DALLAS – Known for 25 years as "SMU's last bowl game," the 1984 Aloha Bowl will forever lose that moniker on Christmas Eve when the Mustangs take the field in Honolulu against Nevada in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl.
And players from the SMU squad that defeated Notre Dame, 27-20, on December 29, 1984, couldn't be happier.
"I'm excited for the school and the alums and everyone who has supported the school during all of the down time," said All-Southwest Conference nose tackle Jerry Ball, by phone from Sugar Land, Tex.
"Now that [coach June Jones] has gotten the team going in that direction it's going to help with recruiting, it's going to help with the student body, and it's going to help the institution as a whole. … We've got us a football team that's competitive. And that's big."
Former SMU defensive end Cornelius Dozier, by phone from Atlanta, Ga., called it "awesome." "I'm excited for them," he said. "When June Jones came on board I figured that was what was going to happen. He was going to take them to another level."
Bobby Watters, a freshman in '84, playing behind All-SWC quarterback Don King, said he was "thrilled" SMU was back. "After the last 25 years, being an incredibly loyal supporter and attending almost every game," Watters said from Rockwall, Tex., "it's just been so frustrating and disheartening witnessing the struggles of the program."
But before the '84 Aloha Bowl fades back another chapter into SMU history, this dramatic Mustang victory is worth another look.
Those 9-2 '84 Mustangs, SWC Co-Champions with Houston, met 7-4 Notre Dame in the third annual Aloha Bowl before 41,777 fans. It was SMU's first meeting with the Irish in 26 years, after having faced them eight times from 1949-58.
The Mustangs were making their third straight bowl appearance and had won or shared the SWC title three of the last four years.
Coach Bobby Collins, in the third year of an eventual five seasons at SMU, would finish his tenure with a record of 43-14-1, still the highest winning percentage (.750) in school history. Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust, in his fourth season with the Irish, would resign a year later with a 30-26-1 mark.
Notre Dame boasted quarterback Steve Beuerlein, tailback Allen Pinkett, tight end Mark Bavaro, linebacker Mike Golic and future Heisman Trophy winning receiver Tim Brown.
"I had heard so much about Notre Dame and it was a great experience just to play them," said Dozier, who played against Brown when both attended high school in Dallas.
Jeff Atkins and All-SWC back Reggie Dupard, sore ankle and all, combined for 215 yards rushing that day and King passed for 153 yards and a touchdown with no picks.
Atkins and Ball, both sophomores, were named Aloha Bowl Co-MVPs.
"I remember the one thing that we wanted to make sure we established was that we would be able to play with any team that they put in front of us," Ball said.
"We put the ass-whuppin' on them, to tell you the truth," he said. "Physically, I don't think that it reflected on the [scoreboard.] It went back and forth a couple of quarters but by the end of it, we could see we had broken their spirit, I guess is the best way to say it."
"And I'm not trying to be arrogant, but there's a point when you're fighting someone and you see this person has no quit, but you keep taking them to task and eventually you just see that one last look in their eye where they say, ‘Man, here's this guy again.'"
‘Miracle Man' Memories
The '84 Aloha Bowl was receiver Bobby "Miracle Man" Leach's last game at SMU. His ‘82 heroics against Texas Tech and Texas, and big catch in SMU's '83 Cotton Bowl win over Pittsburgh, will live forever in Mustang lore.
Now a senior vice president with RBC Wealth Management in Plano, Leach sat down last week in his office to discuss Mustang football, past and present.
"It's just unbelievable," Leach said of SMU's rebirth. "I am so pleased. I've been keeping my excitement tempered this whole season because I've gotten my hopes up before."
"But what a turnaround."
As for the ‘84 Aloha Bowl, Leach had these memories: "[Notre Dame] had the hardest little running man I've ever been on the field with - and that was Allen Pinkett. That man was not very big and I mean he was delivering the blows at the end of the play." (The 5-9, 183-pound Pinkett led all rushers that day with 136 yards.)
"And Notre Dame's uniforms were about as raggedy as I'd ever scene," Leach said. "I was shocked by that. I thought Notre Dame would have brand new stuff, kind of like we did, every week. But it was stitched up with shoe laces. Maybe they lost their jerseys, I don't know."
"They were some big boys. Their linemen were pretty big and pretty stout. But across the board, … we just had a little too much speed for Notre Dame."
"I don't think we had much respect for them." Leach said, adding SMU was disappointed to not be playing in the Cotton Bowl.
SMU's attitude, he said, was, "Notre Dame's going to come in here and we're going to show you what speed is. Kind of like with Pittsburgh. We didn't think much about losing to anybody. And I'm convinced that had we been on a dry track against Pittsburgh, that Eric [Dickerson] would still be running."
Indeed, SMU jumped out early on Notre Dame, 14-0, on an Atkins seven-yard run and King's 12-yard pass to Cobby Morrison - both capping long, time-consuming drives.
But it didn't last.
"Most of the time [that season]," King said by phone from Waxahachie, Tex., "we would get behind real early and have to come back. This particular time we jumped out and probably got a little lax. Notre Dame, … they didn't lay down."
The Irish responded with a Beuerlein 17-yard touchdown pass to Pinkett with 8:26 left in the first half, then John Carney's 51-yard field goal.
Brandy Brownlee replied with a 47-yard field goal seven seconds before halftime to push SMU's lead back to seven, 17-10.
Notre Dame's Mark Brooks tied the game with an 11-yard run late in the third quarter, before Brownlee's 30-yard kick gave the Mustangs the lead for good, 20-17, after another marathon drive.
Dupard seemed to ice the game for SMU with an 11-yard touchdown run with 6:13 left, but another Carney field goal three minutes later cut the Mustangs' lead to 27-20. The Irish then stopped Dupard on third-and-four at SMU's 26 and, after a punt, started a last-ditch drive from their on own 23 with 2:42 remaining.
Notre Dame drove to SMU's 16 before three straight incompletions in the end zone ended Irish fans' hopes. Safety Tim Green batted away Beuerlein's third-down throw to Brown and on fourth down, with 23 seconds left, Beuerlein overthrew Milt Jackson.
Faust said afterward that had they scored they were going for two.
SMU tallied 379 yards of total offense to Notre Dame's 362 that day, and the Mustangs out-rushed the Irish, 226-218.
There were no turnovers by either team, though SMU fumbled four times. Watters, who got in the game for a couple of plays, was pleased none were his. "Don went out when we were on the goal line and I got to go in and hand the ball off to Reggie Dupard," Watters said. "We didn't score, but I didn't fumble. That's all I was worried about."
SMU finished No. 8 in the polls.
"When we got over to Hawaii, of course, there were a lot of distractions with all the things that go on with a bowl," Ball said. "We tried to, as a team, focus in on the things that we came to do, but also have fun and take care of each other."
Said Watters, "Several of us went with a group over to the North Shore and did some scuba diving, which was really cool. Then there were about thirty to forty of us football players on mopeds - like a moped gang - going all over the island on those things."
"We went to Dole Pineapple and Pearl Harbor," King said. "I don't think we quite made it up to Diamond Head, but we went to quite a few places there in town. It was just a tremendous experience."
Dozier recalled the luaus, the shopping and the beaches and said he's been back several times.
Leach, an "elder statesman" receiver at the time, said it wasn't easy keeping up with younger guys like Rod Jones and Marquis Pleasant. "Keeping up with them anywhere was always a problem," he said.
King said he was "very excited" for this year's Mustangs and offered this advice: "Don't get caught up with the limelight of being in Hawaii. Stay focused, the way you have been the whole year."
Dozier said he'd tell the team to have fun and enjoy themselves. "Take it seriously, though," he said. "You want to win the game."