Wednesday, December 8, 2010

College Football: A Distant Rivalry Returns

 
Stanford and Oklahoma in 2009 Sun Bowl Action (Photo Copyright Stephen Baack)

A Retro-Rivalry Spurs Interest in One of College Football’s Oldest Bowl Games

The Notre Dame-Miami football rivalry had its heyday twenty years ago, but the echoing intensity of the matchup is driving a surge of interest in El Paso’s 75-year old Sun Bowl.

The Sun Bowl, along with the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl, began when the country most needed something to cheer: New Year’s Day, 1935. All three outlasted the Depression, and seventy-five years later the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl figure centrally in the BCS bowl structure (along with the Fiesta, Rose Bowl, and BCS Championship Game) while the Sun Bowl struggles to stand out in a bowl landscape overcrowded with 35 games. In 2010, it has managed the feat by locking in a rivalry two decades past its prime but still flourishing in nostalgia. Officially the Hyundai Sun Bowl, the game announced that the stadium of 51,000+ seats sold out in 21 hours, the fastest in its history.

“We knew the matchup would make a huge impact on ticket sales,” said Sun Bowl Association President Amen Ayoub. “But we did not think it would be anything like this.”

Back in the late 1980’s Miami and the Irish battled annually in their quests for national prominence. Currently, Notre Dame is one of only three remaining independent FBS teams but at that time Miami – now a member of the ACC – was an independent and could schedule the Irish outside the constraints of a conference schedule.

The Hurricanes and Irish alternated wins between 1987 and 1990 with the Hurricanes having the upper hand in 1987 and 1989 and the Irish winning in ’88 and ’90. The Hurricanes bookended a Notre Dame national title in 1988 with national championships in 1987 and 1989.

The two grappled in the polls seemingly weekly. In 1988, the Hurricanes held the AP’s top spot for the season’s first six weeks while Notre Dame held it for the final seven. Coming out of their title season of 1988, the Irish held the top spot in the AP Poll for 12 weeks in 1989, and Miami didn’t lay claim to the top spot until January 2, 1990 after beating Alabama 33-25 in that year’s Sugar Bowl.

Buried in the statistics of the era is the intensity of the games. In 1985 coach Jimmy Johnson and his Hurricanes embarrassed Gerry Faust’s Irish 58-7 in Faust’s last game. Prior to the 1988 match there was a pregame shoving match and in 1989 the teams nearly squared off at midfield before the coin toss. It was during this era that the game earned the moniker Catholics vs. Convicts, due in part to the off-field actions of some Hurricanes’ team members.

Lofty rankings are a distant echo for both teams, with Miami’s last visit to the summit on December 9, 2002 after starting out 12-0 that year. The Irish’s absence from the top has been nearly a full decade longer, having last topped the AP weekly poll on November 16, 1993, when they were 10-0.

Overall, Miami has won five national titles (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001), while the Irish have won a total of eight AP crowns, the most in FBS football. Their last championship was the 1988 title. The two teams have not faced each other since the 1990 season and have never met in a bowl game before.

''This is absolutely unbelievable,'' says Mr. Ayoub. “This is the greatest game we’ve ever put together in the 77-year [1958 saw two Sun Bowls when the game moved from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve] history of the Sun Bowl.” While Mr. Ayoub’s description would certainly have been fitting in 1990, in terms of the 2010 teams it better fits the criteria for Alan Greenspan’s irrational exuberance.

2010 has not been easy on either squad. Miami (7-5) will be led by interim coach Jeff Stoutland after head coach and former player Randy Shannon was fired on November 27 following an embarrassing 23-20 overtime loss to South Florida. Stoutland previously was the offensive line coach. "If I wasn't involved in this game, Miami versus Notre Dame would be a game I would definitely watch," Stoutland stated after hearing of the Sun Bowl matchup.

Things in South Bend are gradually improving following a season marred most notably by the tragic death of Declan Sullivan while taping a Notre Dame practice. Sullivan died when the video tower he was filming from collapsed under the duress of heavy winds. First-year head coach Brian Kelly came under heavy criticism following the incident for allowing the filming under severe conditions.

On the football field things have slowly improved for the Irish (7-5) as it finished the season with wins over Utah, Army and USC in succession following disheartening losses to Navy and Tulsa.

It’s no secret that Notre Dame “travels well,” and is appealing to many bowls for that reason, even when having, by historical standards, a subpar season. Other teams with better records may have been passed up by the Sun Bowl due to the Irish’s ability to pack fans into the stadium and in front of televisions across the country, a boon to longtime game sponsor CBS. Dyan Rohol, the president of the Notre Dame Club of New York, knows that people will be traveling to El Paso and “I’m sure we’ll have a big crowd at our usual viewing location in New York, the Public House.”

Although the Sun Bowl, like the Notre Dame-Miami rivalry, has been eclipsed in national stature, fans looking in on the game will also see a bowl in a retro-setting befitting the matchup. Built in 1963 and tucked between two hills with the sprawling Franklin Mountains as a backdrop, the bowl and the contest confirm that there’s life in the Sun Bowl well outside the BCS.

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