NEW ORLEANS — For Johnny Majors and Jimmy Johnson, it's almost old hat: The Sugar Bowl and a game with national championship implications.
Both coaches, Majors of Tenneessee and Johnson of Miami, have been in the Sugar Bowl as players and assistant coaches with a national crown on the line. Majors won the 1976 national championship here as a head coach with Pittsburgh, beating Georgia 27-3.
It's Johnson's first trip to the Sugar Bowl as a head coach, but it's his second-ranked Miami team that has a shot at the title--if Oklahoma beats No.1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl.
As an assistant coach, Johnson became part of a trivia question answer by working with the only team ever to play two Sugar Bowl games in one year. Oklahoma won Sugar Bowl No. 38 by beating Auburn on Jan. 1, 1972, then returned for No. 39 to beat Penn State on New Year's Eve, when the Sugar Bowl began a four-year experiment with a Dec. 31 game.
When the Sugar Bowl returned to New Year's Day, Majors' Pittsburgh team was the star attraction.
"I have a great regard for the bowl for more than one reason," Majors said. "It was the only bowl we played in when I was at Tennessee, and we played for the national championship when I was a senior. Twenty years to the day later, we took Pittsburgh down for a national championship."
Tennessee (8-1-2) and Southeastern Conference champion, is ranked No. 8. Miami is 10-1.
"If they should beat us, I think they very definitely have a claim on No. 1," Majors said. "For us to win it (the championship), it would be a little more difficult."
Majors and Johnson met when Johnson was a nose guard on an Arkansas Sugar Bowl team and Majors was an assistant coach.
Majors helped Johnson get his first coaching job--at Picayune (Miss.) High School--and hired Johnson as an assistant coach when he got the head job at Iowa State.
Their wives, Mary Lynn Majors and Linda Kay Johnson, are good friends and have taken vacation trips together.
Both schools sold out their allotments of 12,500 tickets quickly, and a sellout crowd of 76,000 is expected at the Louisiana Superdome for the 5 p.m. PST kickoff.
Both teams are led by quarterbacks who weren't expected to see much action this season--Vinny Testaverde, who became Miami's starter when Bernie Kosar graduated early to turn professional, and Daryl Dickey, who got the starting job at Tennessee when Tony Robinson went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game.
"If Bernie had stayed, I probably would have gone somewhere else," Testaverde said.
Now, in his first year as a starter, he's erasing Kosar's name from the Miami record books, throwing for 3,238 yards and 21 touchdowns this season.
"Talking to pro scouts, a lot of them say he is the best player in the country this year, and he has another season to go," Johnson said.
Dickey, son of former Tennessee Coach Doug Dickey, also thought of transferring and left school for a year after an injury. He returned, awaited his chance and took advantage when it came.
He hit 85 of 131 passes for 1,161 yards, 10 touchdowns and only one interception after taking over this season.
Tennessee's football brochure describes Dickey as a "quick and elusive runner with an average arm," but his poise and blue-collar work habits more than overcame any athletic shortcomings.
Johnson opened his campaign for the No. 1 ranking early, pointing out that Miami beat Oklahoma during the season and should be ranked ahead of the Sooners if they beat Penn State. Johnson began to soft-pedal that approach as the game drew nearer, apparently fearing he might distract his team.
The message wasn't lost on Miami.
"Yes, we'll be watching the scores from the Orange Bowl pretty close," Miami linebacker George Mira said. "But we'll be taking care of business first.
"We can't control anything but ourselves in our game, and we can't let what happens somewhere else bother us."