Miami paved paradise, put up a jukebox

TOM SHATEL

Cory Schlesinger, prepare to laugh. Or cry.

Remember that hallowed east end zone in the Orange Bowl, where you made national championship history in 1995?

Well, it's been replaced.

On the site of the classic Orange Bowl Stadium now sits Marlins Park, the glitzy home of the Miami Marlins.

And on that spot, the east end zone that defined Tom Osborne's career, sits something that looks like a giant jukebox.

It's the Marlins' home run sculpture. It sits behind the center-field wall. It cost $2.5 million, or more than 80 percent of the team's roster was making when the stadium opened three years ago. When the Marlins hit a home run, the thing makes loud noises while mechanical fish and birds fly around.

Welcome back to Miami, Nebraska.

It's been too long.

In fact, it's been almost 18 years. Eighteen years between trips to South Florida. How did that happen?

That sculpture is a metaphor for this weekend. If you're a Nebraska fan heading to South Florida in search of memories, they're like treasure buried beneath something you don't recognize.

Then there's Sun Life Stadium, site of Saturday's NU-UM game. Or is it Pro Player Stadium? The place has had a half-dozen names since it opened in 1987.

But there's Husker history there. Remember? As soon as Scott Frost, Ahman Green, GrantWistrom and Jason Peter had dismantled Peyton Manning and Tennessee 42-17, fireworks lit up the sky for Osborne's final bow.

Down on a stage near the corner, Frost grabbed the microphone and stumped for the coaches poll to give Osborne a share of the national championship.

Up in the press box, I could hear the other writers muttering that Frost would one day have a successful career in politics.

Miami. From Bob Devaney to Osborne, it was always defining Big Red football. Either how far it had come or how far it still had to go.

From the first Orange Bowl in 1955, NU made 17 Orange Bowls, more than any other bowl in school history.

Trips to Miami were special. Husker assistants used to hang up photos of their players on the beach. They didn't do that with any other bowl trip.

National titles were a goal. But a trip to Miamimeant you had done something cool, like beat Oklahoma and win the Big Eight.

From the 1982 season until the 1997 season, Nebraska went to 10 Orange Bowls, including six of seven from 1992 to 1998.

South Beach. The Fontainebleau. The Bal Harbor. Joe's Stone Crab. Coconut Grove. The Orange Bowl Parade.

So many nights under a Miami moon, in an old jalopy of a stadium, loud as a hurricane, with Nebraska trying to figure out a way to beat Miami or Florida State.

Those Miami-Nebraska scenes always seemed like the "The Twilight Zone"— surreal, like they weren't really happening. Boy, did they.

If you had told me or any Nebraskan leaving that stadium Jan. 2, 1998, that NUwouldn't be back until Sept. 19, 2015, we'd have said you'd had one too many Cuban cigars or Rum Runners.

What happened? The Big 12. The bowl system changed. Nebraska football slipped. Stuff happened.

We're not the only ones who feel the years.

"We miss Nebraska," said Larry Wahl, vice president of communications for the Orange Bowl. "It seemed like it was either Nebraska or Oklahoma every year, for the right to play Miami or Florida State.

"Somany epic games. It's hard to believe it's been that long. Nebraskans were always great fans. They were a big part of the Orange Bowl."

Just ask Al Dotson Jr., a former president of the Orange Bowl committee. Dotson was in Lincoln last Saturday, representing the OB for the 1965 Husker team reunion.

During the South Alabama game, he was glued to the wall in the back of the Memorial Stadium press box, gazing at the old photos of Husker Orange Bowls.

"There were a number of games (in the photos) I attended," Dotson said. "It was like a walk down memory lane. So many faces were familiar."

Those trips to Miami, so often taken for granted. Those games against the Hurricanes, they're now like keepsakes. One generation lived it. Today's can't imagine it.

And that's the reality about this week's trip down memorylane: It won't ever happen again. NU probably will return to the Orange Bowl one day. But it would be as the second or third team in the Big Ten.

And there won't be an Orange Bowl Stadium. I loved that Orange Bowl. You might have other thoughts. It was my favorite football stadium/museum.

So many great moments there, from Joe Namath to the Dolphins to Doug Flutie to Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier and so on. Super Bowls, Orange Bowls, Iconic Bowls.

The place had a haunting feel to it. It could lure you in with its tropical palm trees behind the east end zone, the famous "The City of Miami Welcomes You to the Orange Bowl" sign on the north stands, all that history.

But when the sun went down and the lights went up, and Hurricane fans were stomping on the old metal stands, there was no place louder or more intimidating. Or magical.

That it was in a part of the city where you wouldn't walk at night added to the Orange Bowl's unique ambiance.

"People in Miami said it's a dump, but it's our dump," said Wahl, who worked for the university's athletic department from 1987 to 1998. "It was as loud as any place. I've been to the Big House in Michigan. That fans out. The Orange Bowl upper deck was right on top of the field."

The Hurricanes left the Orange Bowl in 2007, and some fans say that's the reason they haven't been the same. There's a hex, too, on the Dolphins. And now on the Marlins for playing on the old spot, like the "Poltergeist" movie.

There are a couple of tributes to the Orange Bowl. The giant letters that used to spell "Miami Orange Bowl" on the west side of the stadium are scattered around the west entrance to Marlins Park, "as if they fell down and stuck in the cement," Wahl said.

There's a giant pillar in the concourse behind third base, where there are photos of old games in the Orange Bowl.

But you can't duplicate that old stadium in today's corporate world. Nor would a College Football Playoff game be held on a school's home turf, with bowl reps dancing in the end zone for a Miami touchdown.

There's another reason that's a bygone era. The Nebraska-Miami matchup was always a battle of cultures. Size vs. speed. Midwest politeness vs. East Coast brashness.

The Hurricane dynasty of the 1980s and early '90s was the perfect "storm" with a coach (Jimmy Johnson) who recruited top talent and encouraged attitude at a time when South Florida was exploding in popular culture. The Hurricanes were the city's mascot in so many ways.

The things those teams did, and the trouble they attracted that eventually took down the program, would be hard to duplicate in today's politically correct world. It's hard to imagine any school, even Miami, letting it get that far again.

College football is more corporate and less colorful today, for better or worse.

We had both in Miami, where now sits a $2.5 million giant jukebox.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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