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The House that Earnie Built
John Underwood
January 03, 1972
When Earnie Seiler stages an Orange Bowl, you get elephants, fireworks and, this New Year's Day, Nebraska-Alabama
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January 03, 1972

The House That Earnie Built

When Earnie Seiler stages an Orange Bowl, you get elephants, fireworks and, this New Year's Day, Nebraska-Alabama

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Earnie Seiler didn't really want to be the Orange Bowl, he just wanted to start it. For Miami's sake. Earnie Seiler loves Miami. At the first game he stood in the middle of 36th Street—whip-lean body gyrating under a flop-brim white Panama hat, melon-colored face grappling with a huge cigar—and flagged down passing cars, trying to get people to come in to fill the bleachers he had poached for the occasion. Miami was not the metropolis it is now. Everyone knew Earnie Seiler. "Get the hell out of the road, Seiler," they yelled at him and blew their horns.

It was a precarious birth, requiring round-the-clock care and some financial plasma from local bookmakers. In infancy the Orange Bowl suffered long periods of acute indifference (one Miami sports editor chose the afternoon of an early game to cover a swim meet) before good health was achieved and Earnie Seiler could afford to really open up, which is his disposition.

This Is the Bowl that Earnie Built, no doubt about that. And most of it he did singlehanded. Take 1939. Seiler coerced unbeaten Oklahoma into the Orange Bowl game with half the money offered by the Sugar and Cotton bowls by stealing through the campus at Norman in the middle of the night writing ON TO MIAMI! in chalk on the sidewalks and then educating the Sooners with a morning lecture that featured huge posters of girls reclining on the sugary sands of Miami Beach in the barest excuses for bathing suits the '30s would allow. "I'm a great believer in visual aids," said Seiler.

As the games got better, Seller's parades got longer and more glamorous; and the parties (pregame, postgame and so forth) extravagant and more clamorous. His beloved halftime shows came to be drenched in orange-blossom perfume, gallons of it drizzling down from the bowl's rim. Queens and princesses rode in chariots behind white stallions, and, their faces pale with fright, perched high on the rolling backs of elephants painted purple and pink. Squadrons of bogus flamingos flew across the width of the stadium, strung on a tautly pulled quarter-inch cable. "If that cable snaps," said the engineer, "you'll wipe out 500 fans." "Yeah, but it won't," said Seiler, blowing smoke from his cigar. And it didn't.

Doves of peace (white fantail pigeons) fluttered up from the base of a huge replica of Uncle Sam and settled pell-mell into the ever-larger Orange Bowl crowd, and then roosted for weeks in the stadium's steel webbing. The ASPCA issued a formal protest. Seiler shrugged. Seiler was a tough act for Seiler to follow; some risks were unavoidable.

From the earliest days Seiler was not willing that his game be a repository for second-rate teams. He claimed he would march through fire to sign the best. In Philadelphia Stadium, leading a delegation of Orange Bowl Committee members to beat rival bowls to a talented Navy team, he bolted through the women's powder room. Witnesses say he never broke stride but that the smoke from his cigar left a prodigious trail that day.

The Orange Bowl became the place to spend a New Year's afternoon. President Kennedy came, and sat in Seiler's big leather chair, which the Secret Service hauled from his office and put in the presidential box on the 50-yard line. Seiler offered to have special lunches sent in from Wolfie's. Kennedy elected to fly in his personal chef, who set up a sandwich kitchen in a tent beneath the south stands. When the game was over, Seiler went around to the chef and asked if he could have "one of those $2,000 sandwiches." He said it tasted the same.

Eventually, inevitably, teams like Nebraska and Alabama were flown in to play for the national championship. At night, now. Another Seiler first. Live, before 80,000 people. In color, on national television, before 50 million more. The networks dumped money on the Orange Bow!. The Orange Bowl guarantee grew to be the fattest east of Pasadena, a whopping $900,000. Coaches like Bob Devaney and Bear Bryant could hardly wait to spend New Year's in Miami.

And so it was that Earnie Seiler came to be known as the Mad Genius. He did not object, not to the noun, not even to the adjective. Actually, he thought it had a nice ring to it. Jimmy Burns, The Miami Herald columnist, started it. "Seiler is mad," said Burns. They were fishing buddies, at least until the day Seiler was driving Burns home from a snook expedition on the Tamiami Trail, driving at his customary breakneck speed when one of the tires came off and rolled up alongside the speeding car. "Isn't that one of your tires, Seiler?" said Burns, looking out the window. "Yeah, I guess so," hissed Seiler, his teeth clinging to his cigar as he wrestled with the wheel. The tire kept them company for a while, then took a tremendous bounce into the Everglades and was never seen again. And on subsequent Seiler fishing trips, neither was Burns.

The festival, as Seiler calls his show, has spread like lava to cover such widely assorted goings-on as fashion shows and horse shows, regattas and grand balls, tennis, fishing and soccer tournaments and massive fireworks displays. For Seiler it is a magnificent juggling act. He drops only what fails to show lasting quality. He keeps his hand in everything. Sometimes it is the back of his hand.

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