This Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of arguably the biggest individual meltdown in Rose Bowl history. Iowa All-American running back Ronnie Harmon, a sure-handed player who had fumbled the ball just once all season, fumbled the ball four times in the first half and also dropped an easy touchdown pass. To this day, despite countless denials, some fans still believe Harmon threw the ’86 Rose Bowl. We look back on the infamous day and examine the cheating allegations that have persisted since then.
In the immediate aftermath of Harmon’s four-fumble performance in a 45-28 loss to UCLA, there was no hint by anyone publicly that something was amiss. Like Iowa fans, most people were just in shock that a player as talented as Harmon would have such a major breakdown during such a big game.
Said Harmon in the post game press conference: “That was the most I ever fumbled in one game. They did a good job of stripping the ball. I’ve gotta give them all the credit.”
It wasn’t until the summer of 1987 that the idea of Harmon possibly throwing the ’86 Rose Bowl was floated out. That was because in June of 1987, the NCAA publicly finished an investigation where it determined he had not thrown the ’86 Rose Bowl in which Iowa was favored by 2.5 points.
The reason the NCAA even started an investigation was because it was an offshoot of a Chicago federal grand jury probe into alleged dealings between sports agents Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom and college athletes. Harmon was among several Iowa players implicated for allegedly accepting improper benefits from the agents.
Harmon eventually admitted taking $50,000 from Walters and Michael Franzese, the man who helped bankroll Walters and Bloom. That association with the two further fueled the suspicion that Harmon threw the ’86 Rose Bowl.
Franzese added more fuel to the fire during a 2002 taping of HBO’s “Real Sports” when he came out and said he believed that Harmon threw the game. Franzese made the statement fully admitting he was in prison at the time and that he had no actual proof of this other than the game tapes.
Harmon himself has denied throwing the game for the past quarter century and has given credit to the UCLA defense for making the plays. His coach at the time, Hayden Fry, has been saying the same thing for the past 25 years as well.
When reached at his home in Mesquite, NV, Fry said: “Well we had a formal investigation, I won’t tell you which branch of government, but we spent three days with me at my office and we reviewed the films over and over. And one of the gentlemen was an ex-NFL football player and we all agreed that the fumbles were the result of UCLA doing a heckuva job tackling.”
Curious to see it for yourself? All four fumbles are available online to be viewed by any suspicious party. Let’s examine:
• Harmon’s first fumble is the most dubious, as the Hawkeyes were near the goal line when the ball appears to just fly out of the arms of Harmon. Of all the botched plays, this is the most damning one for anyone convinced Harmon threw the Rose Bowl.
• Harmon’s other three fumbles are much harder to analyze. The best view of his second fumble is obstructed by a yard marker, but based on close inspection, it’s clear UCLA’s Melvin Jackson is in the process of pulling on Harmon’s carrying arm.
If anything, Harmon’s knee might’ve been down before he even lost the ball but the yard marker obstructs the view. Regardless, this clearly looks like a forced fumble.
• Harmon’s third fumble seems odd only in that it doesn’t really fit with how Harmon was being tackled. Unlike his second fumble where it’s clear how the defender could’ve caused the fumble, on this play it isn’t so obvious. Harmon is being tackled up top yet the ball pops loose as if it had been punched straight down. The defender, Ken Norton, Jr., might have had long arms, but based on the video it doesn’t quite make sense. But we’re hardly physicists and it’s hard to analyze how a ball should come out when a player is being pummeled.
• Harmon’s last fumble again doesn’t look like a strip, but it’s certainly a violent collision, as the defender had his arms wrapped around Harmon’s head. Still, this is probably the second most suspicious fumble since it appeared to happen after Harmon had broken the tackle.
• Lastly the dropped pass. For one, Harmon isn’t exactly wide open; he just has a step or two on his defender. Secondly he’s trying to essentially make an over-the-shoulder catch. That being said, the ball did hit him in the hands and is a play a college football player, especially of Harmon’s caliber, is expected to make.
If that play hadn’t been in the shadow of four fumbles, it’s just one drop on a day that Harmon had a career-high 11 catches for 102 yards.
So now that you’ve seen all the clips, what do you think?
In the end, people will see what they want to see in the clips. Some of his fumbles are definitely head scratchers, but if it weren’t for the NCAA’s investigation following the improper benefits Harmon received, we might not be having this discussion at all. And while the clips look like something out of “Blue Chips,” there is still no smoking gun proving Harmon’s guilt now 25 years later.
And after all, there will always be conspiracy theorists who say things like Colt McCoy threw last year’s BCS Championship Game by faking an injury.
Said Fry from his home this week: “I just feel so sorry for the young man. We even had a Rose Bowl reunion the first game this year and to my knowledge he was right there in Iowa City and didn’t even come. He’s really hurt by it. He’s a great young man.”
As those who defend Harmon point out, he wasn’t the one that allowed the UCLA offense to light up the scoreboard. Fry said Iowa’s real problem was that a Hawkeye defender was accidentally tipping the defense’s plays, something a UCLA assistant told Fry years later.
Harmon went on to have a solid professional career, although a dropped pass that would have sent the Buffalo Bills to the AFC Championship Game in the 1989-90 playoffs only furthered the speculation that he threw football games. The Bills instead lost to the Browns, 34-30. They were 3.5-point underdogs.
Harmon made his most money with the San Diego Chargers, becoming a quality third-down back in the NFL before retiring after the 1997 season. As the speculation continued to swirl about the ’86 Rose Bowl with Harmon in the pros, he isolated himself by rarely speaking with the media. The black visor he wore on his facemask appeared to be symbolic of his shy personality.
Said Harmon toward the end of his career: “If people want to know what type of person I am, I’ll sit down and talk as long as they don’t personally attack me…. I guess I should have defended myself. Maybe by not talking for so long, that made it worse. I just honestly didn’t think it was that big of a deal. People who knew me at Iowa, my teammates… (they) knew that wasn’t me and that was enough.”
He hasn’t been heard of much since retiring from the NFL. After coaching high school football in his home state of New York, he served as a running backs coach at FCS school Western Illinois from 2003-05 but was fired under mysterious circumstances.
Now 46, today Harmon resides north of Seattle in Lynnwood, Washington. The debate over whether he threw the ’86 Rose Bowl is debated endlessly by sports conspiracy theorists alongside the likes of the 1965 Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight and the 1985 NBA Draft lottery and the only person who knows for sure hasn’t been heard from publicly in years and may never publicly speak about the game again.