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On the Mike: Nebraska-Oklahoma gets political
By Mike Diegnan

Julius Caesar isn't looking to take over the United States, but Julius Caesar Watts Jr. is enjoying his time in Washington. The namesake of the former Roman emperor is now one of the top Republican Congressman in the nation's capital.

J.C. Watts
Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts gave an inspiritational speech at the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego.
For Watts, it's nothing new to be on top. During his two-year run as the leader of Oklahoma's wishbone, the Sooners went 21-3 and won two consecutive Big Eight titles and Orange Bowls. More importantly, he was 2-0 against Nebraska.

"When we started two-a-days, we knew that at the end of the season -- and we had the Texas game, which was always a big deal -- that in order for us to make it to the Orange Bowl and in order to win the Big Eight championship, we were going to have beat Nebraska," said Watts between votes in Washington on Wednesday afternoon. "That was always the prize -- the Big Eight championship and to go to the Orange Bowl. We knew we were going to have to go through Nebraska and Nebraska knew they were going to have to come through us in order to get that done."

Times have changed. These aren't Watts' Sooners. When Watts was leading Oklahoma to a second consecutive Orange Bowl victory on Jan. 1, 1981, Josh Heupel was just 2 years old. Today, Heupel is the nation's biggest sensation and the wishbone is no longer in vogue.

"I have said several times in the last year that wishbone quarterbacks think that throwing the football 40 times a game is Communism," Watts says. "But we're winning, and that's always good. It's been a fascinating transformation. Offensively, I feel we can score 35 points on anybody. And defensively, the last two or three weeks, we played like gangbusters. It's been a real treat."

On Saturday's game:
Osborne: It's one of those rivalries that people associate with college football such as Michigan-Ohio State, USC-UCLA, and Alabama-Auburn. I felt bad when the Big XII was formed and they decided not to make it an annual game. Nebraska very much wanted to keep it that way. At any rate, it is back now, and we have two really good teams. It's good for college football. It reminds people of the tradition and some of the great games of the past.

It's an interesting matchup between two contrasting styles. Nebraska wins on the ground with option football and play-action passing. Oklahoma, of course, has chosen to emphasize the pass with an occasional run mixed in. Obviously, the offenses are quite different and it will probably come down to who plays better defense and who does the best in the kicking game.

Watts: I was listening on the radio this morning (that tickets) were going from $600-1,000 dollars apiece. That gives you some kind of idea that the game has a little more significance than the last two or three times that we played them.

I do think we are going to win. I feel really good about that. We are playing at home. We are going to have 70,000-plus screaming Sooners fans. Josh Heupel is playing pretty dog-gone good football. And at this point, we are playing pretty good defensively. I don't know what the point spread will be, but I do think Oklahoma will win the game.

Despite his success at Oklahoma, NFL scouts had no interest in Watts as a quarterback. The New York Jets drafted him in the eighth round, but wanted to make him a running back or defensive back. He chose to go north and play in the CFL, where he starred at quarterback for Ottawa and Toronto. During his rookie season in Ottawa, he led the Rough Riders to the Grey Cup final and was named the game's Most Valuable Player in a losing cause. His future years were spent playing with struggling teams.

Following the 1986 season, Watts retired from football and since then has been gaining more prominence in his leadership roles. After his years in Canada, Watts returned to Oklahoma, where he first worked as a minister, and then in 1994 ran for U.S. Congress for the first time.

When he was growing up, Watts' father ran for public office and his uncle was the state president of the NAACP. Both of them fostered political ambitions into J.C. But Watts never expected to be working in the House of Representatives when he got into the political spectrum.

"It is something like being a quarterback," says Watts, who said he would "picket Congress" if voting takes too long this week and he can't get out to the game on Saturday. "You can go from being a hero to a goat in a very short time."

Watts does not foresee being a player in Washington the rest of his life. But the 42-year-old is a rising star in the capital. In 1996, he spoke at the Republican National Convention and then was selected to give the Republican response to President Clinton's 1997 State of the Union Address.

All of this has been a surprise to Watts. But then again, he never thought he would be joining forces with Tom Osborne. Yet on Saturday, Watts and Osborne will be together -- along with Watts' former coach, Barry Switzer -- for a reception before Saturday's game for a fundraiser for Watts' reelection campaign.

In a reversal of roles, Osborne is a rookie. Although he is a shoo-in to win, the Nebraska coaching legend is taking no chances as he battles for Nebraska's Third District seat in the U.S. Congress. Osborne, who retired as coach of Nebraska following the 1997 season, announced his candidacy in January, and has traveled nearly 50,000 miles while canvassing his mammoth district that encompasses roughly 85 percent of the state.

Tom Osborne
Tom Osborne compiled a 255-49-3 record at Nebraska.
"Campaigning and recruiting are very similar," said Osborne, as he was driving to an event on Tuesday night. "You are out talking to people, traveling a lot -- sometimes long hours. Sometimes people thought recruiting was only to do with 17 year olds, but you were actually also talking with coaches, teachers and parents. You were spending as much if not more time with adults than young people."

Osborne doesn't find it odd to join Watts this Saturday, but there was a time when Watts wasn't welcome around the Osborne household.

"I remember in 1982, I went to Lincoln to do an NCF dinner," Watts recalls. "I was going into Tom's home, and he stopped me before I went in, and he said, 'Look, I think it's only fair to warn you that I have got a 9-year-old daughter that hates your guts.'"

Everything has worked out since then.

For Osborne, tackling politics is one last challenge for the 63-year-old. He says he misses coaching, but decided not to take another position.

"I thought about it," says Osborne, who had a grandfather who worked in the state legislature. "I had some chances in December. (Wife) Nancy and I both figured we would make one more push in some area. We just didn't feel right about leaving Nebraska. This is where I ended up, this is probably where my coaching should end. I would say that it is very unlikely that I would ever coach again. We will see how this goes, and do the best we can with it."

Osborne's legend won't leave Nebraska anytime soon, however. While Oklahoma's program has undergone a major facelift since Watts graduated in 1981, Nebraska looks and feels the same way it was when Osborne took over for Bob Devaney in 1973. Three years after Osborne's retirement, the Huskers are still overwhelming opponents with their patented triple option attack. The only change is that Frank Solich is now the leader, even after people at first weren't enthralled with him.

"Frank has done a great job," Osborne said. "Of course, he has the staff that has stayed pretty much intact. Frank has shown good leadership. He knows the game, he relates well with players. He has shown he can take the heat. Of course, I was confident that he would when I left, and I recommended him for the job."

It's going to be an old cliché by the end of the week, how the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry is back. Osborne is proud that the rivalry never got "nasty" like other rivalries in college football. It will show this weekend when Osborne and Watts work together as teammates in the Republican party.

Mike Diegnan is the editor of

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