PART ONE: Introduction and History
I imagine the introduction for this game and the history behind it may be just as interesting as the game description itself. I picked this game because some people may have forgotten exactly what it meant for the modern age of college football. And, yes, I picked it because I wanted to see just how uncomfortable it would seem at certain spots now that the public knows what it knows.
First, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl is filled with great stories and history concerning the modern age of bowl games and the marketing of college football. In the present day, we consider the over-saturation of sponsorships for bowl games to be normal and to be a source of constant questions about the NCAA, their policies and the kids that play in the games. In 1987, that wasn’t so. Once the Fiesta beat out the Citrus Bowl to offer the bids to the #1 and #2 teams in the country, it would be Sunkist that would beat out others as the primary sponsor for the game (a deal signed before the game was). Up until January 2, 1987, the Fiesta Bowl was not considered in the top tier of the post-regular season college football games.
Yes, the Citrus Bowl almost became the fourth game in the quartet of big college bowl match-ups. The other sponsors for the event? Budweiser and Hertz. It can be said that they were part of the modern landscape quite early. Of course, the Bud Bowl debuted not long after the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.
The 1987 Fiesta Bowl wasn’t supposed to happen. Colorado was not supposed to upset Nebraska. Penn State almost lost to Cincinnati. Penn State was supposed to lose to Alabama. Michigan wasn’t supposed to lose to the Golden Gophers of Minnesota. Oklahoma and “The Boz” were supposed to have a good chance to beat Vinny Testaverde after he was coming off a loss to Tennessee in the 1986 Sugar Bowl where he threw a trio of interceptions. John Shaffer wasn’t supposed to be the Penn State quarterback. No one knew that Shaffer 54-1 since the seventh grade. His only loss? To Oklahoma. Also, not many people knew of Geoff Toretta when he beat East Carolina when the Achilles-like starter for Miami was felled for a game. Finally, it just so happened that the best two teams in the country were both independents and were not tied to one of the traditional bowls.
The game also was not supposed to happen on January 2nd. At first, it was feared that the January 1 date would cause network issues (see: Vice, Miami). Then the Sunkist sponsorships came to light and Budweiser and Hertz spent some money. Then it was clear that #1 and #2 would play each other in the game after Miami did not sign with the Orange Bowl. After that, the game was put out on it’s own island for the world to see the ultimate match-up. It was moved to January 2nd. The world had to live without “Crime Story” and “Miami Vice” for one night. Instead, it got David versus Goliath.
Penn State failed to get Vinny Testaverde despite the fact he and Paterno both were from Brooklyn and grew up in traditional Italian-American homes. Testaverde had the build of many linebackers of the time and a rifle for an arm that no one else had. He had a weird combination of humility splashed with ego. He once said, “God gives the ability, it’s up to the person to develop it.” There may not be a better humblebrag than that outside of Totes McGotes’ Twitter account. Miami was the place to go as a quarterback in the 1980s and early 1990s. Vinny had to wait for Bernie Kosar to begin his NFL career. Geoff’s younger brother Gino would win the Heisman for Miami a few years later.
There are some fascinating microcosms in the game surrounding the quarterbacks and the game itself. Vinny Testaverde would have one of the worst nights of his life while throwing five interceptions. John Shaffer made plenty of mistakes of his own and managed to go 5-13 on the night. Somehow, he kept the ship from sinking. John Shaffer entered Training Camp for the Dallas Cowboys in the summer of 1987. He choose his degree in finance over football and asked to be cut. Testaverde went to throw a modern-day record 35 interceptions in 1988. He threw 22 in 1989. Imagine if Mark Sanchez was that bad with the modern media. Heck, Interceptiverde was getting made fun of in the Tampa Bay football market. Some years later, an upstart, gritty Big Ten team would play a more talented Miami team in the Fiesta Bowl. A moderately-talented college quarterback named Craig Krenzel on that Big Ten team would eventually choose his brain over football. He also beat mighty Miami on that night in 2003.
Some of the stories about the game were uncomfortable to see and some remain legendary.
The pre-game steak-fry is still a stuff of legends. The Hurricanes showed up dressed as soldiers, led by the flamboyantly-mouthed and mythically-talented Jerome Brown. The Nittany Lions showed up in suits and ties. Famously, a fired-soon-after dinner planner decided a comedy sketch portion of the night was needed. Before there was uh, “enhancement” commercials for Jimmy Johnson, there was his hair. A joke about that set off the Miami players. Brown said, “Did the Japanese have dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?” Receiver-turned-punter John Bruno asked, “Didn’t the Japanese lose?” The battle lines were set. The soldiers were going to pound the smart guys.
The stories got uncomfortable when I watched the pre-game and read the stories of some of the Penn State players involved with the game. Bob Costas, who was just hired a few years earlier by NBC Sports (yep, he went full circle) to announce games, had a long puff piece on Paterno’s philanthropy and how he was named SI’s Sportsman of the Year, becoming just the second coach to do so. Graduation rates are applauded. I sipped my beer slowly.
The queasy feeling I got was much more prevalent when I read about Trey Bauer, a linebacker who would record some big plays that night. I found a story from late August of 2011 about a book he was compiling about letters to JoePa from captains of his team over the years. I don’t think it got picked up by any publishers.
I think the feelings portrayed in the paragraphs above portray the game perfectly. It was good versus evil. It was ugly (10 turnovers). It was legendary. It began a new era. It helped define another one. It was, at times, uncomfortable to watch. It never stopped being entertaining. 70 million watched. Let’s move on to the game itself.
See Part Two