MIAMI -- It's a good thing that Arsenio Hall doesn't do Tom Osborne jokes. Can you imagine if David Letterman had a list of top 10 reasons why the Nebraska football team can't win a bowl game? It might run to 100.
Osborne and the Cornhuskers have not yet become so much late-night fodder, but they have in recent years become the butt of many postseason jokes. "Everybody's laughing at us," said senior I-back Calvin Jones.
The latest to get a good yuk at Nebraska's expense was television analyst Beano Cook, who suggested that the only way the Cornhuskers could stop Miami in tomorrow night's Orange Bowl was for the Hurricanes' offense to be put on immediate probation by the NCAA.
That's what happens when you're the biggest underdogs of any bowl game this year, when despite a 9-1-1 record and No. 11 national ranking, you've been given about as much chance to upset top-ranked Miami (11-0) as Jerry Brown has been given to win the Democratic nomination for president.
"Nebraska has been one of the top teams in the country for 25-30 years," said said sophomore tight end Johnny Mitchell. "We have a great football tradition. You have some of these new kids on the block, and the media tends to say, 'Move aside.' But we have a great coach, a great program. It irritates me a lot."
If it bothers Osborne, he doesn't show it. He deflects the criticism of his predictable offense, his team's perennially weak schedule and his lack of big-game success as a politician might: with lots of smiles, chit-chat and handshakes.
"There's always been a mentality of what have you done lately, for some reason," said Osborne. "People have always had a big-game mentality. I think I need a better definition of a big game. The fact that we've lost four straight bowl games, people seem to say we're having a bad time."
It's not only that Nebraska hasn't won a bowl game since 1985, it's the fact that the Cornhuskers have been crushed the past two years and haven't been competitive on New Year's Day for their past three games, losing by a combined score of 109-40.
The pressure has been building on Osborne since the then No. 1, unbeaten Cornhuskers were upset nine years ago by upstart Miami here in the Orange Bowl. After trailing 17-0, Nebraska lost, 31-30, on a failed two-point conversion with 48 seconds to go.
"There's always pressure to win, especially in a bowl game," said Osborne, who remains the winningest active Division I-A coach (186-42-2 in 19 years). "And if you haven't won in awhile, the pressure builds. You're not going to change anything. You're not going to wring your hands over it. You just play the best you can."
That was certainly not the case last year. In a similar case against Georgia Tech in the Florida Citrus Bowl, the Cornhuskers were soundly beaten, 45-21. The year before, against Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska was hammered, 41-17.
In the wake of last season's disappointing finish, which included a 45-10 defeat to Oklahoma, Osborne got together with a sports psychologist at Nebraska and came up with the idea that evolved into The Unity Council, a group of players who act as a liaison with the coaching staff.
The council, which represents all positions and classes, meets regularly with players to air gripes and later talks with the coaches about them. Subjects include everything from playing time to bedtime.
"One of the things they talked to us about was getting bigger beds at the Nebraska Center the night before home games," said running backs and assistant head coach Frank Solich. "As coaches you would never think about those things, but when you're 6-7 and 320 pounds, you might."
Senior fullback Omar Soto, a member of the council, said that the newly opened lines of communications with the coaches have helped the team relax more. The new attitude has been evident this week, compared with the days going into last year's Citrus Bowl.
"At first, we were pretty surprised that they would be a little more cooperative than in the past," Soto said of the coaching staff. "But it's been nice to get things out in the open. We're a lot more unified. There's not the tension there was before. The attitude is not what the team can do for you, it's what you can do for the team."
Osborne feels better about this year's team and the way it came to life during the second half of the season. After blowing a 21-9 lead on Washington at home Sept. 21 -- the Huskies won, 36-21 -- the Cornhuskers' only blemish was a 19-19 tie with Colorado Nov. 2 in Boulder.
"After we played Washington, I feel we had a lot of areas in which to improve," said Osborne. "We've worked hard in practice every day. Jan. 1 will be the final exam to see how much we've improved."
Tom Osborne's bowl record
Year... Bowl game........ Result..... ...... ...... Score
1973.... Cotton..... ..... Beat Texas.... ... ...... 19-3
1974.... Sugar...... ..... Beat Florida.. ... ...... 13-10
1975.... Fiesta..... ..... Lost to Arizona State.... 17-14
1976.... Astro-Bluebonnet. Beat Texas Tech.... ..... 27-24
1977.... Liberty.... ..... Beat North Carolina...... 21-17
1978.... Orange..... ..... Lost to Miami..... ...... 31-24
1979.... Cotton..... ..... Lost to Houston... ...... 17-14
1980.... Sun........ ..... Lost to Mississippi State 31-17
1981.... Orange..... ..... Lost to Clemson.... ..... 22-15
1982.... Sugar...... ..... Beat LSU ..... .... ..... 21-20
1983.... Orange..... ..... Lost to Miami...... ..... 31-30
1984.... Sugar...... ..... Beat LSU..... ..... ..... 28-10
1985.... Fiesta..... ..... Lost to Michigan... ..... 27-23
1986.... Sugar...... ..... Beat LSU..... ..... ..... 30-15
1987.... Fiesta..... ..... Lost to Florida State.... 31-28
1988.... Orange..... ..... Lost to Miami..... ...... 23-3
1989.... Fiesta..... ..... Lost to Florida State.... 41-17
1990.... Florida Citrus... Lost to Georgia Tech..... 45-21
Bowl record..... ...... ...... 7-11 (0-4 in Orange, 0-3 to Miami)