As Rice prepares to travel to Australia to open the 2017 season against Stanford, we thought we might look back at the last time and only time a Texas school went Down Under to play a game - the 1985 UTEP Miners and their trip to Melbourne to play Wyoming.
If everything had gone according to plan, the 1985 Australia Bowl would have looked much different. The economy in the Land Down Under wouldn't have tanked, and more local fans, intrigued by American football would have filled the stadium. History tells us that just over 19,000 fans showed up to the 100,000 seat VFL Park to see the first American football game in Australia. Had the two participant schools known what was happening behind the scenes, they would have stayed home.
Playing Out the String
UTEP and Wyoming weren't world beaters by any stretch. The Miners won exactly one game in 1985. It was a doozy, however, as the Miners bumped off No. 7 BYU in what became known as the "Miner Miracle." Miner fans celebrated the BYU win as one of the great upsets in college football.
Wyoming wasn't much better, and entered the game at 2-8, with wins over Cal State Fullerton and San Diego State. By the time the Australia Bowl rolled around on December 7, 1985, Wyoming and UTEP fired both head coaches, in a diabolical act of torture, both were forced to chaperone their teams in the last game - halfway around the world.
Wyoming's Al Kincaid seemed to have a pretty good hold on things before 1985. His Cowboys were on the uptick. He'd signed a contract extension before the '85 season. He led the Pokes to two winning seasons and another 6-6 season in his tenure, Wyoming's most successful era in a decade. Kincaid was a stickler for order and discipline, suspending nine players before a game vs. San Diego State after they were late for the team bus...to a movie. Two days later, after the Cowboys fell to 2-8, the Wyoming administration told Kincaid he wasn't going to coach the team in 1986.
By the way, Kincaid's salary in 1985? $58,548. Nick Saban made that reading this sentence, assuming Nick reads our site. If so we'd love a sit-down interview, Nick. We want to do a deep dive on Kent State. Call us.
A week after Wyoming gave Kincaid his walking papers, UTEP coach Bill Yung received the bad news that he was done with the Miners. The caveat, of course, was that Yung would finish out the season. Young was 7-38 at the time the administration decided to move on. He was in the fourth year of a five year deal that paid him a base salary of $50,000.
When Yung came to UTEP, he estimated that the Miners had just 30 scholarship players, no training table, and no weight room. The Miners hadn't won more than two games in a season since 1974. In his estimation, he would need every one of his five seasons to get the Miners to a competitive level. He wouldn't get that chance.
The Land Down Under
Frontline Communications, the promoter of the "Australia Bowl," wanted to bring the first American football game to Australia. When the idea was hatched to ship two American teams to Melbourne, the matchup was Hawaii and San Diego State. Organizers rented out the 100,000 seat VFL Park, an Australian Rules Football ground, and each team was guaranteed a $15,000 payout.
One problem arose early on; the NCAA ruled that the Aztecs couldn't make the trip to Melbourne as they would have been locked into a 12th game which at the time wasn't allowed under NCAA rules unless the game was played in Hawaii, Alaska, or Puerto Rico. Frontline scrambled and found UTEP ready and willing to make the trip. It was the first of many zigs and zags the schools and promoters were forced to navigate to bring the game to Australia.
On May 30th, Frontline announced that the deal was all but done for a December 7th game between the Miners and Hawaii. But then, a week later, the Rainbow Warriors were out. Hawaii Athletic Director Stan Sheriff determined a late TV date with BYU on December 7th, televised on ESPN, more lucrative than the unknown of the Australia trip.
After two teams canceled, promoters turned to another WAC member, Wyoming. Four days after Hawaii bailed for the evil four letter, Wyoming signed on to make the trip, if they'd only known what lay ahead. The Australian Government even agreed to help foot the bill to bring the first American football game Australia.
Yung and Kincaid flew to Sydney in June to promote the "match" to the leering, local press. Promoters were hitting more snags. Organizers originally wanted to have the game broadcast back home in the States and were seeking a local carrier to do so. That endeavor proved challenging. In July, Frontline execs made stops in Laramie and El Paso to drum up support and find someone to put the damn thing on TV. Part of the problem was the start time in Australia meant the game would kick off at 1 a.m. in the States. The game found a home thanks to ESPN and tape delay.
Still, the Aussies were bullish on ticket sales, estimating in late July that ticket sales hit 50,000. In August that number grew to 80,000 and organizers expected a sellout. It was enough to inspire the Miners and Cowboys to get excited about playing in front of nearly 100,000 fans in beautiful Melbourne. Local travel agents were selling Australia packages with the game as part of the outback adventure. Everything was looking up. Little did anyone know that they'd been sold a tall tale.
Behind the scenes, things were falling apart as organizers struggled to pull things together. The game almost didn't happen at all. Two months before kick off, promoters thought the financial entanglements would prove too much and pondered canceling the game. ESPN agreed to carry the game, but overruns had torpedoed the budget. A sagging Australian dollar didn't help either.
Game organizers were surprised to find that the large humans that played football eat more than normal sized humans. The per diem for athletes was more than doubled to account for caloric needs of the players, just another budget bomb.
As late as the Friday before kick-off the game was in doubt as vendors went unpaid and contracts hadn't been honored. Promoter Barry Shawyer wasn't available to run down last minute details as he was hospitalized due to exhaustion the week of the game. The schools were not among the scores of vendors and workers who weren't paid; each received their $28,000 to $40,000 payout before arriving. (The numbers are listed differently in different newspapers, but regardless the schools were among the lucky ones who got paid.)
By the time the 2-8 Cowboys and 1-9 Miners had slogged through their respective seasons, interest in Australia had wained, if it ever actually existed. Promoters now had downplayed their hopes of six-figure attendance and settled on a more realistic number of 25,000 paying fans. UTEP and Wyoming were in full fledged buyers remorse, having seen their seasons go down the tubes, now a 22,000 mile trip to Australia with two lame ducks coaches awaited. Some of the promises made by the organizers were falling by the wayside as well and even up to a few days before kick off the game was in peril.
On December 2nd, Wyoming hired a new coach, a hotshot from Idaho named Dennis Erickson. He began putting together his staff and recruiting even as his new team was half a world away.
UTEP for its part was just happy to have made it to Australia. The Miners flight was delayed some eight hours in New Zealand due to mechanical issues pushed their arrival time of 1:30 p.m. to just before 9:30 that evening. Once in town, the "Texas Miners," as the local press labeled them, had little time to catch up their rest with the game just two days away.
Organizers "Americanized" the game to the point of a sideshow with Disney characters, homegrown cheerleaders, fireworks and even a couple of Playboy bunnies in the back of a Nissan truck driving around the field. Such was the scene that greeted the 19,107 paying customers. Don McClean performed at the game, but even his contract wasn't honored. The USC Trojan Marching Band was scheduled to appear for some reason but didn't make the trip due to money issues. Most of the people working the game from concessions to ticket takers, even security, were given IOUs and most never compensated.
As for the game, the Miners drew first blood on a three yard run by John Harvey and UTEP seized momentum, even threatening to expand its advantage, but two missed field goals kept the lead to seven. Wyoming drove 80 yards in 10 plays just before the half to level the score. In the second half, the Miners seemed to take over, scoring on a 96-yard kickoff return by Luther Jackson. Just three minutes later Randy Forest scored from nineteen yards out to give UTEP a 21-7 lead.
Wyoming, however, rallied with two touchdowns to end the 3rd and to cut the lead to 21-20.
The Cowboys kicked the go ahead and winning field goal with just over five minutes gone in the fourth for a 23-21 lead. Wyoming kicker Andy Cottingham did the damage. From there Wyoming played keep away and held the lead to ensure their 3rd win of the season and send the Miners to their 10th loss.
After the game, the teams endured one more hardship thanks to budgeting issues, an eleven-hour bus ride from Melbourne to Sidney to catch a flight back to the States. Turns out there wasn't money left over to fly the teams to Sidney for their return flight. Organizers even canceled scheduled coaching clinics and camps hosted by both teams in the days after the game as a cost cutting measure.
Eleven hours on a bus was the straw that broke the camels back for UTEP officials, President Haskel Monroe declared, "It's embarrassing to find people you trusted couldn't be trusted." UTEP had to eat thousands of dollar in expenses that were promised to be covered by the promoters. Most of that came out of the $50,000 in savings that the University was obligated to pay Wyoming had the Cowboys traveled to El Paso as previously scheduled.
Frontline was bankrupted because of the game, later admitting that it had planned an event much grander than the company was capable of executing. At least it looked good on paper.
Two years later a second game was staged in Australia with BYU and Colorado State tangling in the re-named "Melbourne Bowl." Less than 8,000 fans turned out, and BYU suffered a number of injuries that destroyed any chance the Cougars had of winning their real bowl game against Virginia just two weeks later.
All that made UTEP and Wyoming's appearance in Australia seem like a success by comparison.