Penn State's 1986 championship team to hold reunion at halftime of Iowa game
Penn State coach Joe Paterno is carried on the shoulder of his Nittany Lions players after they beat Miami, 14-10, in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., Friday, Jan. 2, 1987.
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Former Penn State All-American linebacker Shane Conlan shakes his head and laughs at the memory.
He can't believe it has been 25 years since the Nittany Lions won their most recent national championship with a stunning, 14-10 victory against top-ranked and heavily-favored Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
Penn State's defense intercepted Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde five times that night at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
But, the outcome was in doubt to the end before Penn State linebacker Pete Giftopoulos picked off a Testaverde pass near the goal line on a fourth-down play with nine seconds remaining.
Giftopoulos cradled the football, then held it high in celebration.
His second interception of the game -- and Penn State's seventh turnover overall -- wrapped up a 12-0 season and the No. 1 ranking. It also gave coach Joe Paterno his second national title in five years.
More than 70 million people watched the thrilling finish of the Jan. 2, 1987 Fiesta Bowl on NBC, making it the most-watched bowl game ever.
"Those Miami guys are still in disbelief that we beat them," said Conlan, an All-American linebacker and co-captain who was voted the game's defensive MVP after he made eight tackles and two interceptions. "They were acting like we didn't have any talent and they had it all, but we were good.
"We're still wondering where Vinny was throwing that last ball. There were three or four guys that could have intercepted that pass for us. Pete just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Conlan, who lives in Sewickley and works for Esmark, will be among approximately 80 players from that 1986 national championship team who will be honored Saturday at halftime of the Iowa game
"It's hard to believe it's been 25 years," said co-captain and quarterback John Shaffer, a managing director for Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York. "But it's something we're all looking forward to --getting together this weekend.
"The funny thing is, the coach is still the same guy we had. The guy who opens the gate to let you into Beaver Stadium is still the same. The guys on the sideline are the same.
"That's the beauty of Penn State. Nothing ever changes."
There will be plenty of reminiscing at the silver anniversary reunion, which starts Friday night with a reception.
Coach Jimmy Johnson's Hurricanes arrived for their "Duel in the Desert" with Penn State dressed in military-style combat fatigues.
And then defensive tackle Jerome Brown, who died in 1992, led a walkout by the Miami players later that week at a steak fry involving the two teams.
Those incidents did not sit well with the Lions players, who felt they were being disrespected.
"They absolutely tried to bully us," said linebacker Trey Bauer, who recently relocated back to State College, where he works in the securities industry. "They were bigger and faster than everyone else they played, and they bullied them around.
"And then, all of a sudden, we hit them in the mouth and they weren't a bully anymore. I still feel like we would beat them nine out of 10 times. I don't think our win was a fluke."
Miami's roster included three first-round NFL draft picks in 1987 -- Testaverde, Brown and running back Alonzo Highsmith. The Hurricanes also had wide receivers Michael Irvin and Brian Blades, fullback Melvin Bratton, defensive back Bennie Blades and punter Jeff Feagles.
Penn State had a record 13 players drafted from the 1986 team, led by first-rounders Conlan and All-American running back D.J. Dozier, who was named the Fiesta Bowl's offensive player of the game after gaining 99 yards on 20 carries and scoring the winning touchdown on a 6-yard run with 8:13 left in the fourth quarter.
Dozier's run was set up by Conlan's second interception, which he returned 43 yards.
Shaffer, who compiled a 66-1 record as a starting quarterback from seventh grade through his Penn State career, scored the Lions' other touchdown on a 4-yard run in the second quarter.
But he completed just 5 of 16 passes for 53 yards with one interception. Testaverde was 26 of 50 for 285 yards with five interceptions.
"Offensively, if no one remembers, I will just say we had a great night," Shaffer said, joking.
Miami won the lopsided statistical battle, outgaining Penn State in total yards, 445-162, and in first downs, 22-8.
"Miami had all types of ammunition compared to us," said running back Dave Clark, a police officer in Fairfax, Va. "But their big guns didn't come through for them, and ours did. That was the difference.
"We fought and scratched and clawed to win that game."
Penn State had several WPIAL players on that team.
They included starters and key contributors such as defensive end and co-captain Bob White (Freeport High School), linebackers Don Graham (Brentwood), Scott Gob (Bethel Park), and Tim Sweeney (Derry), safety Brian Chizmar (Swissvale), fullback Tim Manoa (North Allegheny), quarterback Matt Knizner (Hempfield), tailback Chris Thorpe (Fox Chapel), center Keith Radecic (Brentwood) and punter John Bruno (Upper St. Clair).
Bruno and lineman Mitch Frerotte (Kittanning) are both deceased. Frerotte redshirted in 1986 due to a stress fracture in his foot after starting the previous two years at guard for the Nittany Lions, who lost to Oklahoma, 25-10, in the Orange Bowl after the '85 season, denying them a national title.
"Looking back now and seeing how many close games we had, you realized pretty early on that it was going to be a special year," said Gob, an institutional salesman who lives in Chatham, N.J. "There wasn't a selfish player on that team."
Defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky put together a unit that season that limited nine opponents to 15 points or less. The Lions also won four games by six points or less.
"The reason we won every game that year was because of our defense," said Sweeney, who lives in State College, but co-owns Caliburn Industries, Inc., in Latrobe, along with his brothers. "We had a terrific defense."
Conlan also earned a national championship ring in 1982 while redshirting as a freshman, then went on to play in three Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills.
"I was on Penn State teams that played for three national championships in five years," said Conlan, a native of Frewsburg, N.Y. "I played in two of them. The 1986 team was special because we were such a huge underdog.
"It is one of my best memories in football. Had we won some of those Super Bowls in Buffalo, who knows how I would feel.
"I still get a fair amount of fan mail, and I'll bet half to three quarters of them are about Penn State, and about that game with Miami. People just can't quit talking about it, even though it has been 25 years."
First Published October 6, 2011 12:00 am