How Tennessee and Miami Met in the 1986 Sugar BowlJohnny Majors, witnesses said, lit up like Halley’s Comet. Eyes big as saucers, the Tennessee coach raced from a Nashville banquet room to the nearest telephone.
Majors’ breathless call took place shortly after the 1983 season, but it may have been the biggest single influence on the 1985 season: he hired Ken Donahue as the Vols’ defensive coordinator.
Donahue shaped Bear Bryant’s defenses for two glory-filled decades at Alabama. Defense was Bryant’s trademark, but Bear was always smart enough to let genius take its course. There were times when the head coach would descend from his tower at practice and sit in his golf cart and watch Donahue’s defenses go at it.
Bryant, the story goes, was entertaining a friend in Tuscaloosa. Toward the end of the evening, near midnight, they drove past the Alabama football offices. “Look,” the friend said, “you forgot to turn out the light.” “Naw,” Bear said. “That’s just that damn Donahue making me a legend.”
Donahue was a B-team coach at Tennessee during Majors’ All-American season of 1956, and later the two shared a desk as assistants at Mississippi State. “Ken Donahue,” Majors said of the man whose greatest pleasure was going to work an hour early, “is one of a kind. His life, his soul, his recreation is football.”
Now Tennessee had the sad-eyed, stoop-shouldered, single-minded defensive wizard, who was not retained at Alabama after Bryant stepped aside. Donahue was a recruiting coup for Majors.
A tie and a defeat blotched Tennessee’s first four games of ’85, but Majors’ worst loss came during a game: spectacular quarterback Tony Robinson couldn’t find a receiver in the third quarter against Alabama and ducked into the line. The crack was heard in the stands. Robinson’s season (91 of 143 for 1,246 yards and eight touchdowns) was over – knee surgery followed.
Daryl Dickey, 24-year-old son of Tennessee athletic director Doug Dickey and a Vol backup for three-and-a-half years, excluding a redshirt season, raced in and got Tennessee home with a 16-14 victory.
After a 6-6 game with Georgia Tech a week later, Dickey responded with 10 touchdown passes and one interception in six regular-season starts – and five victories. A 64.9 (85 of 131) completion percentage and 106 consecutive passes without an interception were school records.
At the same time, Donahue’s defense surged to the SEC fore, surrendering one meaningful touchdown in those last six regular-season games, allowing only a 13-point average in 11 games, forcing 37 turnovers and yielding a miniscule four-yards per completion.
Ray Perkins, who succeeded Bryant at Alabama, gave Majors another helping hand in late November, settling for a 14-14 tie against LSU with 1:23 remaining, putting both a half-game behind in the SEC standings while the Vols had only lightweights Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt left to play.
“Air Italia” was blowing through the University of Miami schedule. Vinny Testaverde (216 of 352 for 3,238 yards), was the linchpin of an offense that averaged 461 yards and 36 points. The Hurricanes’ defense was just as impressive, allowing 2.8 yards a rush, causing 30 turnovers.
Miami lost its opener to Florida (35-23), then sailed through a treacherous schedule: Oklahoma (17-14) in Norman, Florida State (35-27) and Maryland (29-22). It was just that achievement that had Coach Jimmy Johnson fuming at the pollsters who voted Oklahoma third, a spot ahead of Miami, after the Sooners beat Nebraska in mid-November. “You always hear these people talking about playoffs,” snorted the 44-year-old cherub-faced Texan. “I just wonder if those are the same people who voted Oklahoma over Miami,” Johnson mimicked the apparent reasoning. “Well, they looked so good (on TV) against Nebraska. Heck, Nebraska lost two games – and we beat both of those teams (Florida State and Oklahoma).”
Miami did move up to No. 2 in the AP poll after beating Notre Dame 58-7 at season’s end, which meant that the Sugar Bowl had a national championship possibility, should the Hurricanes defeat No. 8 Tennessee and Oklahoma beat No. 1 Penn State in the Orange.
A new era was ushered in with the pairing. In the 51 previous Sugar Bowls, the University of Florida played in it twice, the only times teams from the Sunshine State had appeared in the game. Over the next 17 years there would be 14 combined appearances by Florida, Florida State and Miami – including three Sugar Bowls matching two of these in-state rivals against each other, with each of the three winning a national championship in New Orleans during that span.
This game was like a reunion. Majors had played and coached in the Classic, winning the national championship with Pitt in the ’77 Sugar. Donahue had been to the Sugar with both Tennessee and Alabama. Johnson played for Arkansas in the 1963 game against Ole Miss, and was an assistant with Oklahoma in the early 1970s.
Furthermore, the man who signed Johnson to his grant-in-aid at Arkansas had coached in the 1974 Sugar Bowl, and was now the AD at Tennessee, Doug Dickey. And Johnson remembered when one of his old coaches had moved to Mississippi State and helped the eager young man get his first coaching assignment, at Picayune (Miss.) High. Later Johnson was his assistant at Iowa State.
It was, of course, Majors.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.