Joe Cipriano, a 254-game winner as Nebraska's basketball coach the past 17 years, died in a Lincoln hospital yesterday after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was 49.

Counting his tenure at Idaho before moving to the Big Eight, Mr. Cipriano compiled a 297-231 record, featuring Cornhusker campaigns of 20-5 in 1965-66 and 22-8 for 1977-78. He got his team to the NIT three times, including last season when, because of his illness, assistant Moe Iba shared the head coaching. But Nebraska couldn't match the U. of Washington teams on which young Joe Cipriano played -- 79-15, three-time Pacific Coast champions, third place in the NCAA finals of 1953...

The Women's Professional Bowlers Association turns out to have been just about on its last legs in its recent tournament in Alexandria, according to word from Rockford, Ill. Prodded by a number of the WPBA's top performers -- Donna Adamek, winner of the $4,000 top prise at Bowl America Shirley; Pat Costello, Judy Soutar, Betty Morris, et al. -- a rival Ladies Professional Bowlers Tour has been formed. Whether it competes with, or supersedes, WPBA remains to be seen.But lags in sponsorship, TV exposure, prize money and tour events sent the bowlers to the door of John Falzone of Rockford, a former TV coordinator for WPBA, and he has taken over as commissioner and organizer of the new venture, with four tournaments lined up for starters.

"Everything is positive from now on for women's bowling," says Falzone. "These girls will join anything," counters Roger Blaemire, commissioner of the 168-member WPBA. "If John can deliver a good tournament schedule, hey, good for John. . . We'll have to deliver a good tournament schedule also". . . .

All this while the men's bowling tour, beaming with health as a long-running network fixture, announces its 16-stop winter tour will have a record $1.9 million in purses. . .

Martina Navratilova's parents will not be there when the Colgate Series women's tennis finals come to Capital Centre Jan 7-12. Landover, Md., wouldn't have been much of a trip for them if they had settled down on the Charlottesville estate she bought a few months ago, but Navratilova discloses (in Melbourne, Australia) that they have "gone back for good" to Czechoslovakia. Martina, who applied for U.S. citizenship as soon as her waiting period was up a couple of months ago, said her father found he could not adjust to the American way of life, "so my father and mother decided that living in Prague was better". . .

Named to East squad for the Shrine game at Stanford Jan. 10: Eric Sievers of Maryland, Tom Vigorito of Virginia. . .

There will be a Michael (Gene of the Yankees) and a Michaels (Walt of the Jets) at the helm of 1981 New York teams. Jim Kensil, president of the NFL Jets, says Michaels' job is secure at least through next season. . . In Houston, Bum Phillips avers his Oiler contract runs through 1981 and he intends to honor it. And after the 1981 season? Says Phillips: "That's another thing". . . At Syracuse U., it develops that Frank Maloney's resignation as coach came just hours after Northwestern asked permission to sound him out. Hmmmm. . . At Lafayette, Neil Putnam tosses in the towel after 10 years; ditto Harry Gamble, a decade at Penn. . . U. of Cincinnati dumps Ralph Staub after back-to-back 2-9s.

One more honor for George Brett: the annual Hutch Award, for which overcoming adversity to excel is a major qualification. . .

While Chester Marcol endures alcoholic rehabilitation, the Green Bay Packers have given his kicking replacement Tom Birney, a vote of no confidence by contacting the all-time Kansas City booter, Jan Stenerud, about coming out of retirement for the stretch run. Stenerud will give it a go.