There’s No Beating a Super Bowl in Miami

Brilliant performances, big gambles and some very bizarre behavior. If NFL history tells us anything, it’s that there’s nothing like having the big game in South Beach.
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With picturesque beaches and perfect weather, South Florida is where millions of Americans go when they want to stop working—for spring break, for retirement or for watching a game that means everything. Or a game that means very little: During the entire decade of the 1960s, Miami hosted the NFL’s third-place game. Yes, there was a game to see which team would finish third. It was called the Playoff Bowl. (If they had held it every January in, say, Minnesota, would the players even have gone?)

Miami’s history is intertwined with Super Bowl history. South Florida has seen the game go from a concept to an enormous event, from the gritty Orange Bowl to whatever that luxurious suburban stadium is called now. Miami held the first Super Bowl with a roman numeral (V) and the first one on artificial turf (also V). It’s where the Super Bowl first ditched marching bands at halftime—Up With People performed at Super Bowl X.

You know that stat that no team has played in a Super Bowl in its own city? It is strangest in Miami. In the first decade of the Super Bowl, Miami hosted the game four times. The Dolphins reached three Super Bowls during those 10 years, yet they never played once in their hometown.

Miami has been a gracious host; the two most loathed teams in league history, the Cowboys and the Patriots, have never won a Super Bowl there. And it has grown with the Super Bowl, from a one-pro-team town to a four-pro-team sports mecca.

You can easily use Miami to tell the story of the Super Bowl . . . of pro football . . . of pro sports . . . of America . . . of the world! What? Too much hype? Nah. If the Super Bowl has taught us anything, it’s that there is no such thing as too much hype. So grab a drink with an umbrella in it. Sit in a lounge chair next to the pool. You might recognize the guy next to you. His name is Joe Willie.

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There have been many victory guarantees in sports, but really, there has been only one. The rest were just echoes. Moses Malone, Tim Tebow, Pat Riley, Rasheed Wallace, Mark Messier. . . . They may have inspired their teams and fired up their fan bases, but really they were all just paying tribute to Joe Namath.

This was the third Super Bowl, the second straight in Miami. Namath was speaking at the Miami Touchdown Club three days before the game, and he had been drinking, and he was tired of hearing that the NFL’s Baltimore Colts were 18-point favorites over his team, the AFL champion New York Jets. And so he said the words that changed the sport: “The Jets will win Sunday.
I guarantee it.”

New York won that Sunday, ushering in a new era of pro football. The Super Bowl became required viewing for any American sports fan. Namath became a superstar; indeed, it’s hard to imagine any athlete in history living so well, for so long, off one performance. (Broadway Joe had a losing record as a pro and threw 47 more interceptions than touchdowns, but he is in the Hall of Fame.)

Namath made us believe we could do the unthinkable: beat our bookies. We couldn’t, of course. But it was fun to imagine we could. In a span of five years, Miami had hosted two seismic upsets, both featuring mouthy winners: Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston, and the Jets over the Colts. Miami was an anything-goes city, and after Namath, the Super Bowl became an anything-goes affair.

When the Super Bowl returned to Miami two years later, it was a different game. It was the first one post-merger, the first between the AFC and NFC. It was the first time anybody held up the Vince Lombardi Trophy; Lombardi had died four months earlier, and the championship trophy had been renamed in his honor. This Super Bowl, and the next in Miami, five years later, would provide the two ingredients that are essential to any memorable football game: down-to-the-wire tension and exceptional athleticism.

Super Bowl V was filled with so many turnovers that Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule suggested the game be called the Blunder Bowl. But it’s remembered fondly because it featured the Super Bowl’s first truly great finish: The Colts’ Jim O’Brien kicked a field goal with nine seconds left to beat the Cowboys.

Super Bowl X provided the biggest highlight of the game’s first decade: Lynn Swann’s Tyree-before-Tyree catch against the Cowboys. Swann, the Steelers’ star receiver, had suffered a concussion in the AFC championship game and only decided the Friday before the Super Bowl that he would play. Terry Bradshaw threw him a bomb, Dallas cornerback Mark Washington knocked the ball in the air, and Swann maintained his concentration and caught it anyway. It was exactly as nobody drew it up, which made it perfect. No matter how much the NFL orchestrated the event, the game itself could not be scripted.

“Usually, great catches or catches that stick in people’s minds are ones that either required something they’ve never seen before, or compensating for mistakes that were made,” Swann says. “And that catch in Super Bowl X was no different.”

We couldn’t quite see it then, but this was the future of football. It would become a sport of athleticism and beauty, not just strength and brutality. All that was missing was trash talk and complaints about the referees. Those would come soon enough.

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The city of Miami manages to mingle incredible energy with a relaxed vibe; where else could a beach be so electric? And this is why it is an ideal setting for the Super Bowl. Part of the allure of the game is that we take it seriously and laugh at it at the same time. Fittingly, in Miami, a cocaine addict showed us how.

Before Super Bowl XIII, Cowboys linebacker Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson told the media that Bradshaw “couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the c and the a.” Has there ever been a better Super Bowl week insult than that? Henderson and Bradshaw were on the cover of Newsweek before the game. The Super Bowl had become that entrenched in American culture.

The game would feature a controversial pass interference call in the fourth quarter that either marred the result (if you were a Cowboys fan) or meant nothing (if you pulled for the Steelers). It was the 13th Super Bowl—and the fifth in Miami. It was also the last in the Orange Bowl, a dilapidated college stadium. The sport was becoming big business, and the man who understood that better than anybody was Dolphins owner Joe Robbie.

For years Robbie had asked the city to pay for Orange Bowl improvements, and for years the city had declined. In 1984, when Miami tried to land its sixth Super Bowl, Robbie finally stood up in an owners’ meeting and said that he would not support the bid. The Orange Bowl, he said, was not worthy of a Super Bowl.

Robbie had a better idea: He would leverage the possibility of hosting the game to build a new stadium. These days that’s a standard component of every NFL stadium project. Back then, it was unprecedented.

Joe Robbie Stadium opened in 1987. The Super Bowl returned two years later, and it was probably the best of the 23 title games to that point. Most football fans from that era know the lore: Trailing the Bengals 16–13 late in the fourth quarter, 49ers star Joe Montana pointed out actor John Candy in the stands. “It broke up the anxieties we were having going down the field,” San Francisco tailback Roger Craig said later. “It just kind of relaxed us.”

The Bengals worried Montana would hit Jerry Rice for the winning touchdown. He found John Taylor instead. It was the ultimate Montana moment; the game that solidified Joe Cool forever.

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Super Bowl XXIII was the last of the ’80s, a decade that saw Miami change its reputation from a small, seedy city full of criminal activity to a large, seedy city full of criminal activity. For this upgrade, Miami could thank hit TV show Miami Vice, starring two detectives who showed it was possible to gun down dangerous felons and still dress well. Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs mostly fought drug trafficking and prostitution. The Super Bowl could have used them.

The night before the Bengals-Niners game, Cincinnati running back Stanley Wilson had a cocaine relapse. This was not the age of Hollywood Henderson. Teams were starting to understand they had to deal with what happened off the field. Bengals coach Sam Wyche told SI last year, “My response was, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me?! The biggest game of your lifetime and you give into this drug after fighting it so hard all year long?’ ”

A decade later, Miami hosted another you-gotta-be-kidding-me off-field moment: The day before Super Bowl XXXIII Falcons safety Eugene Robinson accepted a league award for “the player who exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home,” then got arrested for solicitation that night. (Charges were later dropped.) Robinson gave up the award—and also an 80-yard touchdown pass to Broncos receiver Rod Smith, in the last game of quarterback John Elway’s career.

Joe Robbie Stadium had become Pro Player Stadium, and landing a Super Bowl had become more competitive. Miami got one in 2007 (XLI: Peyton Manning’s first ring, the first featuring two African-American coaches, Prince singing “Purple Rain” in the rain) and again in ’10 (XLIV: the Saints’ first win, with Sean Payton’s gutsy onside kick against the Colts to open the second half).

The Super Bowl would not return to Miami until 2020. The NFL is too big to keep going back to the same city these days. The league can now go wherever it wants, and it wants to go where the money is. Build a stadium, get a Super Bowl. That’s the formula Robbie created.

The game is back in South Florida because current Dolphins owner Steve Ross plunked down almost half a billion dollars to renovate . . . wait, hang on . . . we’ll find it . . . here it is: Hard Rock Stadium. It’s not technically in Miami but in Miami Gardens. It’s nothing like the old Orange Bowl. Playing the Super Bowl there is both a nod to the league’s roots and an acknowledgment of the game’s growth. The stadium is hosting the Super Bowl because of Ross’s money. But Miami deserves the Super Bowl because it is, and always will be, a great Super Bowl host. We guarantee it.

This story appears in the February 2020 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.