Sports Journalism Blog

Editor’s Note: Sports Capital Journalism Program director Malcolm Moran, who covered Penn State’s 1987 Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami for The New York Times, wrote this article for the College Football Playoff National Championship Official Program.

It was New Year’s Day 1987, and it felt odd to be in a hotel room rather than a stadium, the first hint that something was happening to the rhythm of the college football season. While most of the nation obsessed about the following day’s confrontation between No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Penn State in the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, the television in my room held a reminder of the game that much of the Valley was intently following, the Rose Bowl appearance of the Arizona State Sun Devils.

And what is that noise on the roof of my hotel room not far from Camelback Mountain?

I opened the door to discover the dangling legs of children that had climbed above my room to get a better view of the Penn State pep rally. The Blue Band was a few steps away near the pool. Hundreds of fans in blue had gathered a short walk from my doorstep. It was New Year’s Day, and there was no way anyone could have comprehended how the stakes of the industry were about to change forever.

That change would one day lead directly to events that would redefine the finish of the college season and build pressure to create a clear, annual conclusion and an indisputable champion. The storyline that has led us to tonight’s College Football Playoff National Championship between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama can be traced to the tension – on and off the field – that became the signature of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.

For about a half century, the pattern of the bowl season had been consistent. The early 20th Century monopoly of the Rose Bowl inspired other snowbird-seeking games in Miami, New Orleans and Dallas. The Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls would compete for the highest-ranked teams, award-winning players and biggest attractions, and would almost always become the centerpiece of New Year’s Day.

In 1965, when the Orange Bowl was first played at night, the prime-time possibilities began to change the landscape. But until the late 1960s, when the final Associated Press poll first began to consistently appear after the postseason games, the political reality was that the bowls were treated as a curtain call, one last chance to take a trip to someplace warm. In the first 50 seasons of the A.P. poll, there had been six bowl matchups of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

But as Miami and Penn State built undefeated records in 1986, Fiesta Bowl officials, in the 16th year of their event, recognized a rare opportunity. These were independent programs, not bound to any conference bowl commitment. The bowl system would not keep them apart. But how to get them together?

Each program had won a national championship in the previous four seasons. Miami had won on its home field at the Orange Bowl.

The arrival of Sunkist as title sponsor, the innovative thinking of the Fiesta leadership and the willingness of NBC Sports to consider the possibilities created something new.

What if the game could be played one night later, on Friday, January 2? The ratings potential of a prime-time audience could increase the payout to $2.4 million, enough to lure the Hurricanes away from their home.

Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman Trophy. Penn State coach Joe Paterno was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. The system had produced the matchup the hype machine demanded.

And then things started to get crazy.

Testaverde, a once-anonymous recruit, was suddenly in demand. There had been just two Heisman winners to play for a national champion as declared by a wire-service poll, Davey O’Brien of TCU in 1938 and Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh in 1976. Testaverde could become the third. But his demands of his fame had taken him to events and commitments in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He was spending time with Bob Hope and President Ronald Reagan. A young teammate, wide receiver Michael Irvin, described the reception when the Heisman winner returned to campus in Coral Gables.

Irvin smiled as he spoke after a practice. “We said, ‘Hey, Vinny, could you put down the Heisman and get ready for Penn State?’” he said. “Or, ‘OK, Vinny, you know the President. Now you can come to practice with the little people.’”

And then the Steak Fry happened.

An event to spread the traditional goodwill of the bowl suddenly created a furor. A satirical skit by Penn State players led the Hurricanes to suddenly leave. Jerome Brown, Miami’s senior all-America defensive tackle, was heard to ask, “Did the Japanese sit down with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?” before he led the Hurricanes out.

“They were ready to leave, anyway,” said Miami coach Jimmy Johnson in an unsuccessful attempt to minimize the controversy.

“They left after they ate, right?” Paterno asked. “Typical football players.”

Now the college football audience was becoming polarized. The matchup had become personal, against a backdrop of an undefeated matchup.

“It will be interesting to see the results,” Paterno, an advocate for a playoff, was quoted as saying by the Orlando Sentinel. “Maybe it’s too much, perhaps all the buildup takes away from the game. But it could be good, too….

“Next week we’ll be able to look back at the Fiesta Bowl and have a real good idea if we should continue working toward an annual game that will decide the national title.”

On the night of January 2, 1987, the gripping drama at Sun Devil Stadium would provide an answer. The tension of the week and the conflicting styles of the teams would produce an unforgettable game. Miami outgained Penn State, 445 yards to 162. John Bruno, the Penn State punter, averaged 43.4 yards on nine punts, and forced Miami to start out inside its 25-yard line six times. Testaverde was intercepted five times. Shane Conlan’s second interception led to D.J. Dozier’s 6-yard touchdown with 8:13 to play and a 14-10 Nittany Lion lead.

Penn State’s imaginative defensive scheme had confused and frustrated the Hurricanes for more than 59 minutes. But the entire night of work could have become undone right to the end. On fourth down, Testaverde’s final pass became his fifth interception. Pete Giftopoulos secured a place in Penn State history when he caught the pass at the 1-yard line and close out.

“We beat them the only way we could beat them,” Paterno said. “We beat them in certain situations. We spent hours and hours on playing those situations.”

Soon, the unprecedented television ratings would give Paterno – and the college football industry – a clear answer. The rating of 25.1 established a standard that has not been matched. The concept of bowl game as encore – at the elite level, at least – was becoming a thing of the past. After decades of relative inertia and frustration, the business of college football began to change.

A little more than five years after the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, the Southeastern conference created an annual championship game. Bowl administrators and conference commissioners, confronted with the challenge of preserving relevance in the national landscape, created the Bowl Coalition, a framework intended to produce a matchup of the two top teams. In the 1995 regular season, the Bowl Alliance became an extension of that effort. In 1998 the Bowl Championship Series added the Rose Bowl to the rotation. At the end of the 2014 season, the inaugural College Football Playoff introduced a four-team format.

Since the 1987 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, a span of 29 seasons including the one that ends here tonight, 18 have ended with a meeting of the top two teams in the Associated Press poll.

The National Championship has arrived back in Arizona, where Miami and Penn State once created an unforgettable night and a template for seasons to follow.