PORT ARTHUR — Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was first published in the Port Arthur News on Feb. 6, 2008.
As Tom Brady’s final, desperation pass fell incomplete Sunday, sealing New England’s fate in Super Bowl XLII, more than a fourth championship ring eluded the grasp of Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick.
Down the drain for Belichick, with most everybody outside the Northeastern quadrant cheering his misfortune, was a chance to tower above every other coach in NFL history. Only Miami’s Don Shula had ever orchestrated an unbeaten NFL season. But conventional wisdom had already declared a 19-0 New England in 2007 superior to the 17-0 Dolphins of 1972.
Then, 35 seconds from immortality of sorts, Eli Manning and the New York Giants pulled the plug.
For the sour, dour Belichick, the upcoming days, weeks and months promise to be painful. Eventually, his thoughts will turn to next season, to the next game, to the next push toward a Super Bowl. But the memory of what happened Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Arizona will never be far away.
Two football coaches with Port Arthur backgrounds can relate to the feeling of emptiness. Both, on different levels, were oh-so-close to pulling off something really special, to having their teams tagged with a “best ever” label at the end of dominant unbeaten seasons. Both still carry the burden of having their date with destinty snatched away at the last moment.
“That loss will haunt him forever,” said Jimmy Johnson, who went through a Belichick-type downer as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.
Johnson’s Hurricanes were 11-0 and loaded with future NFL players. With Vinny Testaverde heading a quick-strike offense, and boasting a defense with speed the likes of which had never been seen in college football, the No. 1 ranked ‘Canes took no prisoners. They were heavy favorites against Joe Paterno and Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
But the coronation never happened. Testaverde banged himself up in a motorcyle accident a few weeks before the game. He wound up throwing five interceptions, including a late one that snuffed out Miami’s last chance. Penn State prevailed 14-10.
Miami, with a less-talented team, would rebound to go unbeaten and defeat Oklahoma for the national chamionship the next season, but the loss to Penn State lingered for Johnson. He knew what had been lost. Despite the national championship and two Super Bowl rings, the Fiesta Bowl downer still eats at him.
JJ, who considers Belichick a fishing buddy, was asked in an e-mail if he had Fiesta Bowl flashbacks while watching New England come up short. At first, he ducked the question. His only response was the above quote about the loss haunting Belichick forever.
So a second e-mail was sent. “Does the Fiesta Bowl still haunt you?” His response was one word.
Then there’s Memorial football coach Ronnie Thompson. Back in 1980, Thompson’s Thomas Jefferson Yellow Jackets were changing the face of Texas high school football, behind the passing of Todd Dodge. In a state where nearly every coach ran the veer, the wishbone, or the wing T, Thompson’s Yellow Jackets unleashed a sophisticated passing game.
After a couple of close calls early in the season, including a 14-13 escape at Port Neches-Groves, TJ’s star-wars attack began lighting up scoreboards. The Jackets closed the regular season by winning 33-7, 44-7, 37-6, 55-6 and 49-7.
Except for a 29-24 decision over La Marque in the second round of the playoffs, the blowouts continued. Aldine fell 49-6. Spring Branch Stratford went down 34-0. In the 5A semifinals, San Antonio Holmes was routed 34-7.
Lance Van Zandt, who was then defensive coordinator at Nebraska, left one of the playoff games shaking his head.
“I’m not sure how you stop them,” he said. “They are doing things we don’t see in college.”
TJ, at 14-0, had outscored its opponents 494-131, or an average of 35.3 to 9.4. The Yellow Jackets were on the verge of being annointed one of Texas’ all-time great teams. Then, in a state championship game played in freezing conditions, it all unraveled as a 19-7 halftime lead became a 28-19 loss to Odessa Permian.
Thompson admits to a flashback while watching the Super Bowl.
“It’s still there,” he said, seemingly no more eager than Johnson to revisit the big one that got away. “I know the look on Belichick’s face after the game. We spend the rest of our lives finding out why everything happens for a reason.”
Without drawing any parallels, Thompson said he thought the pressues that go into an undefeated season helped bring down the Patriots.
“Sometimes you can put too much weight on the bar when it shouldn’t really be that heavy,” he said. “I’d go with New England, if they played again. A number of things had to happen for the Giants to win and each and every one of them did.”
He could just as easily have been talking about that TJ-Permian game 27 years ago, or the Miami-Penn State game seven years later. In the Giants’ case, even after the defense battered Tom Brady throughout the game, it still took a miracle throw and catch in the final minute for finish off the Patriots.
It’s a play that Belichick will never put be able to put out of his mind. Just like Johnson will never forget Testaverde’s costly interceptions. And like Thomson can still see a dropped TD pass and missed third quarter field goal that would have put Permian away.
Three great coaches. Three missed dates with history. Three reasons why you play the games.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.