Weisfield, scored
the bout a draw, and the other two, inexperienced Calvin Claxton
and Lawrence Layton, had Briggs winning 116-112 and 117-113,
respectively. Foreman's promoters, Irving Azoff and Jeff Wald,
protested the decision, filing requests for an investigation
with the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, the state Attorney
General's office, Governor Christine Whitman and Senator John
McCain of Arizona. McCain, an advocate of boxing reform, last
week called for the New Jersey gaming commission to investigate
the bout and "clear the air for the good of the sport." Azoff
and Wald have also asked the Securities and Exchange Commission
to determine who holds stock in Worldwide Entertainment and have
hired private investigators to check up on Claxton, Hazzard,
Layton and Roberts. "We're not going to let this go away," says
Worldwide Entertainment, a West Orange, N.J., company that
represents four boxers, including Briggs, is traded on the
NASDAQ exchange. As the company's prospectus puts it, "Success
will be dependent in part upon the four professional
boxers...achieving championship or top contender status and
participating in bouts with substantially higher purses."
Briggs, who made $400,000 for the Foreman fight, stands to make
substantially more in his next outing--which, according to
well-placed sources, could be a rematch with Foreman.
Layton had never worked a major bout, and Claxton, in his only
previous high-profile assignment, had given Ray Mercer (another
Roberts fighter) a margin of victory much wider than the other
two judges in a win over Tim Witherspoon last year. Their
presence at the Briggs-Foreman bout has led some observers to
wonder whether Roberts had struck a deal with Hazzard, who as
commissioner is in charge of assigning officials. According to
published reports, Roberts has boasted to friends that his
fighters "do not lose decisions in New Jersey."
Roberts has denied making any such statements. For his part,
Hazzard also denies any wrongdoing. "I am not a crook," he says.
"I do not own stock in any corporation associated with Marc
Roberts." And he defends his use of Claxton and Layton. "No
judge has major fight experience until he judges a major fight,"
says Hazzard. "I thought this would be a great opportunity for
them." It was certainly an opportunity.
SELIG WASN'T AVAILABLE?
The New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) felt it had
an excellent commissioner's candidate in Fay Vincent, the former
major league commish who lives in Greenwich, Conn. But because
NECBL commissioner is largely a ceremonial, public
relations-oriented position, Vincent said no. Instead, he became
chairman of the league's board of directors and its president,
which makes him the NECBL's No. 1 hands-on guy, involved in
fund-raising, corporate sponsorships and decision-making. "Fay
wanted to be actively involved, not just a figurehead or
spokesman," Rich Reimold, president of the NECBL's Danbury
(Conn.) Westerners, told The News-Times of Danbury. Gee, isn't
that what got Vincent into trouble before?
CLAUSE OF CONTENTION
After Latrell Sprewell's attack on P.J. Carlesimo, his
four-year, $32 million deal was terminated by the Golden State
Warriors. Section 16 of the NBA's uniform contract states that a
player may have his contract terminated if he fails to adhere to
"standards of good citizenship, good moral character...and good
sportsmanship." Sprewell is appealing his dismissal, as well as
a yearlong suspension handed down by the league. Arbitrator John
Feerick, the dean of Fordham Law School, is scheduled to hold
his hearing in early January. But regardless of the arbitrator's
ruling, Sprewell would still be receiving his full $32 million
had his contract contained what dozens of his peers' contracts
do: a personal-conduct guarantee.
NBA players are generally guaranteed that they will be paid in
full even if they are cut, injured or rendered unable to play
because of mental incompetence. According to the NBA Players
Association, 6% to 8% of its members also receive a guarantee
that covers personal conduct. They are most often players with a
history of sterling behavior, ones with enormous clout--or both.
"Let's say I have Michael Jordan, and his agent says to me that
Michael wants the exception," says Donnie Walsh, president of
the Indiana Pacers. "I just say, Screw any concerns I might
have. Michael wants it, Michael gets it."
Agents often don't bother to seek the clause, because they know
they're likely to be rebuffed. But that may change in light of
Sprewell's termination. Some agents fear that the language of
Sec. 16 may allow teams to dismiss players for far smaller
offenses. "I think if the [personal-conduct] rule stays the way
it is now, guys are going to have to start demanding to have the
guarantee written in," says agent Steven Kauffman. Counters
Walsh, who has granted the guarantee once in his 11 years with
the Pacers, "If agents start demanding it, I think there'll be a
lot of unsigned contracts."
Lars Gunnar Karlstrand, a 24-year-old striker for the Vastra
Frolunda soccer team in Sweden, recently turned down a far more
lucrative offer from St. Johnstone of Scotland for what he
called "family reasons." Under Britain's quarantine laws,
Karlstrand would have been separated from his Rottweiler, Ted,
for six months. "I won't leave Sweden without Ted," he said.
"The dog is the closest thing in the world to me."
Distance, in miles, traveled by Kentucky's basketball team
between Nov. 24 and Dec. 10 for games in Maui, Phoenix, Chicago,
Indianapolis and Buffalo.
Difference, in dollars, between a Florida Marlins' study showing
that their championship season was worth $155 million to the
South Florida economy and an independent study that put the
figure at $61 million.
Consecutive years in which Tom Watson has surpassed $100,000 in
Tour earnings, a record.
NBA players with Nike shoe contracts.
NBA players associated with any of the 10 other shoe companies,
including Reebok, Converse and Adidas.
Weeks after her first cross-country race that Erin Sullivan, a
junior at Mansfield High, in Jericho, Vt., won the Foot Locker
girls' national championship race.
Temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, of Antarctic Ocean waters
into which Jerry Kirby dived to make midrace repairs on his
team's boat during the Cape Town to Fremantle leg of the
Whitbread Round the World Race.
Some big-name figures from other sports have been seen lately
with top players from the women's tennis tour. Can you figure
out who's teaming up with whom for some mixed doubles?
1) Mary Pierce
2) Monica Seles
3) Anna Kournikova
A Sergei Fedorov center, Detroit Red Wings
B Roberto Alomar infielder, Baltimore Orioles
C Paul Allen owner, Portland Trail Blazers
1-B, 2-C, 3-A
DREAMING OF A GREEN AND GOLD CHRISTMAS
Having been hung by the chimney with care, Vince Lombardi--or at
least an official cardboard-cutout Lombardi mask--can gaze with
pride (or horror) upon a wonderland of other Green Bay Packers
presents, from a jar of Packers Paydirt (soil from Lambeau
Field) to bright-yellow keister-cushioning Cheesebutts (Tiny
Hiney model available) to a passel of toe-tapping CDs (including
the Wedgies' hit single Packanoid) to a pair of suspenders that
would have helped keep Fuzzy Thurston's chestnuts toasty, even
on the frozen tundra.
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
For $27.95 plus shipping and handling, FishDoctor, a Wisconsin
company, will digitally alter a snapshot, turning, according to
an ad, "a 3 lb. smallmouth into a 6 lb. Hog!"
THEY SAID IT
Coach of the Denver Broncos, when asked how severely he would
punish a player who choked him: "It all depends on how good he