Let’s Remember Good Times! Sun Bowl 2008

Another great piece from The Athletic magazine. You can see the deleted videos and photos here:

It was “the worst coaching job of my career,” says Dave Wannstedt, former Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Panthers head coach.

The game was a “snore-fest” and is “an ongoing joke,” according to former Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop.

And folks in El Paso still frequently bring up the 2008 Sun Bowl game — but mostly because of the halftime show, says longtime Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas.

The 3.5 million people who tuned in to CBS on New Year’s Eve that year watched an unwished-for piece of college football history: Oregon State 3, Pitt 0, remains the lowest-scoring bowl game of the last 60 years. And the 40,000-plus spectators at the picturesque mountain-draped stadium that day got to make their own history: The Village People led them in setting the Guinness World Record for the largest “YMCA” dance.

But those were just part of the story behind a largely forgettable football game that still managed to spawn some unforgettable lore, from an all-night El Paso bar crawl to quarterback-crippling winds to a team getting penalized for wearing the wrong uniform.

“I remember the sky (on game day) was crystal blue,” says longtime Pitt sports information director E.J. Borghetti. “But as beautiful as the setting and the day was, what happened between the hashmarks was anything but.”

While not generally held with the same prestige as the six major bowls, the Sun Bowl, played most years on Dec. 31, dates back to 1935, predating every other active bowl besides the Rose. CBS began airing it annually in 1968 and generally sends its top broadcast team, which in 2008, for the 75th edition of the game, was Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson and Tracy Wolfson.

Danielson opened the broadcast by saying of Pitt and Oregon State: “I think these are two legitimate football teams that can beat anybody on any field.” With good reason. Coach Mike Riley’s Beavers, 8-4, had upset No. 1 USC on a Thursday night early in the season, ultimately costing the Trojans a shot at the national title. Wannstedt’s 9-3 Panthers, led by future All-Pro LeSean McCoy and All-American linebacker McKillop, came into the game ranked No. 18. Their first bowl season in four years had unofficially begun a year earlier, when 4-7 Pitt shocked No. 2 West Virginia in the regular-season finale, knocking the Mountaineers out of the BCS Championship Game.

But these weren’t necessarily the same squads that played the regular season. Oregon State’s star tandem of brothers, wide receiver James Rodgers and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, were both sidelined with injuries. They’d accounted for roughly half the Beavers’ total offense. Pitt, meanwhile, lost All-Big East left tackle Jason Pinkston to a shoulder injury during practice a few days before the game, which would prove disastrous.

That wasn’t the only obstacle Pitt dealt with that week. Wannstedt called off the Panthers’ first practice early, because, well, the night before …

“We went out on Cincinnati Street in downtown El Paso … a lot of alcohol was consumed,” says McKillop. “The practice was awful. I was a senior on defense, and I remember (coordinator) Phil Bennett came up to me, and I was like, ‘Yep, it was a bad night.’ He goes, ‘Well, I can smell, it sure is!’” https://www.youtube.com/embed/mAmD4UkgHsw?feature=oembed

Both teams got introduced to a staple of West Texas that would end up playing an outsized factor in the game.

“We went out to a high school to practice and the wind was blowing — and it was blowing big time,” recalls Riley.

The official game book lists the wind as being only 8 mph at kickoff, but all involved swear there were 20-30 mph gusts all afternoon, uncharacteristic for winter there. This was less than ideal for both teams, but especially Pitt, which, to the continued bewilderment of Wannstedt today, went in with a game plan to air it out.

This despite having 1,400-yard rusher McCoy in its backfield, and despite the fact quarterback Bill Stull had a brace on his wrist.

“Because of LeSean McCoy, Oregon State was loading up the box with extra defenders to stop the run,” says Wannstedt. “So common sense coaching 101 says, throw the ball. You’ve got easy throws outside.

“Well, common sense coaching 101 does not take into account 30 mph wind.”

Common sense coaching also discourages burning timeouts unnecessarily, but Riley did just that — before the game ever started. Oregon State had been designated the visiting team but was insistent on donning its home orange jerseys, even knowing it would incur a penalty for wearing “unsanctioned” jerseys. A timeout was assessed as soon as Pitt’s opening kickoff went through the end zone.

“Shame on them,” Lundquist said sarcastically.

The Beavers’ opening series was a preview of things to come. Quarterback Lyle Moevao completed a nice 18-yard pass to Sammie Stroughter. But on the very next play, McKillop stripped running back Ryan McCants, the backup trying to fill workhorse Jacquizz Rodgers’ shoes. Pitt took over in plus territory.

On the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage, Stull uncorked a throw 50 yards downfield to freshman and future first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin. It flew over his head. The next play, Stull tried to throw a short out route to receiver Derek Kinder near the sideline. The ball sailed behind him, deflected off his hand and became an interception for Oregon State cornerback and future third-round pick Keenan Lewis.

“You know what’s happening?” Danielson said on the broadcast. “Both quarterbacks, when they throw the ball wide, the wind blowing right to left blows the ball away … If you’re going to throw the ball, you need to throw the ball north-south, not east-west in this wind.”

By game’s end, Moevao had gone 21-of-42 for 193 yards and two interceptions. Stull, who’d lost his grandfather less than two weeks before the game and was dealing with multiple injuries, endured a nightmare performance: 7-of-24 for 52 yards and a pick.

It didn’t help that the left tackle protecting his blind side that day was a fifth-year senior who’d never started a game. Oregon State defensive end Victor Butler, going against him, notched four sacks and four hurries and went on to become a fourth-round draft pick.

“It was extremely, extremely frustrating,” says Stull. “The only thing that I feel like gave us hope was, we’re not really doing crap today, but hey, neither are they.”

But it was a great day to be a punter, and Oregon State had a particularly good one: future L.A. Rams four-time All-Pro Johnny Hekker. After those initial turnovers, the teams combined for seven consecutive first-half punts, with Hekker pinning Pitt inside its own 16 three times.

“I do remember Hekker was loving it,” says Riley. “He was pumped with the wind.”

With 2:18 left in the first half, Oregon State kicker Justin Kahut hit a 44-yard-field goal for the first — and it turned out, only — points of the game. The Beavers got the ball back again with 1:22 left, at which point Moevao led the best drive of the game for either team (despite only having two timeouts to use), 61 yards in 13 plays.

“We made the best out of what we could,” says Moevao. “We were able to get a few passes here or there that luckily flew in the direction I was throwing them, every now and then.”

On second-and-goal from the 9, Moevao threw high to John Reese in the end zone, who appeared to come down with it over Pitt safety Eric Thatcher. Oregon State would have taken a likely insurmountable 10-0 lead. But officials ruled that the ball came out just before Reese bit the ground.

On the next play, McKillop picked off Moevao in the end zone.

“I know that people say it was a defensive game, 3-0,” says McKillop, “but it really wasn’t a defensive game.”

Before heading to the halftime locker room, Wannstedt, acknowledging the wind, told Wolfson: “We’re going to come out in the second half, and we’re going to run the ball. But we’ve got to make some plays in the passing game because those guys (Oregon State) are going to score some points.”

The Sun Bowl, which relies heavily on the local community to fill the stands, has a history of landing notable halftime acts — Los Lonely Boys, Lee Greenwood, pre-superstardom Rihanna. It wanted something special for the 75th anniversary game.

Olivas, the Sun Bowl’s executive director since 2001, is an El Paso native, but he’s also a big New York Yankees fan. In the summer of 2008, he attended a game at Yankee Stadium and took in the club’s tradition where, during the seventh-inning stretch, the stadium PA plays “YMCA.” Whenever the chorus comes on, the grounds crew puts down its rakes and performs along with the crowd. Inspiration struck.

Most halftime shows get forgotten about as soon as the second half begins. In this case, the game went down as an afterthought to the halftime show.

“Of course, I remember The Village People,” says Borghetti. “I remember watching and thinking to myself, how many of these guys were actually members of the original group? But I wouldn’t let that take away from the novelty of watching that performance.”

CBS’s Wolfson, contacted for her recollections of the 2008 Sun Bowl, responded, “Honestly, I think the only thing I remember is the Village People halftime show!”

“Every time I ask my fans if they went to that game, they say that was the most fun I’ve ever had at the bowl game — and it was a 3-0 bowl game,” says Olivas. “But they all remember the halftime show.”

According to a 2009 KVIA-TV report, bowl organizers had to submit “hundreds of photos shot of each section of the Sun Bowl, as well as video footage from 12 cameras” to the Guinness Records folks. It took more than 13 months before they officially decreed that the Sun Bowl Association held the new “YMCA” record: 40,148 people danced for five minutes and 34 seconds, shattering the previous record of 13,588. https://www.youtube.com/embed/8-iLwQjaFxw?feature=oembed

“The entire stadium — police officers, ushers — they were all doing the YMCA,” says Olivas. “Nobody left for the concession stands until after halftime.”

It might have been best for their sake had they not returned to their seats.

After combining for eight punts in the first half, the teams traded 12 in the second. As the third quarter wound down, an increasingly incredulous Danielson noted that both teams’ conferences, the Big East and Pac-10, were 3-0 in bowls to that point. “Maybe they want to tell those guys out there (on the field),” he joked.

Wannstedt made good on his word to try to run the ball more, but McCoy ultimately carried 24 times for a modest 85 yards. Oregon State coordinator Mark Banker’s defense, from which six starters were eventually picked in an NFL draft, did not allow a gain longer than 12 yards from McCoy all day.

“I really thought that at some point — because it happened every single game at some point — Shady is gonna break one,” says Stull. “I think we were all just banking on, ‘Hey, at some point Shady is going to get in. Let’s just keep doing our job.’ I was going to keep trying to spin it as best I could, but it was just obvious that it wasn’t working.”

Wannstedt finally and mercifully pulled Stull in the fourth quarter, a few series after he re-aggravated his wrist. Sophomore Pat Bostick entered with 4:38 remaining but didn’t have to do much initially as Pitt ran four straight wildcat plays with McCoy. In hindsight, Wannstedt wishes he’d done so sooner.

“I wasted no time during the course of the year going to the wildcat and saying, ‘That’s it, we’re done throwing. LeSean McCoy is going to get the ball the rest of the game,’” he said. “I mean, that was my thought process more times than not, and this is the one game that I should have done it early and I just didn’t. I should have given him the ball 45 times.”

But Oregon State again did a great job containing McCoy, and eventually Pitt faced a fourth-and-7 from the Beavers’ 41-yard-line with 2:08 left. Wannstedt had such little confidence in his offense, he sent out Conor Lee for a 58-yard field goal attempt. Even with modest wind, the kick sailed more than 60 yards — but too far to the right.

That was the last scoring opportunity Pitt would get.

Thus concluded the lowest-scoring bowl game since Air Force and TCU played to a 0-0 tie in the 1959 Cotton Bowl.

Oregon State covered the 2.5-point spread.

Oregon State, 9-4, finished No. 18 in the AP poll — the highest final ranking of Riley’s 14 seasons with the Beavers.

“I was just happy to win,” says Riley, “but for all of us, it was a really surprising score.”

Pitt still achieved the school’s first nine-win regular season since 1982, but the loss dropped the Panthers out of the final Top 25. But more gallingly, the Panthers somehow got shut out despite boasting six players on offense who went on to get drafted in the NFL, most notably six-time Pro Bowler McCoy.

“It’s still an ongoing joke, the fact that we lost 3-0 — amongst fans, amongst family members, even teammates,” says McKillop. “The only lower-scoring game could be a 2-0 safety game, which, I won’t say is never going to happen, but I highly doubt it.”

Stull, who would spend the next month getting injury treatments, took his role in the result particularly hard. “I personally was not in the best of mindsets. There were a lot of big-name people within the program who gave me a call to just check on me and make sure I was not down in the dumps for too long.”

But he’d ultimately have a happy ending. Despite losing McCoy and McKillop to the NFL, Pitt won 10 games the next season, capped off with a win over North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte. Star running back Dion Lewis earned MVP honors, but Stull, that season’s All-Big East quarterback, got to hoist the trophy.

“I was extremely, extremely happy, to say the least, that we were able to change that narrative of the ending of last season,” he says. “Being able to, not erase, but really put (the Sun Bowl) in the backburner parts of peoples’ minds and think of Pitt and us as winners — that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Wannstedt was unexpectedly dismissed as Pitt’s coach a year after that, when the Panthers finished the 2010 season 7-5. After three seasons as an NFL assistant, he left coaching and joined Fox Sports as a TV analyst. His college football travels often take him to events like the Fiesta Bowl Spring Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz., or conference media days, which many bowl executives also attend.

“We always see each other,” says Olivas, “and I always ask him: Why didn’t you run the ball?”