Orange Watch: Remembering the Syracuse football game in Tokyo, Japan

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Former Syracuse football head coach Dick MacPherson watches from the sidelines. Photo Credit: John Zych, The Juice Online.

Item: In the late 1970s and through the 1980s there was an annual NCAA college football game played in Tokyo, eventually named the Coca-Cola Classic. The first games were played at Korakuen Stadium (Mirage Bowl), then its replacement the Tokyo Dome. Nicknamed “The Big Egg” the Tokyo Dome, completed six years after the one on the SU campus, was also air-supported. Following its best seasons under Dick MacPherson with double-digit victories in 1987 and ’88, the ‘Cuse was a hot program in the eyes of the ‘Classic committee, and invited to Japan to face Louisville on December 4, 1989, the final game of that regular season.

His name is Wendal Lowrey. But don’t go looking for his moniker listed under the letter “L” in the Lettermen section of the Syracuse football media guide, because it is not there.

The redshirt freshman played in one game in a Syracuse uniform, but Lowrey rescued his Orangemen teammates when they needed it the most, at one of the most exotic, neutral locations one could imagine for SU football; being halfway around the world in Japan.

The Saturday night of the game was a Syracuse sports doubleheader. The basketball team defeated Temple 73-56 in the Carrier Classic title game at the Dome with a 6:00 tipoff, while the football team’s kickoff with Louisville was set for 10:00 p.m. EST, 10:00 a.m. JST Sunday in Tokyo.

After handling radio network game analyst duties with current voice of the NFL Cincinnati Bengals, Dan Hoard, the two of us headed back downtown to WSYR Radio to begin the football network broadcast pregame show. Shortly before kickoff a phone rang in the newsroom.

The station’s news and sports staff called it the “Bat Phone.” The published phone line number would not only ring, but in case someone was in the sound-proof studio, a yellow light would flash and illuminate the newsroom, and in honor of the special phone that lit up when it rang on the TV series “Batman” in the 1960s.

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We answered and on the other end calling long distance from Atlanta was Robert Dale Morgan, the executive director of the Peach Bowl.

At 6-4, Syracuse was looking to beat 6-4 Louisville, coached by Howard Schellenberger, to secure the dangled Peach Bowl bid from Morgan to face in-state Georgia in that year’s game.

There was no live television broadcast of the game, only radio, so after Morgan identified himself and we chit-chatted a few minutes, he politely asked us to place the phone down next to the newsroom speaker.

Instead of having to call in every 15 minutes, Morgan wanted to stay within ear-shot to the feed of the broadcast featuring Doug Logan’s and Jim Ridlon’s game call to keep live track of the score.

For the next almost three hours, we could practically hear Morgan pacing around his home like an expectant father even through the phone call (which was probably approximately a $35-50 call in long distance fees in those days), as the game went back and forth early into the fourth quarter, Morgan worried the Orange would be upset victims.

That’s where Lowrey unexpectedly came into the story after replacing injured game starter Mark McDonald in the first half, and pressed into duty with season starter Bill Scharr already hurt. Over the final 13 minutes Lowrey threw 69 and 74-yard scoring strikes to Rob Carpenter, and the ‘Cuse defense was stellar late to preserve a 24-13 victory.

Lowrey would finish 4-for-4 passing for 168 yards in his only Syracuse action, transferring in the offseason to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College then finally Northeast Louisiana.

As for Morgan, happily talking into the phone to us afterwards during a commercial break knowing that Syracuse was headed to Atlanta 7-4, and appreciative of the favor being connected to the live radio broadcast before hanging up,

“Your first drink in Atlanta during bowl week is on me,” he proclaimed.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth 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.