Even before the 2016 University of Miami football team began spring practice inMarch, the university’s most avid off-campus retiree cheering section was readying for a new season.
Longtime fan Gary Sisler, 81, decided it was just the right time to screen a history of the Orange Bowl for a fervent group of UM fans, many who once lived in South Miami and Coral Gables and now root for their beloved team at the East Ridge retirement community in Cutler Bay.
Their Mar. 9 get-together in the new Three Palms assisted living residence also was an appropriate welcome for a new member, James Covell, 91, who spent more than 40 years spotting and announcing for the Hurricanes over stadium loudspeakers.
Propped in front of more than a dozen retiree fans — both female and male — was Sisler’s proudest possession: a 1983 UM football helmet, signed by each member of the Hurricanes’ first national championship team.
“A Christmas gift from my son, a Gator fan,” Sisler said. “Here’s Bernie Kosar, Mel Bratton, Jerome Brown.”
The 1983 title won on the Canes’ home field was the high point of more than a half-century of Orange Bowl and UM history, as well as the companion New Year’s Orange Bowl Parade and Festival, Miami’s national signature event of the past century.
Watched with rapt attention by the East Ridge fans, an hour-long “History of the Orange Bowl” film furnished by Sisler traced stadium origins, including its predecessor “Burdine” Stadium, named for Miami pioneer and department store owner Roddy Burdine who helped lead a community effort to build an athletic field seating 3,000 on city-owned property along NW Seventh Street in the early 1930s.
Through 1937, adding more grandstands while carrying the Burdine name, the stadium eventually grew to a 23,000-seat capacity.
Meanwhile at Moore Park in northwest Miami, UM’s team began hosting the inaugural Palm Festival game in 1932 until it was renamed as the “Orange Bowl Game” and played at the Burdine field in 1934, the Canes losing to Bucknell, 26-0.
It wasn’t until 1959 that Burdine Stadium officially was renamed the Orange Bowl as host for the post-season college football game, played from 1938 through 1996 before its move to a new “Joe Robbie Stadium,” now known as “Sun Life Stadium.”
“So many memories crop up about the Orange Bowl. Remember the year of Super Bowl X (1976) when they shot the film, Black Sunday, and a blimp carried a bomb over the crowd? I was there, wondering what would happen,” Sisler said.
From his perch in the stadium press box, Covell recalled a sellout Bruce Springsteen concert, President Kennedy’s address honoring the Cuban freedom fighters, Miami Gato soccer games, impresario Earnie Seiler’s OB halftime shows and “Flipper” leaping from his tank behind the east goalposts to celebrate Dolphin touchdowns.
A Miami Marlins minor league baseball team played games in the Orange Bowl from 1956 to 1960, more than a half-century before wrecking balls cleared the way for a retractable roof Marlins Park Major League Baseball stadium
“I can remember how the whole place shook when the Canes took the field coming out under the canopy from the west end zone in a cloud of steam,” Sisler recalled, after ex-Dolphin Joe Rose referred to the “thunder of pounding seats amping us for every game we played there.”
From the 1950s on, Covell described his post in the OB press box, watching those events and Hurricane games as a volunteer fan, spotting player numbers for early ’40s to ’50s stadium announcer, Wilber Bach.
“We didn’t do play-by-play. We just wanted the fans to know who made the plays to get credit,” Covell said. “Wilber was near 70 when he turned to me one game and said, ‘Jimmy, I’ve done it enough. Why don’t you take over?’ And I did. They paid $25 a game but I got free parking.”
As his “best ever” bowl memory, Covell picked the 1983 Hurricane win over Nebraska, the UM’s first championship, recalling how a penalty “put the Huskies at our goal line with us ahead, 31-30, and just seconds left to play. A Cane cornerback batted away a last-second pass and we were national champs for the first time ever!” The moment he most “enjoyed” as a Cane fan?
“About 30 of us went to South Bend to play Notre Dame and we sat amidst all those Irish fans. Being a bit of a smarty then, I decided to call out in a loud voice ‘By the way, who are we playing today? Are they any good?’ And yeah, they raised a rumpus all around me, all game long. Sad to say, we lost big that day.”
“By the way,” Sisler added. “I’ll be going to Notre Dame this fall. I’ve already got my tickets. I’ll cheer ’em on for you, Jimmy.”
East Ridge UM fans understand that, of course.
As they say: “It’s a Cane thing.”