PORT ANGELES — While he never got to see his beloved alma mater Washington play in the Fiesta Bowl under his watch, Port Angeles native Bruce Skinner did oversee the bowl’s rise to prominence in his time in charge of the game as Fiesta Bowl executive director from 1980 to 1990.
He’ll watch this year’s contest between his No. 11 Washington Huskies and No. 9 Penn State, one of the best non-College Football Playoff matchups of bowl season, back home in Port Angeles (1 p.m. Saturday, ESPN).
The Huskies could have found themselves in an entirely different situation without Skinner’s time in charge. He guided the Fiesta Bowl to new heights, going toe-to-toe with college football’s elite New Year’s Day bowl games such as the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton, establishing the Fiesta as a postseason destination equal in stature with those tradition-rich contests and revolutionizing athletic event sponsorship along the way.
After working as an assistant sports information director under John Reed at the University of Washington from 1968 to 1970, Skinner, an editor at the then Longview Daily News, jumped at the opportunity to rejoin Reed as assistant director of the fledgling Fiesta Bowl in 1973.
It was a far different college football landscape through the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of the 40 bowl matchups fans can watch this season, clashes such as the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa Bay, there were between 11 and 18 postseason bowls depending on the season, for much of those two decades.
The Fiesta was tied in with the old Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and in its early days the bowl would host the WAC champion, that being hometown Arizona State for five of the bowl’s first seven games.
Reed left to run San Diego’s Holiday Bowl in 1980, and Skinner took over, quickly deciding to go for it and compete with the big names in bowl games.
“When I took over in 1980 the Fiesta was a relatively small bowl. We had steady growth but it was a wide-open affair, very competitive amongst the bowls to go out and recruit teams,” Skinner said.
“We were very competitive in nature and we felt like we had everything going for us. Miami is a nice place to go in January, but New Orleans can have bad weather, Dallas can have really bad weather. Schools were telling us we want to come to Phoenix.”
The Fiesta Bowl, with a smaller payout to each participating team, needed something to distinguish itself from second-tier bowl counterparts like the Sun and Peach bowls.
“The Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange bowls all played on Jan. 1 and they were paying a couple of million and we were paying a couple of hundred thousand a team,” Skinner said.
“There was an unwritten rule nobody else could play on New Year’s.”
Skinner made his move in 1981 when the Sugar Bowl decided to move from an afternoon game to an evening kickoff — leaving the Cotton Bowl alone on New Year’s Day.
“ABC and the Sugar Bowl decided to move that game to the evening to draw better ratings from viewers and get better rates for advertising,” Skinner said.
“That left the Cotton Bowl all alone in the morning (Pacific time) and when I heard that, I didn’t want anybody else to get the idea to make a move and compete with the Cotton.”
Skinner thought if the Fiesta could draw high-profile matchups, more national viewers would be interested in his game.
“The Cotton Bowl was tied to the old Southwest Conference and unless they had Texas in the game their TV ratings weren’t very good,” Skinner said.
“… So our move created continuous programing. NBC could show the Rose Parade then have the Fiesta, Rose and Orange bowls all in a row.”
NBC was easy to convince, but the NCAA Postseason Football Committee rejected the Fiesta’s application for a move to Jan. 1.
“We appealed to the NCAA council and the council wisely, from a legal standpoint, voted 18-0 that it was a clear violation of antitrust regulations to determine dates and times of bowl games.”
The 1982 Fiesta Bowl, played on Jan. 1 between USC and Penn State, beat the Cotton Bowl in the television rating.
“We did a 19.6 rating which was incredible, especially for the amount of money we were paying the teams,” Skinner said.
“After that game, we felt we had a great product. We have the flexibility to attract two top teams and not be obligated to have lesser conference champion. And teams loved going to Phoenix because the bowl was known for its hospitality, known for treating the teams the best.”
A short stint working at the 1984 Summer Olympic in Los Angeles led to Skinner’s other bold move.
“That Olympics was the first event when corporate sponsorship of sporting events really came to the forefront,” Skinner said. “Prior to that golf, tennis and automobile racing for whatever reason were the only three sports with corporate sponsoship.”
The wealth of corporate sponsorships during that Olympics gave Skinner an idea on how to boost the bowl’s payout.
“We thought that by partnering with a corporate sponsor we could increase the payouts,” Skinner said. “We signed a deal with Sunkist Growers to make it the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, which was very controversial at the time. All the other sport entities, be it the NFL, MLB, NBA and the rest of college sports hadn’t embraced such deals.
“Today that’s not even an issue, corporate sponsorship is a part of sports, but we were the first entity outside of golf, tennis and car racing to sell corporate sponsorship.”
NBC took issue with the move.
“NBC said its broadcasters would not call it the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, we couldn’t put the Sunkist logo on the field, we couldn’t put it anywhere where the camera could see it,” Skinner said.
“NBC thought instead of advertising during games, corporations would start sponsoring and broadcasting events. The big fear was ‘What if the NFL starts doing this?’”
By year two of the deal, 1986, NBC decided they would recognize Sunkist’s sponsorship agreement when two independent teams, Miami and Penn State, each finished the regular season undefeated.
“Miami had what many people considered to be the greatest college football team of all time with Vinny Testeverde, Cortez Kennedy, Brian and Bennie Blades, Michael Irvin — a ton of future NFL players and Hall of Famers”
The game was moved to prime time Jan. 2, 1987 to boost ratings.
“It was the highest-rated college football game of all time because it was a great matchup and in 1986 everybody only had four television channels,” Skinner said. “There will never be ratings like that game again because of how many choices people have now.
“And it was a great game, Penn State upset Miami [14-10] and it put us on the map, big time. We were no longer the No. 5 game.”
Skinner said the discussions about an annual playoff really ramped up after that game.
“People had talked about playoffs before but the talk really picked up after that game. “Why don’t we do this every year?”
The Fiesta Bowl also lucked out and got another No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup for the 1989 game between Notre Dame and West Virginia.
“So two out of three years there we had the national championship game, and from 1986 to 1990 we had the No. 1 ranked team twice and the No. 2 ranked team four times after the final polls.”
Skinner stepped down after the 1990 Fiesta Bowl and eventually relocated back to his hometown of Port Angeles where he heads the Olympic Medical Center Foundation, raising funds for core services at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles.