Originally created 01/04/03

Penn State-Miami put Fiesta in prime time



TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sixteen years ago, the Fiesta Bowl muscled its way into prime time with its first national championship game.

For one night, Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Hurricanes pushed aside Don Johnson and "Miami Vice."

No. 2 Penn State's 14-10 victory over No. 1 Miami on Jan. 2, 1987, remains one of college football's most memorable bowl games, a thriller that launched the upstart Fiesta onto the hallowed ground of the venerable Orange, Sugar and Rose bowls.

"It was a huge breakthrough for the bowl," Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker said.

Miami was No. 1 again and back at Sun Devil Stadium Friday night to face No. 2 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl's fifth national title game.

In the others, Notre Dame beat West Virginia 34-21 in 1989, Nebraska routed Florida 62-24 in 1996 and Tennessee beat Florida State 23-16 in 1999.

None of them could match the intrigue and drama of that 1987 game.

There was no Bowl Championship Series then.

"That was the old system where teams waited until the end, and it was kind of a wild scramble," Junker said. "We called it the wild, wild west."

As the season went on, Miami and Penn State kept winning. Neither had a conference affiliation, and the Rose, Orange and Sugar all were contracted with at least one conference.

The Fiesta, which had moved its game to New Year's Day only five years earlier, had no conference tie-ups and saw a chance for a dream matchup. So did the Gator and Citrus bowls. The bidding war was on.

"It was a high-stakes poker game," Junker said. "It wasn't just about money, but the pressure and the politics and everything that went with it."

That's when Don Meyers, one of the Fiesta Bowl's founders and its general counsel for 25 years, pulled out the hole card. Meyers negotiated with NBC to move its No. 1-rated program "Miami Vice" and its star, Don Johnson, for one night to show the Fiesta Bowl.

That would put the game in prime time on Friday Jan. 2, one day after the rest of the big bowls.

"That really struck a chord with the Miami people," Junker said. "(Coach) Jimmy Johnson, and Sam Jankovich, who was the athletic director then, with the whole team. That we could have prime time, all of America would be watching, it would be the biggest media event ever.

"That was the salvo that really made it happen."

Each team got $2.4 million from a bowl that never had paid more than $886,000.

When Johnson and the Hurricanes landed in Phoenix, many players were wearing military fatigues as they got off the plane, enhancing their mean, nasty image. Miami, led by Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, was favored against coach Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions.

Statistically, the Hurricanes dominated - 22 first downs to Penn State's eight and 445 total yards to the Nittany Lions' 162.

But turnovers doomed Miami. Testaverde was intercepted five times, still a Fiesta Bowl record.

The game was tied at 7 at halftime. Miami edged ahead 10-7 on Mark Seelig's 38-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. But Shane Conlan's interception set up D.J. Dozier's six-yard touchdown run to give Penn State a 14-10 lead.

The Hurricanes got the ball on their 23 with 3:09 left, and on fourth down, Testaverde threw to Brian Blades for 31 yards. The Heisman winner completed his next five passes and Miami moved to the Penn State 6.

But on third down, Pete Giftopoulos picked off Testaverde's 50th pass of the game with nine seconds remaining, and the Nittany Lions were national champions.

"This is the greatest game in Penn State history," Penn State's Trey Bauer said.

Dozier, who rushed for 99 yards in 20 carries, was named the outstanding offensive player. Conlan, who had two interceptions, eight tackles and a sack, was the defensive MVP.

Two years later, the Fiesta benefited from another independent matchup with No. 1 Notre Dame beating No. 3 West Virginia. But the number of big-time independents was dwindling.

Miami joined the Big East, Penn State the Big 10, West Virginia the SEC and Florida State the ACC.

The bowls joined forces in a system that is still critical, but probably better than no system at all.

When the Rose Bowl joined the fold and the BCS was formed, the Fiesta came out on top again. The Arizona bowl was the first to host a BCS championship in 1999.