Orange Watch: It’s been 30 seasons since Syracuse’s 1987 undefeated Sugar Bowl journey

MacPherson

Syracuse eyeing the football national title? 30 years ago SU contended with ’17 ACC opponents Miami and Florida State for the crown

Item: Sharing part of this year’s media guide spotlight (inside back cover) is a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the 11-0-1 team led by Hall of Fame coach Dick MacPherson, whose link to the current program remains intact through his grandson Macky, in his second season as a grad assistant under Dino Baber’s sizeable staff of assistants and administrators. The university will officially celebrate that great SU squad on Sept. 9 surrounding the game against Middle Tennessee State (with former head coach Scott Shafer returning to the Dome as the MTSU defensive coordinator).

There’s only been two seasons that share the distinction in the Post World War II era of Syracuse football.

Playing for the No. 1 ranking, or with an outside shot at winning the national championship. 1959 and 1987, with the latter obviously referred to as “A Season to Remember” in the media guide, saluting the national coach of the year MacPherson, and Heisman Trophy runner-up Don McPherson.

McPherson, the consensus first team All American quarterback, was “robbed” of joining Ernie Davis as a Syracuse Heisman winner by the perception from the trophy’s voting base following one standout game by Notre Dame’s Tim Brown early (game two) in that season.

Brown returned back-to-back punts for touchdowns in a nationally-televised rout of Michigan State, and the Heisman result was practically a foregone conclusion despite McPherson’s two-point, extra-point heroics in keeping SU undefeated in its final regular season game against West Virginia.

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It was also a season that came out of nowhere. A bowl trip in 1985 was offset by a 5-6 record in 1986, but the tedious MacPherson rebuilding project finally quieted a contentious fan base that had formed the “Sack Mac Pack” in 1984, was briefly quieted by the shocker over top-ranked Nebraska that season, but remained restless for consistent success and to finally beat Penn State.

We’ve previously chronicled that the two loudest moments we’ve observed in the Dome’s history occurred in the ’87 football season. The first-play-from-scrimmage play action bomb from McPherson to freshman receiver Rob Moore to go up 7-0 on the Nittany Lions after just 10 seconds eclipsed on the clock in the eventual 48-21 route; and the aforementioned McPherson PAT pitch to Michael Owens to edge WVU 32-31 and finish the season 11-0.

Of course it takes talent to go along with coaching, and MacPherson, like Babers and staff are currently demonstrating in just two plus recruiting cycles, was able to find the perfect fit for the ‘Cuse family-oriented program blending on field talent with the school’s academic and community commitments, while pitching the university’s plans to keep upgrading the facilities and support services to match its conference (rivals) counterparts.

The ’87 team, despite the blemish from Auburn’s Pat Dye to end the Sugar Bowl in a deadlock, finished No. 4 in the rankings, had six NFL draft choices, and besides MacPherson, who had a two year stint manning the New England Patriots, also saw six of his assistants go on to coach and/or scout in the NFL.

In an upcoming season saluting that great national-title contending team from three decades back, it would be great if the current team’s slogan aptly described the pace for a time frame goal to get back to the same level as that ’87 Orange squad, “Faster.”

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Brad Bierman

About Brad Bierman

Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.
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