1987 Fiesta Bowl Broadcast Is a Chance to Re-experience a Story for the Ages
April 30, 2020 5:00 AM
by Jay Paterno
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On Friday night at 9:30, NBC Sports Network will re-air one of the greatest games in all of college football history: the Jan. 2, 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami. Because NBC did the original broadcast, you haven’t seen this game on ESPN or the Big Ten Network. 

This is a rare treat so get your favorite chair, snacks and beverages and tune in.

Imagine a time before compression shorts. We wore jock straps and real pads in football pants that actually covered our knees. There were no targeting calls, and concussion protocol consisted of smelling salts and a doctor asking if you knew what day it was. At worst you had a one-in-seven chance to be right. And seeing that we only played college football on Saturdays you had a pretty safe guess in your hip pocket.

Back then we had only five major New Year’s Day Bowl Games and they were actually played on New Year’s Day. In 1986, the bowl contracts sent conference champions to specific bowls — the Big Eight to the Orange, the Southwest Conference to the Cotton, the SEC to the Sugar and the Pac-10 and Big Ten to the Rose. The Fiesta Bowl did not have a conference tie-in.

Miami, Penn State, Oklahoma and Alabama were pre-season national title contenders in 1986. Oklahoma started on top but Miami jumped to No. 1 after bouncing Oklahoma in September. In October a 23-3 Penn State thumping of No.2 Alabama vaulted us to No.2. 

As the end of the season neared, both Penn State and Miami were undefeated and independent bowl “free agents.” Miami could’ve picked the highest bowl payout and played there. But to the Hurricanes’ credit, they were willing to play Penn State wherever they needed to play. 

Quick thinking by Fiesta Bowl executive director Bruce Skinner hatched a plan. Bowl sponsor Sunkist and NBC put their heads together, got out their wallets and made the match-up happen. And NBC took it one step further moving the game to Friday, Jan. 2,  a standalone date to showcase what was being called “The Game of the Century.”

The build-up was incredible. Miami got off their team plane wearing battle fatigues. At a western-themed steak fry future NFL star Jerome Brown took the microphone and asked if the Japanese sat down and ate with the Americans before they bombed Pearl Harbor. He and his teammates walked out. The weeklong media coverage played up the over-the-top hype of a battle of two unbeaten teams.

With all the build-up and the clash of images, this became a must-watch event that transcended the sports world. It remains the highest-rated college football game of all time. It grabbed a 25.0 share and was broadcast internationally in more than a dozen languages.

It was bigger than huge.

So tomorrow night take a few hours to watch a game where the hitting is so intense that you’ll be feeling it in your living room.

Watch No. 31 for Penn State at linebacker. There has never been a better Penn State linebacker than Shane Conlan. In 1982, he showed up as a very lightly-recruited, 190-pound freshman from Frewsburg, New York. Fortunately, Penn State assistant coach Tom Bradley discovered Conlan after driving through a blizzard to see him play high school basketball. The rest is a history that includes a national title and a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Watch No. 47 for Miami. That is a Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin lining up in a three-point stance.

Watch Penn State’s defensive line get pressure with three and four man rushes while the secondary played any one of an astounding 21 different coverages in that game.

Watch Miami’s defensive line anchored by Brown, a future Pro Bowler who died in a tragic car accident just a few years into his career.

Watch Penn State’s punter John Bruno. Miami had a great punt block team and time and time again Bruno got the punt away to pin the Hurricanes inside their own 10 yard line. His was an MVP-worthy performance. He too has passed, taken years ago by cancer.

Watch the hitting and tackling in this game. These were serious men setting out to do serious damage. At one point in the game, Conlan injured his knee. When the doctors asked to evaluate it he told them to just tape it up and get him back in the game. 

What you won’t see on the replay is the pregame environment. There was a tension that hung over two teams who knew they were about to write epic history. There was a palpable hatred between them. But there was no shirtless preening to try and look tough. These guys had a true confidence.

Before the game one of Miami’s wide receivers made a comment to a Penn State linebacker about Penn State’s short defensive backs. He responded with a comment along the lines of wait until you get hit by them. That secondary drilled the Miami receivers and backs over and over again, leading to fumbles, dropped passes and alligator arms.

And at the start of this broadcast, listen to Penn State quarterback John Shaffer’s interview. The guy was nothing but a winner with a record of 66-1 as a starter going all the way to the 9th grade. Joe Paterno ranked Shaffer as one of the great leaders he’d ever been around.

Miami was the more talented team. They were taller. They were faster. They were a generational talent-type team.

But Joe Paterno had seen teams like Miami before. Often teams like that start to read their press clippings and believe that they must dominate to become the greatest of all-time. Our advantage was that all we had to do was win, but for them just winning the game was not enough.

Joe Paterno understood this and built Miami up in the media over and over again. He bet that when the game unfolded relentless hitting would frustrate a “front-running” team. We’d stay in the game, keep them from scoring a ton of points and then steal it with a turnover. 

As Shaffer took a knee to run out the clock, the warriors in Blue and White ran onto the field battered and bruised but victorious. They stood as champions after a game the likes of which have rarely, if ever, been equaled in the history of our truly American game.

Get your ankles taped up and get ready for a full-contact replay of the Game of The Century.



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