The 1986 Miami Hurricanes were loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, and weren’t afraid to let you know it. They spent the entire regular season backing up their talk and looked poised to secure a place in college football history. They did…but for the wrong reasons, as an infamous bowl loss has become an integral part of college football lore.
Jimmy Johnson had taken over the program following the magical national title run of 1983. After some struggles in the 1984 transition, the Hurricanes had found their mojo again in 1985. They went 10-1, were the only team to beat eventual national champion Oklahoma and only a Sugar Bowl meltdown cost Miami a shot at another championship.
They came back in 1986 led by quarterback Vinny Testaverde. He would complete 63% of his passes for a sterling 9.3 yards-per-attempt. Testaverde threw for over 2,500 yards and in 1986, a 26/9 TD-INT ratio was positively dazzling. He was the runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy.
Testaverde didn’t lack talent around him. Michael Irvin, a future NFL Hall of Famer, was at wide receiver and Irvin caught 53 balls for 868 yards. The backfield was led by Alonzo Highsmith, who would eventually be chosen third overall in the NFL draft. Highsmith’s 442 yards rushing is deceiving—Miami didn’t run the ball a lot, they had depth and were often substituting in during blowouts. Highsmith was a tough physical runner and he also caught thirty balls out of the backfield.
The talent wasn’t all on offense either. Jerome Brown at defensive tackle and Bennie Blades in the secondary were both consensus All-Americans and future high draft choices in the NFL. Miami could do it all—they would average 36 points per game on offense, give up just 12.5 on defense and finish in the top five nationally in both categories.
Preseason polls had the ‘Canes at #3, behind Oklahoma and Michigan. After dismantling South Carolina 34-14 and then beating Florida 23-15, Miami was moved past Michigan. Both wins had been on the road and though Florida would have a mediocre year they were ranked 13th at the time of the game.
A 61-11 beatdown of a decent Texas Tech team set the stage for the game college football fans wanted to see—Oklahoma was coming to Coral Gables on the final weekend of September.
As talented as the Sooners were, the Hurricanes were ideally suited to beat them. Oklahoma’s option-oriented offense was explosive and could simply run past weaker teams. Miami was good enough to stop the dive into the middle, with Brown anchoring the defensive front. And they had the speed to chase Sooner runners down on the outside. Oklahoma might be obliterating everyone else, but Miami had beaten them decisively on the road in 1985 and they would defend their home turf with little problem in 1986.
The ‘Canes led 7-3 at the half and then got two turnovers, which Testaverde immediately converted into points, hitting four straight passes. The lead was 21-3. Testaverde finished the day with four touchdown passes, the final was 28-16 and even that was deceptively close. Miami moved to the top of the polls and the Heisman race all but ended on that day.
It was time for a soft portion of the schedule. The Hurricanes rolled through three losing teams in Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Cincinnati, winning those games by a combined 137-27.
November opened with a home date against Florida State. The Seminoles hadn’t been in a major bowl game since 1980 and they would finish 6-4-1 this year. But they were only a season away from becoming a perennial national contender and their rivalry with Miami would become must-see television. They would give the Hurricanes their stiffest test of the 1986 regular season.
Miami had a rare special teams breakdown, allowing a 105-yard kickoff return off a lateral play and the game was tied 14-14 after the first quarter. Florida State got a couple field goals and nudged out to a 20-14 lead by halftime.
It was Testaverde Time and the quarterback heated up. He threw for two touchdowns, ran for two others, ended up with 315 yards on the day and Miami finally shook off the pesky challenger. They controlled the second half and won 41-23.
That was the last real test of the regular season. Pitt and Tulsa both finished the season with winning records, but were no match for the Miami juggernaut in games that ended 37-10 and 23-10 respectively. The Hurricanes closed the regular season with a 36-10 rout of lowly East Carolina.
Penn State was sitting at #2 in the polls and neither they nor Miami were contractually tied to any of the major bowls. With the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton unable to match them up, the door was open for a new bowl to join college football’s center stage. As the top-ranked team, Miami would determine where they would be.
The bidding war was between the Fiesta Bowl and the Citrus Bowl (known today as the Capital One Bowl). Miami preferred to stay closer to home and play in Orlando, but money talks. The Fiesta moved its game to January 2 on prime-time, giving it separation from the other bowls. The Fiesta and NBC increased the payout and the game would be played in Tempe.
Miami did not conduct themselves well. The players walked out of a steak fry put on by the Fiesta organizers for both teams. The grounds were that a Penn State player had made a racial joke—which was true, though obviously in fun. And in either case, the Miami players admitted the walkout had been planned all along.
They wanted to make a point. It was Brown who said “Did the Japanese eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?” It was a comment monumental in its insensitivity for comparing military loss of life to a football game. And it made Brown sound like an idiot, since one does not “eat” with a military base.
It all fed a “Good vs. Evil” storyline that would aggravate Johnson. In recent years, the revelations that Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was a pedophile has caused some revisiting of this narrative.
I’ve made no bones about the fact that I think PSU head coach Joe Paterno has been smeared by a lazy media and that Paterno deserves his good name back. But in fairness to Miami, you can still allow that Sandusky acted alone and accurately note that the trash talk by the Hurricanes is nothing compared to what Sandusky did. And since Sandusky devised the defensive schemes that would change the course of history, that alone is enough to end the Good vs. Evil narrative.
The Fiesta Bowl remains the most-watched college football game in history. The narrative, the buildup and the prime-time Friday night spot, separate from the other games, all drew people to their sets. And Testaverde failed spectacularly.
Miami’s defense dominated from the outset, with a Brown sack on the first play setting the tone. But Testaverde, confused by the package of 20 different coverages Sandusky had put in place during the weeks leading up to the game threw three interceptions in the first three quarters. Miami also missed a makeable field goal.
In spite of that, they still led 10-7 early in the fourth quarter. But another Testaverde pick was returned inside the 5-yard line and Penn State took a 14-10 lead. When Testaverde converted a 4th-and-6 throw with three minutes left, it triggered a drive that looked ready to save the season. He hit four more passes in succession and had his team set up 1st-and-goal at the 9-yard line with 25 seconds left.
Miami had its timeouts and Highsmith was having a big night on the ground. He had 119 yards on 18 carries. Johnson and his offensive coordinator, Gary Stevens, wanted to pound him. Paterno feared that was exactly what was about to happen. Penn State defensive players have since admitted they were too gassed to stop Highsmith. But Testaverde insisted he was going to pass and he was allowed to have his way.
After a short pass to Irvin put the ball on the 5-yard line, Testaverde was sacked for a 12-yard loss. After another incompletion, the quarterback completed his prime-time meltdown by staring down Perriman in the end zone and throwing his fifth interception of the night.
The 14-10 loss remains an incredible upset as Miami’s lineup of future NFL talent and a future Super Bowl-winning coach had come up short against a team with nowhere near that level of personnel. Johnson would be haunted by the game.
But sports offers second chances and Miami made the most of theirs. They ripped off another undefeated season in 1987, and this time drew Oklahoma in the 1 vs. 2 national title game, at home in the Orange Bowl. Miami won that one. After Johnson left for the Dallas Cowboys, Dennis Erickson took over and the beat kept rolling on, with national titles in 1989 and 1991. This was the program that defined a decade in college football, but one night in Tempe will always stick in its craw.