In Pursuit Of The Big Prize

December 29, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

MIAMI — They have spent their respective coaching careers winning a large majority of games on autumn Saturdays: Tom Osborne at Nebraska, as both an assistant to the legendary Bob Devaney and, for the past 21 years, as the Cornhuskers' head coach; Bobby Bowden at Samford University, West Virginia and, for the past 18 seasons, at Florida State.

But they also have chased the ultimate accomplishment for any collegiate football coach -- winning a national championship -- with equal frustration. It doesn't matter that Osborne is the winningest active coach in Division I-A, or that Bowden has the highest winning percentage of any coach with more than 10 bowl appearances.

What matters is this: Neither has won the big one.

For one of them, that will all change Saturday night when top-ranked Florida State (11-1) plays second-ranked Nebraska (11-0) here in the Federal Express Orange Bowl. With the Seminoles favored by more than two touchdowns (17 points to be exact), it appears that Bowden is in line to, as he said recently, "get me at least half a ring."

Amazingly, it marks the first time that the Seminoles will get a crack at a national championship. This, despite the fact that they have won 10 games a year in each of the past seven seasons and finished no lower than fourth in the country in each of the past six.

And make no mistake: despite his down-home persona and self-deprecating jokes about not winning a national title, Bowden, 64, wants to win it very badly. In past seasons, he has downplayed its significance, saying that his supporters were more interested in beating Miami and Florida for "the state championship."

But all that has changed. Asked Monday to describe his feeling about finally winning a national title, the always-candid Bowden said during a news conference, "Obsessed. It's ruining my trip down here. We've never played in a game that comes down to everything. If we win it, we'll win a national championship of some kind. For me to say I'm not thinking about it wouldn't be right. I think about it more than ever."

Said Auburn coach Terry Bowden, one of three sons following in Bowden's footsteps, "It's been coming out more and more the last few years. He's been a great coach, and he has his priorities in order, but he knows that winning a national championship would give him a certain kind of recognition. I think it's become that [an obsession]."

Exactly what Osborne, 56, is searching for is hard to determine, since he rarely lets his emotions out for public display. In past years, Osborne would deflect the criticism of his team's pitiful postseason record, pointing to the number of consecutive bowl games Nebraska had played in or its streak of New Year's Day appearances.

When told what Bowden had said about what might be written on his tombstone -- until this year's victory over rival Miami, it was "But he had to play Miami . . . " -- Osborne joked, "I haven't gotten a tombstone philosophy, but I'm sure there'll be a number of Nebraska fans who'd like to bury me if we lose."

In a more serious vein, Osborne added, "It's not a matter of what's fair. It's what is. I guess a bowl game is the last thing you remember. A game like that is more visible. There have been some very good coaches and very good programs that haven't done well [in bowls]. Michigan and Bo Schembechler won something like two bowl games in 14 or 15 years. Bear Bryant at one point lost eight straight. There's nothing we can do about what happened. The last six years is history and we can't do anything to change it."

The school's recent postseason record has become a source of embarrassment in Lincoln. Nebraska's 27-14 loss to Florida State in the 1993 Orange Bowl gave the Cornhuskers six straight New Year's Day losses. Even Tommie Frazier, the team's starting quarterback, inadvertently took a shot at Nebraska's postseason failures.

When the sophomore from Bradenton, Fla., was recently asked if the players wanted to win Saturday's game for their coach or themselves, he said, "We want to win it for ourselves and for Coach Osborne. But what's it been, something like 20 years since we've won?"

Frazier was alluding to Nebraska's last national championship, but it seems that long since the Cornhuskers have won anything after November. Actually, it's been merely seven years since a 30-15 win over LSU in the 1987 Sugar Bowl.

But it's not just that the Cornhuskers have not beaten anyone else in a major bowl since a 40-6 win over Florida in the 1973 Sugar Bowl; they've been blown out in all but one and have been outscored 158-55 the past five years. Their closest defeat during this stretch came in a 31-28 loss to the Seminoles in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl.

"It eats at all of us," defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said yesterday. "I don't think it's changed Coach Osborne's philosophy, but the biggest thing is that questions wouldn't be asked all the time."

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