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Dear NCAA and All Other Colleges and Universities: You’re Welcome. -The 1986-87 Miami Hurricanes Football Program

In early 1987, the University of Miami changed college football and college athletics as a whole, forever.

Football Action at the Fiesta Bowl
Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde throwing one of his five interceptions in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl vs Penn State.

1987 Fiesta Bowl

The 1987 Fiesta Bowl was a historical football game for several reasons: it was the first bowl game ever played after New Year’s Day, it was the first bowl game to have a title sponsor, and it set the stage for Nike to sign the first exclusive college apparel contract that year to outfit all UM sports for both men and women. Leave it to a die-hard Miami Hurricane fan to talk about this game in detail without mentioning the final score. (Sigh).

The stars truly had to align for this game to be played on January 2nd. Miami was ranked #1 and the Penn State Nittany Lions #2, plus both were independents in 1987, so they had no conference ties to any specific bowls. At the time, the Fiesta Bowl was not nearly as prestigious as the Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, or Cotton Bowl; something I did not know until researching this. The Fiesta Bowl teamed up with NBC, who was looking to make moves in sports programming, and shifted the game to a Friday night. The move to Friday night increased the team payout to $2.4 million. That is a huge number in 1987. Further, NBC preempted their most popular prime-time show at the time, Miami Vice. Oh, the irony!

While all the above planning was taking place, UM athletic director Sam Jankovich and head football coach Jimmy Johnson were set on playing in the Orange Bowl. And why not? Miami outscored their opponents 420-136 in the 1986 season. They had already beaten the number one ranked, defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners earlier in the year, taking over the number one ranking for the remainder of the season. At the time, this Miami team was considered one of, if not the most, talented college football team ever assembled. The Canes could sleep in their own beds and win another national championship in front of their home fans. It seemed like a no-brainer.

Don Meyers, the Fiesta Bowl Selection Committee Chairman at the time, would not give up. First, he gave black satin sweat suits to the entire Miami football team, as well as promised the wives of the Miami coaches free treatments at a fancy desert spa. Meyers sealed the deal by calling reporters and saying Jimmy Johnson was afraid to play against Joe Paterno on a neutral field. What a maniac, but I respect the commitment. Also, it worked. Jimmy excitedly announced Miami would be playing Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, in prime-time, to a room full of reporters after the Canes’ regular season finale win.

True college football fans know about the leadup to the game: Miami’s fatigues, the infamous steak fry dinner, the battle over the team’s walkthrough time. There was genuine anticipation for this game, and the viewers showed up. The 1987 Fiesta Bowl had a television rating of 25.1, with an average of 21,940,000 viewers watching the NBC telecast per minute. It was the most watched college football game ever up until that point, and it held that top spot for four years. The NCAA and college football programs across the country knew things were never going to be the same.

The 1987 Fiesta Bowl shaped the future of college football in multiple ways: multiple post New Year’s Day bowl games, multi-national company title sponsors, prime-time kickoff to increase television ad sales, and the list goes on. I will agree Penn State is a well-known college football brand, and they had a legendary coach (who let heinous things go on under his watch, but I digress). However, none of the above happens or works without the Miami Hurricanes. Penn State could have been Michigan, Stanford, or Texas. Miami was the irreplaceable centerpiece. They were the biggest thing in college sports during the 1980s. The talent, celebrations, swagger, and winning were loved by the people of South Florida and hated by just about everyone else in the country. People wanted Miami to lose as much as we wanted them to win. As tough as the Penn State loss was, the gigantic impact the game had on college football softens the blow a little. Who am I kidding? I was still angry reading about the 1987 Fiesta Bowl all these years later. Some things never change.

1987 Nike deal

Despite the devastating loss in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, Miami was still widely recognized as the biggest brand in college sports. Prior to the 1987 regular season, the Hurricanes were sporting Russell Athletic jerseys. As hard as it is to believe, Nike was still a small, emerging athletic shoe and apparel brand in the 1980s. They had Michael Jordan as a spokesman and were looking for new revenue opportunities.

Again, the timing was perfect. Surprisingly, the process was simple. According to the book Common Enemies: Georgetown Basketball, Miami Football, and The Racial Transformations of College Sports, by Thomas F. Schaller, an attorney for University of Miami named Robert Ades called Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro and asked if Nike would want to outfit every varsity sports program, for both men and women. Vaccaro loved the idea and immediately called Nike chairman Phil Knight. He told Knight “This is it. We hit the motherload.” The rest was history. History is the correct description, because while other colleges had apparel contracts, none were for EVERY men’s and women’s varsity team sport. The University of Miami and Nike, together, redefined college sports apparel partnerships.

While financial numbers for the 1987 Nike deal were unavailable, the effect was significant and widespread. Miami Hurricane football led the new Nike charge, and it gave the upstart company a well-known orange and white canvas that was seen by millions of people every Saturday. The famous “U” logo was undoubtedly cool looking and people all over the country started wearing Miami Hurricane gear. Pretty awesome for a small, private school in Coral Gables, FL.

When Adidas became the athletic outfitter for UM in 2015, their President Mark King acknowledged UM’s role as a trailblazer. Again, from Common Enemies, “The University of Miami was the first college program to excel as a national brand with championship play on the field, changing the game of college athletics.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, Sir.

While the idea of sponsoring entire athletic departments seems obvious now, the 1987 UM-Nike deal was indeed ahead of its time when it happened. Nike understood the benefit of having their logo on all the gear worn by all types of athletes all over campus. Again, at the time, this only worked with The U.

The late ‘80s Miami Hurricane football program’s success, television exposure, polarizing nature, and desire to try something no college ever had was a perfect fit for a new type of sports apparel partnership. The 1987 UM-Nike sports apparel partnership changed college athletics forever. Those above traits also made the Hurricanes a perfect fit for a lesser-known bowl willing to break tradition in order to join the blue bloods, which it did. The 1987 Fiesta Bowl changed college football forever.

The University of Miami Hurricane football program was at the center of two seismic shifts in college sports. Not surprising. It’s great to be a Miami Hurricane.