Eighty-two years later, I think we may conclude that the brainstorm of Miami civic leaders in the 1930s has succeeded. The idea of a season-ending college football game as a reward-destination for two teams and their fans was conceived, during the depth of the Great Depression, as a desperate gimmick to attract tourists and their money.
Fast-forward to late 2015 as the Clemson Tigers and Oklahoma Sooners rolled into town for their College Football Playoff semifinal hosted by the Orange Bowl game. Listen to the two coaches and hear just the kind of free advertising this game’s founders imagined eight decades earlier.
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“It’s beautiful, and there’s sunshine,” Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops said, smiling.
“It’s always good,” Clemson’s Dabo Swinney added, “when you get to your bowl game and see palm trees.”
Both teams had a “beach day” this week, photos and videos of players cavorting in the ocean beamed nationally like postcard valentines from Miami to America.
To No. 1-ranked Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma, Thursday’s New Year’s Eve meeting at Dolphins stadium is everything — what they hope is a next-to-last step to a national championship.
To the host city, though, this is first simply the 82nd Orange Bowl, just the latest edition of a cherished local institution that has weathered all change to endure as South Florida’s greatest constant, in or out of sports.
The first two editions played after the 1934-35 seasons (with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House) were held at old Miami Stadium, while the namesake Orange Bowl (originally named Burdine Stadium) was being built for the whopping sum of $340,000.
In those days a fan drove to the game in a Studebaker he bought new for $625 and filled for 10 cents a gallon. Car radios were a novelty, but if he had one, chances are Cole Porter was singing.
Along the way, John F. Kennedy attended an Orange Bowl. Bear Bryant won one. Joe Namath was MVP. No time line or history of college football may be written without the annual bowl in Miami being a featured part of it.
The game was moved from the graying Orange Bowl in 1997 and permanently in 2000, a local scandal then, but the tradition continued uninterrupted just to the north in its new NFL digs. The OB stadium itself, turned decrepit, was razed to rubble in 2008, but the bowl game chugged on.
What the game calls itself has changed. They dropped the word “Classic.” They added various corporate sponsors such as FedEx, Discover and Capital One. But the surname never changes.
It’s the Orange Bowl. Always.
It is a Miami treasure, and one whose constancy is all the more appreciated now, with recent headlines calling into question other local sports institutions.
Doral has hosted a major PGA Tour golf event every year, uninterrupted, since 1962. But that tradition is soon ending, perhaps after this coming tournament, with the recent announcement that the PGA Tour will seek a different home in part because of controversial Donald Trump owning the Doral resort and course.
Key Biscayne has hosted the pro tennis tournament often called the sport’s “fifth major” every year since 1987, but the future of that too might be in jeopardy as tournament owners and Miami-Dade wrangle in court over the event’s desire to expand the facility.
Golf and tennis might leave, but the Orange Bowl won’t.
If anything, the OB’s footprint is bigger and deeper than ever with the birth of the four-team College Football Playoff, now in its second season after years of outcry from fans calling for a playoff. The CFP has proved a huge success, with few complaints other than from fans of whatever team is ranked No. 5 every year and just misses.
And Miami and the Orange Bowl are fortunate to be in the regular rotation to host CFP semifinals or championships. The OB is assured to at least host a semifinal every third season. Our next after this week will follow the 2018 season.
That in turn assures that Miami’s rich tradition on football’s biggest stage will continue indefinitely — a tradition worth savoring as we begin a new year.
A visiting writer asked if I thought Thursday’s CFP semifinal was the biggest football game ever played in Miami.
To be polite, I did not laugh.
Instead I paused, pretending the question deserved consideration, and thought how the annual Orange Bowl game has been where 20 national champions have been crowned, as recently as Alabama three years ago. And how Miami (oh by the way) also has hosted 10 Super Bowls, the most recent one six years ago.
“Ever? No,” was how I finally answered. “Recently, I guess, maybe ...”
Clemson-Oklahoma fits in our pantheon, in any case.
This will be the 16th time the Orange Bowl has hosted the No. 1-ranked team — and the 20th time if you include the four times Miami hosted a BCS title game independent of that season’s OB.
The top-ranked Tigers are 13-0 yet a four-point underdog to the surging, one-loss Sooners, with the winner meeting the Alabama-Michigan State semifinal winner for the national title on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona.
Watching top-tier football has, alas, become a sweet memory for Miami fans.
The 5-10 Dolphins are wrapping up a desultory season in which just about everybody but the mascot got fired.
On the college side, the Hurricanes showed how far they are from being back on top by losing this season at home to these very Clemson Tigers 58-0. Coach Al Golden was fired the next day.
Clemson has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson, who threw 30 touchdown passes and was third in Heisman Trophy voting. But Oklahoma might have an even better QB in Baker Mayfield. He threw 35 TDs.
Did I mention that both sides have great pass defenses?
I’m not sure which team here will move on to the championship game.
Either way, when it comes to the Orange Bowl, Miami always wins.