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Rick Reilly
January 12, 1987
Underdog Penn State forced five interceptions to beat Miami for the national title
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January 12, 1987

Guts, Brains And Glory

Underdog Penn State forced five interceptions to beat Miami for the national title

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For those of you running late, here's what happened, in brief, at this season's College Football Game of the Century, known hereafter to Miami fans as the Groana in Arizona. No. 2 Penn State defeated No. 1 Miami 14-10 in the sun-kissed, Nielsen-blissed (70 million people watched it) Fiesta Bowl. Awards were bestowed upon Vinny Testaverde for being the world's unluckiest January quarterback (eight interceptions, one measly touchdown, 0 for 2 in national championships) and upon 60-year-old Joe Paterno for being the unlikely coach of the '80s. Paterno has played for the national title three times in this decade. He has won two and apparently wants another one soon. Less than 24 hours after beating what amounted to a future NFL roster, he was back on his hotel room phone chatting up recruits. "You think this makes it easier?" Paterno grumbled. "Nah, it's a constant battle. Now, instead of guys telling recruits we're no good, they're telling 'em we're loaded. You can't win."

You can't win. Penn State heard those three words all week. Yes, both teams had great defenses. But Miami had six all-world athletes at the skill positions: Testaverde, his redoubtable backs Alonzo Highsmith and Melvin Bratton, and three Stealth-bomber wide receivers. Together, they made just about everybody but Beano Cook and two plumbers in Altoona figure that if you didn't go Canes you weren't quite sane. That, of course, was before the Steak Fry. After that event, sanity sort of slipped quietly out of town.

It was supposed to be just an old-fashioned hand-pressing affair for the Fiesta Bowl contenders. Nittany Lion punter John Bruno began the talent portion of the evening with a crack about Hurricane coach Jimmy Johnson keeping the hair-spray industry in good shape. That apparently upset tender Miami sensibilities. "I think our players were offended by that remark," said Johnson, who told the press that he doesn't use all that much hair spray and that even if he does, "It just so happens I like to be neat. I like to have my hair in place. Some people don't like that." Here, then, was Felix Unger addressing a roomful of Oscar Madisons.

But that wasn't what made the Miami players mad. "Jimmy's our coach," said Highsmith. "We're the only ones that get to rag on his hair." You could almost hear the rap video in the making.

Now, we are the Canes
And we take no jive,
Even though our coach
Wears Alberto VO5.

Then Bruno did something maybe he shouldn't have. In joking about his own team, he said, "We even let the black guys eat with us at the training table once a week." It was harmless and stupid, mostly stupid. But after the Nittanies and the Canes finished their skits, several Miami players stood up and removed their shirts to reveal the combat fatigues that they had worn on the flight to Phoenix. Having safely eaten his steak, the Hurricanes' 285-pound All-America defensive tackle and designated orator. Jerome Brown, said, "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them? No. We're out of here." And out he marched with all the Canes in tow, leaving the Lions and Fiesta Bowl officials with their molars hanging out.

Then Bruno rose. "Hey, wait a minute," he said. "Didn't the Japanese lose that war?" This qualifies as one of the five best lines ever issued by a punter.

The next morning Johnson said, "Our players were very offended by those racial remarks." That seemed noble enough until it came out that the walkout had been planned. "It was all set up," said Miami defensive tackle Dan Sileo. Had Johnson known about the walkout? Probably not. Johnson seems to be as surprised as the rest of the world by what his players do. "Every morning I can't wait to pick up the paper and see what they've said next," he said. Better, what didn't they say next?

"We played for the national championship on September 27 [against Oklahoma]," Sileo said. "As far as I'm concerned, Friday's game is just the end of the season."

"[Shane] Conlan covering me will be good for us," said flanker Michael Irvin of the Lions' All-America linebacker. "I'm sure I can run right past him.... We're looking to put them away early."

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