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Turning The Page On His Calendar Never Seemed So Sweet

January 2, 1995 GMT

MIAMI (AP) _ There was no way for any of them to know how far he had traveled or how deeply and desperately he longed to arrive. After all, most of the kids who surrounded Tom Osborne at the end of the journey had not been born when he began it.

Twenty-two seasons, and until this one, they all began and ended pretty much the same. Two-a-day practices in the lingering heat of a late Midwestern summer. Nine wins or better by the time winter settled over the plains. A bowl game and a trip back into the warm weather as reward and too often, an empty feeling when the new year rolled around.

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But this time, turning the page on his calendar will never seem so sweet. Because Nebraska’s 24-17 win over mouthy Miami means Osborne can turn over a page in his career as well.

After three tries at the national championship in this aging wooden bowl west of the downtown, after 22 trying seasons and 231 wins, he finally has the one that will validate all of the others.

``I didn’t even know this existed,″ Osborne, making an uncharacteristic stab at humor, said as he reached for the silver bowl filled with oranges that is emblematic of the winner of this contest.

``Usually,″ he pointed to a smaller version of the trophy on a table to his right, ``I collect this trophy here.″

And after doing so on each of his last five trips into this personal heart of darkness, so it seemed once more heading into the final quarter Sunday night _ at least until this crop of mostly homegrown talent played characteristic Nebraska football with uncharacteristic flair.

Trailing 17-9 heading into the period, the Huskers stopped the Canes’ opening drive on downs and then forced successive punts. After the second of those, fullback Cory Schlesinger finished a two-play, 40-yard drive by pin-balling 15 yards over the middle like a steer on a bender. Then Eric Alford caught the two-point conversion pass from quarterback Tommie Frazier to tie the score.

After forcing yet another Miami punt, Schlesinger finished a seven-play, 58-yard drive by tiptoeing 14 yards nimbly up the right sideline for the go-ahead touchdown.

The ironies, in both scores, were almost too delicious to ignore. Osborne, the tall Midwesterner, stoic and spare with words, was supposed to fashion slow teams that plowed unimaginatively down the field. This time around, with the fastest team he has ever brought to the tropics, Osborne tried reverses, tried alternating his quarterbacks, tried throwing to the wings, over the top _ most everything Miami did and does well, except samba.

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And yet, when the game was there to be won or lost, Osborne quit chewing his gum so nervously, folded his arms, bit his lip and called for the option.

``Everyone was very confident,″ said Frazier, an unusually swift Florida kid who sought out Osborne and Nebraska because he ran the option in high school and had no chance to catch on with his in-state schools.

``We knew their defensive front was very tired. We knew that all we had to do was pound the ball inside and because they were tired, we’d be able to drive them off the ball.″

Left unsaid was that at an average of 6-foot-4 1/2 and 295 pounds per man, the offensive line that Frazier and Schlesinger and Lawrence Phillips ran behind could win its share of tractor pulls. Against real tractors.

``It was a total deal _ the offense, defense and the kicking game,″ Osborne insisted, and to a degree he was right. As impressive as the offensive line was in plowing the Hurricanes into the Orange Bowl turf is how committed the defensive line was to plant Miami quarterback Frank Costa in it at the end.

There was a certain symmetry to it all, especially now that this stadium will be retired from the bowl rotation. The bowl alliance already has scheduled the Fiesta Bowl as the site of next year’s top game, and in 1997 the Orange Bowl shifts to Joe Robbie Stadium.

And so, who better to retire this joint than Osborne.

In 1984, unbeaten and a prohibitive favorite to beat Miami and win the national championship, Osborne’s bid for the elusive title slipped from his grip. Trailing most of the game, Nebraska roared back to within 31-30 and failed on a two-point conversion try. It took place in the same east end zone where the crucial scores came Sunday night, the same place where, peeking through the palms, you can see the glittering downtown.

``To beat Miami in Miami,″ Osborne said finally, ``is difficult to do.″

More than anyone else, even more than the kids who actually accomplished it, Tom Osborne should know.