54th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1988
#4 Syracuse 16 (Final: 11-0-1, #4)
#6 Auburn 16 (Final: 9-1-3, #7)
How Syracuse and Auburn Met in the 1988 Sugar Bowl
Dick MacPherson would not let go of the trophy.
He went from interview to interview clutching the 35-pound, ornate, silver vessel, the symbol of Sugar Bowl supremacy.
“It’s getting heavy,” the Syracuse coach said an hour after the final whistle of a 16-16 New Year’s Day deadlock with Auburn, “but they’ll have to fight me to take it away.”
The source of MacPherson’s ire was the decision by Tiger coach Pat Dye to send place-kicker Win Lyle onto the field for a 30-yard field goal attempt with four seconds remaining. Dye, whose 9-1-1 team had no chance at a national championship or any other postgame laurels, was willing to settle for the tie.
Lyle’s own frustrated teammates tried to wave him off the field before he made the tying kick, which produced boos from both sides, the only tie in the long annals of the Sugar Bowl (just the seventh in major bowl history, and the first since 1959), the only blot on Syracuse’s record (11-0-1), and a fire in MacPherson’s belly.
When Lyle’s third field goal of the night sailed through the yellow uprights, MacPherson vented his anger by throwing his game plan – three sheets of rolled-up paper – to the Superdome turf. He had to walk onto the playing surface to retrieve it.
“I was mad at myself,” MacPherson said.
Minutes before, when his team had to decide whether to go for it on fourth-and-inches at the Auburn 22, MacPherson’s choice had been to kick for a 16-3 lead, feeling a team with no shot at No. 1 would have to go for the winning touchdown against an unbeaten, untied opponent in a bowl game.
“I told my guys a field goal was like a touchdown,” MacPherson said. “I told them if we made it, Auburn would have to go for the touchdown. If I had thought in my wildest imagination he’d go for a field goal, we would have gone for a first down.”
At that point, all the Syracuse coach could do was smolder.
Dye said his Tigers – two and a half point favorites – simply played with “too much character and class” to risk going for a 13-yard touchdown in the fading seconds against the fourth-ranked Orangemen. “You win some, lose some and some end in ties,” Dye said. “I made up my mind early on (in Auburn’s last drive) what I was going to do. I wasn’t going to let my team get beat. If they (Syracuse) wanted to win, they should have blocked the field goal.”
The Tiger athletes, on the other hand, vividly remembered the Tennessee game. “I remember how happy Tennessee was with the tie and how disgusted I felt at the time.” Auburn offensive guard Stacy Searles reflected in the Sugar Bowl aftermath.
The disappointment, and the sniping and roaring between the Sugar Bowl foes on the first night of 1988, put a forlorn face on to the Sugar Bowl, a sharp contrast to the euphoria of a month earlier when the match was made.
This was the scenario: With just over two minutes remaining, with a fourth-and-inches at the Auburn 22, Tom Vesling booted the go-ahead field goal.
MacPherson would second-guess himself later, but upon reflection said, “I think that was the right call.” Dye agreed. “It put his team ahead (16-13).”
Auburn was 75 yards from their 10th victory of the season, and in that time span made up 62 of those yards.
At that point Dye sent in Lyle, to the accompaniment of boos from all ends of the Superdome. MacPherson made note of the fact that Auburn didn’t throw into the end zone once on the last drive. “They were just fooling around with other things,” he said, his anger showing through. “What the hell was (Dye) thinking? What the hell did they come here for in the first place?”
A Syracuse radio station, incensed by Dye’s strategy, made a call for Orangemen fans to send Dye ties, the ugliest they could find. An estimated 2,000 ties flooded the Tiger athletic department in the days following the Sugar Bowl.
Dye, however, found a “moral victory” in the intended insult. He autographed each one, and included the score of the game, and had the athletic department sell them to fans for $100 apiece, with the proceeds donated to Auburn’s general fund. Sales totaled $25,000.
A Montgomery radio station, WHHY, felt a response was in order, however. Disc jockey Blake Scott said sour grapes were exactly what Syracuse fans deserved. He asked Auburn fans to donate sour grapes to Dick MacPherson.
“We’re looking for a warm warehouse to store them,” Scott said, “then for the slowest transportation available.”
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.