A week before the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, a “duel in the desert” between the top-ranked teams in the country, Sports Illustrated named Joe Paterno their “Sportsman of the Year.” Paterno became the first college football coach ever to be given the distinction and just the second at the collegiate level (UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was the first).
What had Paterno done that was so significant? Coming off of one national championship game appearance (the 1986 Orange Bowl versus Oklahoma), Paterno’s team had again run the gauntlet to earn a spot in another. Three title game appearances in five years wasn’t unheard of (Penn State won the Sugar Bowl against Georgia in the 1982 season), but Paterno’s focus on academics, character, and integrity—he called it “success with honor”—was unique in major college athletics.
The Lions’ opponent for the national title for the 1986 season stood in stark contrast to the “Paterno Way.” Miami’s on-field swagger and off-field bravado juxtaposed Penn State’s plain uniforms and blue-collar demeanor. Some simply labeled the Fiesta Bowl a battle of good versus evil.
And Miami didn’t want to live down the image. They stepped off the airplane in military-style fatigues. They walked out on the suit-and-tie Nittany Lion players at the Fiesta Bowl dinner. They jeered at the Penn State bus during pre-game.
Thug U against “success with honor.” The antagonists were set, and America tuned in like never before for the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, a national title game for the ages.
Miami Hurricane football doesn’t have the history of some schools. While many superpowers of college ball started in the 19th century and dominated historically, Miami started much later and didn’t really garner any national attention until Howard Schnellenberger came to town in 1979. On the brink of cancelling football altogether, University of Miami hired the former Miami Dolphin’s assistant coach (part of the NFL’s perfect 1972 Dolphin team) in hopes that he could save the program. Schnellenberger’s lofty goals for Miami (a national championship in five years) were furthered by signature victories over Penn State in 1979 (a 16-point win in State College) and in 1981 (a 17-14 upset over then-#1 PSU in Miami). The 1981 Miami team finished #8 in the polls, Miami’s highest finish in history, but it would be the 1983 team (in Schnellenberger’s promised fifth year) that would bring the Hurricanes their first title. Ranked just fifth heading into the Orange Bowl (a virtual home game every time Miami played there) against juggernaut #1 Nebraska, Miami upset the Huskers 31-30 and catapulted past SEC powers Auburn and Georgia in the polls for the championship. Schnellenberger bolted for a USFL job after the title, but he started a streak of 14-straight top 20 finishes for Miami and effectively put Miami on the college football map.
Jimmy Johnson picked up where Schnellenberger left off and easily had the most talented team in the country with his 1986 squad. The cocky coach with the perfectly styled hair encouraged his players in their boisterous chest-thumping and celebratory dancing. The attitude wasn’t without reason; the future NFL-talent oozed from the Hurricanes.
It all started with Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde. The #1 pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987, Testaverde (a Brooklyn native like Joe Paterno) never became the superstar that Miami predecessors Jim Kelly (’79-‘82) and Bernie Kosar (’83-’84) were, but he played 21 years in the NFL for seven different teams. Two picks behind Vinny in the ’87 draft, Alonzo Highsmith went on to play six injury-ridden seasons in the NFL. Six picks after him, defensive lineman Jerome Brown was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles. Brown made two Pro Bowls before his death in a high-speed car crash in 1992. Miami graduated three top-10 picks to the 1987 NFL draft.
Three stud underclassmen receivers helped Miami to 11-0 and got Testaverde his Heisman in ’86, most notably Michael Irvin. Miami had eight draftees in ‘87 and twelve in ’88, and of those twenty, six were first rounders and ten were taken in the first two rounds.
With such incredible talent and depth, it was no wonder that the pundits favored the Hurricanes so heavily. Miami’s only challenge all season was an early road game at Florida where they still prevailed 23-15 in handing the Gators their first home loss since 1982. Two weeks after the Florida game, #2 Miami stole the number one ranking from defending champion Oklahoma at home (with a characteristic brawl mid-game, no less), and they didn’t look back, averaging 30 point victories on their way to a perfect regular season record.
Penn State, on the other hand, wasn’t as dominant. They barely slipped past .500 teams Maryland, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame. The lackluster home win over Maryland (in which PSU won on a failed 2-point conversion) dropped Penn State from #2 to #3 in early November. However, the new number two—QB Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team—lost a stunner to Minnesota the following week, which, coupled with Penn State’s win in South Bend, allowed Penn State to return to and stay at #2.
The cast of characters was movie-worthy—college football’s villains, the newly monikered “Thug U,” pitted against the old-school coach from Brooklyn and his nameless underdogs. To further publicize the game, NBC moved the game from the traditional major bowl date (New Year’s Day) to the night of January 2. And the move paid off. Not only was the game itself dramatic and tight but the Friday night audience was huge—the 24.9 Nielsen share is the highest national championship rating to date.
The first play of the game seemed to echo what people had been saying all season—Miami is too much for Penn State. Defensive end Dan Stubbs annihilated QB John Shaffer for a 14-yard sack. Penn State soon punted, and Miami drove inside the PSU 30. The Canes went for it on 4th and short, but an easy pass was dropped. Penn State had survived Miami’s opening salvo.
Penn State’s secondary had its hands full, but they were determined to make Hurricane receivers hurt for every reception. After knocking a catch out of Michael Irvin’s hands earlier in a first quarter drive, safety Ray Isom smacked Irvin after an over-the-middle reception and forced a fumble. The offense couldn’t convert after the recovery, and Miami drove down again. Testaverde’s red zone pass though was intercepted by Duffy Cobbs, the first pick the Miami QB threw.
The Canes moved the ball well all night but couldn’t score. It took a short field for them to get on the board first. All-American Jerome Brown sacked Shaffer and caused a fumble, giving Miami the ball on the PSU 23. A few plays later, Alonzo Highsmith dove over the pile from 1 yard out for the game’s first score.
The Nittany Lion offense then got a sense of urgency, and perhaps the Miami defense grew complacent. While still deep in their own territory on 3rd and 12, Eric Hamilton grabbed a 23-yard catch to sustain the drive. Relying mostly on running the rest of the way, Penn State finished off its best offensive drive of the game late in the second quarter with a bootleg TD run by Shaffer to even things up before the half. Shaffer, 65-1 as a starting quarterback since his 7th grade year, may have had a rough night otherwise, but his gutsy dive for the pylon put Penn State where it wanted to be at halftime.
President Ronald Reagan said in his halftime interview with Bob Costas that he was enjoying the game, even though Miami dominated the stat sheet with a 244-100 yardage advantage. PSU’s defense wouldn’t be intimidated. Two-time All-American LB Shane Conlan neutralized a John Shaffer miscue (an interception returned to PSU territory) by intercepting Testaverde in the red zone. But two plays later, Tim Manoa dropped the ball, and Miami recovered the ball deep in Lion territory. The defense forced a field goal attempt though, with Miami’s Mark Seelig missing a 28-yarder wide right. For all of the 3rd quarter drama, the game stayed knotted at 7.
On the first play of the 4th quarter, LB Pete Giftopoulos dropped deep into coverage and picked off Testaverde, the Miami QB’s third of the game. Massimo Manco couldn’t hit a 50-yard field goal off the turnover though, preserving the tie.
Miami gashed their way through the Lion defense on the next possession, setting up a 38-yard field goal by Seelig. Although the lead was just three, Penn State’s offense seemed too anemic to pose a threat. Moments after commentator Charlie Jones suggested to the TV audience that Miami simply run down the clock, Testaverde underthrew his receiver and Conlan reeled in his second interception of the game. More importantly, Conlan returned the ball 39 yards to the Miami 5 yard line.
A skittish Shaffer bobbled the snap on 1st and goal, and Paterno called timeout to settle the team down. After the break, Shaffer cleanly snapped the ball and tossed it to D.J. Dozier. Dozier, who finished 8th in the Heisman ballots in 1986, started right and cut back through the middle of the line for a six-yard touchdown jaunt. Kneeling down in the end zone with his teammates, Dozier’s score answered the prayers of Nittany Lion fans, giving PSU an improbable 14-10 lead.
The ’86 Heisman winner had a chance to save the day for the Canes. With 2:24 left, Miami had a 4th and 6 from their own 27. Testaverde hit WR Brian Blades in the clear. Blades slipped a tackle and tiptoed down the sideline for a game-changing 32-yard reception. Four rapid-fire completions in a row left Miami on the Penn State 9, and Shane Conlan injured on the turf. Irvin caught another to get to the 6, but All-American DT Tim Johnson nearly tore Testaverde’s head off on a 2nd down sack, forcing Miami to take a timeout with :25 remaining. Conlan returned, and Testaverde couldn’t find anyone open on 3rd and goal.
With :18 left, the most potent offense in the nation had one chance from 12 yards away to defeat one of the toughest defenses in the nation with the national title on the line. Testaverde dropped back and saw the same confusing coverage he’d seen all night. With no less than four Lion defenders at the goal line and one Hurricane receiver behind them, Pete Giftopoulos stepped forward to intercept the pass and then kneeled down with the ball at the 11-yard line. Penn State was penalized for the premature on-field celebration; Shaffer then took a knee with :09 on the clock to seal Paterno’s second national title. The stat line of 445-152 total yards made it impossible to believe that Penn State could have won, but the hard-hitting defense forced Miami to cough up the ball seven times. And good prevailed over evil.
The Rest of the Story
PSU’s second championship team was a deep team (demonstrated by the remarkable thirteen draft picks off of the 1986 unit) but had little star-power, as only three players went on to significant pro careers. Shane Conlan, the two-time All-American and #8 pick in the 1987 draft, went to three Pro Bowls and three Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills over a nine year career. RB Steve Smith, although just a 3rd round pick for the Los Angeles Raiders, played a crucial role as a blocker for NFL legends Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson during his nine seasons in the pros. 1986 All-American DT Tim Johnson wasn’t drafted until the 6th round, but he spent a decade in the NFL and won a Super Bowl ring with the Washington Redskins. Johnson is now a pastor in Florida.
The 1986 championship team was invited to meet President Reagan at the White House following the game, where Paterno gave him a #1 jersey that fittingly had no name on the back. Reagan summed up Paterno’s legacy well: “He's never forgotten he is a teacher preparing students not just for the season, but for life." The life lessons of the 1986 team? Honor is more important than swagger. And David sometimes can beat Goliath.
The 22-part "The Games of Our Lives" series by Ryan J. Murphy is excerpted from Ring The Bell: The Twenty-Two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy (available Fathers Press, summer 2012). Look for new stories every Monday on the Nittany Lions Den!