Monday, July 16, 2012

A Look Back at the 1987 Fiesta Bowl: Who were the Bad Guys?

Top: Miami players exit the plane wearing fatigues. Bottom Joe Paterno on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 1986 Sportsman of the Year issue.

Good versus evil. It's not only a theme made popular in movies and books, it's also been used as a subplot for sporting events. In 1986 the Miami Hurricanes were the bad boys of college football. They were the flashy team that talked trash. They danced in the end zone. They beat their opponents down and ran up the score. Meanwhile Penn State represented everything that was perceived to be good about college football. They were led by an iconic coach Joe Paterno. They represented the old school philosophy of team-first football--no names on the jerseys and no logos or symbols on their plain white helmets. These two polar opposites would meet January 2, 1987 in Tempe, Arizona for the national championship. The media set the stage of good guys versus bad guys and America ate it up. What resulted was the most watched college football game of all time. But in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal at Penn State and Paterno's cover up, who were really the bad guys of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl?

 The Fiesta Bowl matched two teams that couldn't be more different in style and etiquette. Miami was the small-private university in a big city. The Canes head coach Jimmy Johnson was an ultra confident slick-haired salesman who was a master of psychology. The majority of Miami players were poor inner-city African American kids from South Florida who played with a swaggering style. Penn State was the huge state university in Pennsylvania located in the small town of State College. The Nittany Lions were portrayed as clean cut young men who played slow and methodical power football with a blue collar work ethic--more spit than polish. It was the tortoise versus the hare.

 Miami was led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde. The Canes pro-styled offense dominated the opposition, including a convincing 28-16 victory over the previous year's national champion Oklahoma. In that game, Testaverde threw four touchdown passes, including two to future hall of famer Michael Irvin. The Canes defense was even more menacing led by defensive tackle Jerome Brown and safety Bennie Blades, both All Americans. The Miami roster was littered with not just NFL players--but with NFL stars. Penn State was made up of a solid group of college players, including running back D.J. Dozier and linebacker Shane Conlan. Both were All Americans. But if you're asked to name Penn State's starting quarterback that year, most people outside of hardcore Nittany Lion fans wouldn't know it was John Shaffer. The remainder of the Penn State roster remains as anonymous today and they were then.

 When the Miami players arrived in Tempe,they came dressed ready for war. Canes players exited their team plane wearing combat fatigues. Penn State's players wore suits and ties. The media's buildup for the game portrayed the Miami players as being rough thugs from the streets against Penn State's straight and narrow players. One of the leading media figures to paint the perception of good guys vs. bad guys was Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly. During the 1986 season, Reilly wrote a scathing article, ripping Jimmy Johnson and his players for their crude behavior. Reilly would later write an article lauding Joe Paterno as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Miami players threw more gas on the fire when defensive tackle Jerome Brown led a walk out of Miami players from a steak fry function hosted by the Fiesta Bowl. Brown and the Miami players were upset after Penn State's punter John Bruno and a group of Nitany Lion players performed a sketch perceived to be racist and insulting to Jimmy Johnson.

 The Hurricanes entered the game as 7 point favorites. They were cocky and confident as were most of their fans. But Penn State's coaching staff did a superb job preparing its team for the game. Paterno's defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky came up with the perfect blueprint on how to stop the Canes. His strategy was to confuse Vinny Testaverde by dropping eight players into coverage and clogging the passing lanes. It worked perfectly. Testaverde threw five interceptions and Miami turned the ball over 7 times. Despite outgaining the Nitany Lions 445 to 162 in total yardage including Alonzo Highsmith's 150 rushing yards, Miami couldn't overcome its mistakes and lost 14-10.

 The legacy of this game remains in flux. For years Paterno was hailed for his coaching genius. The game drew an amazing 24.9 share, still the highest television rating for a college football game. President Ronald Reagan was interviewed by NBC during halftime. But in light of what has happened at Penn State in recent years, were the Nitany Lions the "good guys" they were perceived to be? Maybe their players were clean. But the men who put them in position to win the game were as dirty and evil as you could find.

 When Jerry Sandusky was caught by graduate assistant Mike McQueary engaging in a sexual in the shower with a young boy in 1998, Sandusky was 54 years old at the time. Does anybody really believe Sandusky just became a pedophile at age 54? He joined Joe Paterno's staff in 1969 and became Penn State's defensive coordinator in 1977. He held that position all the way until 1999. It was claimed Sandusky retired in 1999 to focus on his Children's Charity called The Second Mile. Sandusky served 31 years on Paterno's staff. It's hard to believe Paterno didn't know about Sandusky's pedophilia until 1998. In 1995, then Miami head coach Dennis Erickson left to become the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Paterno actually showed some interest in interviewing for the Miami job. The interview never took place, however it was revealed Paterno had some interest. In the wake of the Freeh Report, it was clear Paterno had knowledge of Sandusky's indiscretions.

 More than 25 years have passed since the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Rick Reilly recently wrote a piece for ESPN discussing Joe Paterno's true legacy. Reilly's first sentence was "What a fool I was," when looking back on his article about Paterno for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year article in 1986. Don't feel bad Rick. You weren't the only one who was fooled.