Pac-10 Weathers a Violent Storm


As duck-and-cover awful as the Pacific 10 Conference has been, Commissioner Tom Hansen crawled out from under his desk in Walnut Creek this week and found a rose among the ruins and Bruins.

Last weekend, the Pac-10 took an important step toward tomorrow with a three-game sweep of nonconference opponents.

Who could have imagined three months ago that a Washington State win over Hawaii would be trumpeted as a triumph?


Or, that Stanford over Notre Dame would be a beacon in the night?

Or, that USC over Louisiana Tech might be heralded as a turning point?

“I know Louisiana Tech doesn’t resonate in the top 10 of college football, in L.A. in particular, but they beat Alabama earlier this year,” Hansen said.

A month ago, the Pac-10 was a candidate for federal football disaster relief. There was the prospect that Stanford, at 5-6, might represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. There was the chance the Pac-10 would not have enough bowl-qualified schools to fill its five designated slots.

We half-expected Hansen to enter a witness protection program.

To paraphrase writer Edgar Wilson Nye on the music of composer Richard Wagner, “better than it sounds,” we can report the Pac-10 is “better than it looks.”

The conference finished with a 19-14 mark against nonconference opponents, no threat to the low-water 16-19-1 mark of 1983.

Stanford is 8-3 and even poked its head into the national rankings this week at No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.

Once, a perceived Rose Bowl mismatch between Wisconsin and Stanford is a legitimate game: 9-2 vs. 8-3.


What about Stanford’s ugly losses to Texas and San Jose State?

Hey, Wisconsin lost to Cincinnati, which lost to Troy State.

In fact, the Badgers’ No. 4 national ranking in the polls is a borderline joke. We’ve ripped Virginia Tech (54th) and Kansas State (63rd) for playing weak schedules, but among top 10 bowl championship series schools, Wisconsin’s No. 74 strength-of-schedule rank is the rank-est.

Maybe the Rose Bowl isn’t going be a Ron Dayne train wreck.

“I think Notre Dame’s probably got more quickness than Wisconsin,” Hansen said, “and Stanford played them very well without their best defensive lineman [Willie Howard, who will also sit out the Rose Bowl game].”

This year’s Rose Bowl actually shapes up as a repeat of last year’s--substitute all-offense, no-defense Stanford for all-offense, no-defense UCLA. And remember, UCLA had the ball and a chance to beat Wisconsin at the end.

Nothing can wipe away the taint of Arizona’s blowout loss at Penn State, Stanford’s 69-17 defeat at Texas, Washington’s consecutive losses to Brigham Young and Air Force, Arizona State’s drubbing at Notre Dame.

But with a 5-0 bowl sweep, and that’s possible, the Pac-10 can earn back its credibility.

A tough year, yes.

“It has been,” Hansen said. “But I just took the approach after the first two or three weeks to be quiet and let people criticize. There wasn’t a whole lot to defend except to say, ‘Hey, the season isn’t over yet.’ I think we’ve rebounded.”


Nebraska’s only chance of overtaking Virginia Tech for the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings?

Hire back Tom Osborne.

For two days.

Then, before Saturday’s Big 12 title game against Texas, have Osborne call a news conference to announce his retirement again.


We jest, of course, but the Cornhuskers have adroitly worked this end-around in the past.

Here’s why they need Dr. Tom: Virginia Tech has a 1.54 lead over Nebraska in the BCS rankings and has a virtual lock on the dispassionate computer component.

The Cornhuskers can probably shave the margin to less than one point with a victory over Texas, but would still need to pick up an additional point somewhere.


Hello, voting coaches.

If No. 3 Nebraska can whip Texas soundly enough to convince the coaches to jump the Cornhuskers past No. 2 Virginia Tech in next week’s USA Today/ESPN poll, that swap would equate to one point in the BCS rankings and, voila, Nebraska may have the juice it needs to oust Virginia Tech out of the Sugar Bowl.

In this week’s poll, Virginia Tech leads Nebraska by only 70 points, 1,416 to 1,346.

Impossible, you say? No coach in his right mind would take a vote away from an undefeated Virginia Tech, especially when its last win came against a ranked opponent?

Have you forgotten the 1997 season?

Michigan, undefeated and No. 1 in the coaches’ poll on Jan. 1, 1998, beat No. 7 Washington State in the Rose Bowl.

The next night, however, in Osborne’s philharmonic orchestrated last game, Nebraska beat Tennessee in the Orange Bowl and the coaches, swept up in the CBS-inspired sentiment, jumped Nebraska over Michigan and awarded the Cornhuskers a share of the national title.


That’s not likely to happen again because the coaches have no such emotional attachment to second-year Nebraska Coach Frank Solich.

The coaches also have a vested interest in protecting the sanctity of their BCS, and promoting one-loss Nebraska over 11-0 Virginia Tech would only incite more controversy.

But you never know what 60 grown men and their sports information directors might do, especially when their votes are anonymous.

In the 1995 season, after Nebraska routed Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, a couple of coaches with an ax to grind against Gator Coach Steve Spurrier dropped Florida out of the top 10, allowing Tennessee to steal the No. 2 spot, even though Florida beat Tennessee that year, 62-37.

And only two weeks ago, a coach withdrew a first-place vote from Florida State after the Seminoles’ victory at No. 3 Florida.

Nebraska, admittedly, has all but conceded this year’s race.

“They haven’t lost a game,” Nebraska safety Mike Brown said this week of Virginia Tech. “We feel they should play for the national championship.”


Barring an 11th-hour comeback from the only man capable of rescuing Nebraska, Virginia Tech is headed to the Sugar Bowl.

Just to be safe, though, we’ll be scanning the sidelines in San Antonio for Dr. Tom Osborne.


The only way Nick Saban could have exited East Lansing faster was by catapult.

Can you blame him?

Saban left Michigan State for the Louisiana State job for one reason:


OK, two reasons: $1.25 million a year and Michigan.

On the “Brady Bunch,” it was “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

In the Wolverine state, well, Saban put it this way to Louisiana writers: “We were never No. 1. It was always UM this or that.”

This year, Michigan State beat Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State and finished 9-2.

Yet, on the day Saban left, 9-2 Michigan accepted an invitation to the $12-million Orange Bowl. Michigan State is headed to the less prestigious Citrus Bowl.

Saban could beat Michigan, but not the inferiority complex.

Michigan is the national power, Michigan has the prestige, Michigan draws the television ratings--Michigan, Michigan, Michigan.


Saban won’t have that problem in Baton Rouge, where LSU dominates the state’s attention.

Yet, it seems a curious hire. Saban, a northerner with roots in the Mid-American Conference, may not understand the rabid devotion of Southern fans. And his record at Michigan State, 34-24-1, is only marginally better that of the man he replaces, Gerry DiNardo, who was fired after going 32-24-1.


* He’s denying interest, but San Francisco 49er Coach Steve Mariucci is the perfect man to replace Saban at Michigan State. Mariucci was born in Michigan, his father attended Michigan State and his best friend, Tom Izzo, is the basketball coach. With the 49ers at 3-8 and facing serious salary-cap problems, and General Manager Bill Walsh looking for scapegoats, Mariucci should get out while there’s a job out there he wants.

Another potential candidate: Stanford Coach Tyrone Willingham. Michigan State officials have expressed interest in hiring an African American coach and reportedly have Willingham on their short list.

* Rick Neuheisel must be a good coach. For the first time since 1969, Washington failed to place a first-team player on the Pac-10’s all-conference squad. The 1969 Washington team finished 1-9. Neuheisel’s Huskies are 7-4 and headed to the Holiday Bowl.

Washington doesn’t yet have a bowl opponent: If Texas loses to Nebraska on Saturday, the Cotton Bowl is going to have a hard time taking the 9-4 Longhorns over 10-1 Kansas State. If Kansas State ends up in the Cotton, the Holiday Bowl will get either Texas or Texas A&M.;

* I think we’d all agree the reason USC and Ohio State finished a combined 12-12 this year had to do with the incompetence of a few assistant coaches. To turn the corner on their programs, USC’s Paul Hackett axed offensive line coach Steve Greatwood and Ohio State’s John Cooper, who recently received a contract extension worth $1 million a year, fired offensive coordinator Michael Jacobs and defensive end coach Shawn Simms.


No doubt, in South Bend, Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie will have to take a hard look at some of the assistants who caused his 5-7 season.

* Summing up Arizona’s woeful 6-6 season, Coach Dick Tomey quoted the Charles Dickens line, “It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.” Considering Arizona went from national title contender to bowl-less, some may prefer half of the sentence Dickens penned earlier in that paragraph: “It was the worst of times.”