The Cherry Bowl had been launched just a year earlier in rousing fashion, drawing more than 70,000 fans to the Pontiac Silverdome to watch Army, in its first bowl game, meet close-to-home Michigan State. Flush with the success of that game and confident of corporate sponsorship, the bowl committee lured Maryland and Syracuse with the promise of up to $1.2 million for each school, the fifth-highest payout of any bowl that season.
“I was very upset. It ended up not being a good bowl, other than … we got the win,” Bobby Ross, Maryland’s coach at the time, said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “ ‘What do you mean we’re not going to get the money?’ It was that kind of reaction.”
Detroit would not host another college football postseason game until 1997, when the Motor City Bowl was launched and later evolved into the Little Caesars Bowl, which went defunct after 2013. The Quick Lane Bowl, sponsored by the Ford-owned chain of auto shops, formed the following season featuring teams from the Big Ten and ACC. This year’s payout is reportedly $1.45 million.
Mesner, who played one season with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and now lives in Florida, attends several Maryland football games every year and has become a supporter of first-year Coach DJ Durkin. He considered attending the Dec. 26 game in Detroit with a few friends but ultimately decided against returning to the place where he had played in his last college postseason game.
Plus, he was against going to the Cherry Bowl in the first place.
As a senior and one of the team leaders, Mesner had pushed for a trip to the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu after Maryland won the 1985 ACC title and finished the regular season ranked 20th with an 8-3 record. Mesner and Maryland had previously played there in 1982, one of three previous memorable bowl experiences that also included the 1983 Citrus Bowl in Orlando and the 1984 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Tex. Ross and Maryland Athletic Director Dick Dull agreed, however, that the best move for the program was to play in the financially lucrative Cherry Bowl.
“As opposed to getting sunburned, we’re getting wind-burned. So it was a rough scene, in terms of not wanting to be there, not really looking at it as it was a reward,” Mesner said. “We had played in Hawaii, we had played in Florida, and we had played in El Paso. All fairly warm spots and pretty fun. The idea of going to Detroit after having a pretty good year was kind of a bummer. But as always, Coach Ross rallied us.”
Said Ross: “It was going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars, we were told. In those days and times, that was a pretty big payoff of a bowl of that caliber. We were pretty excited about that part, because we weren’t the richest program in the country by any stretch of the imagination.”
Ross garnered fierce loyalty among his players. “When you have a coach like Bobby, you follow him anywhere,” former defensive lineman Ted Chapman said. “It was nine [degrees] in Detroit. It was nine … there was a lot of cards played that week.”
The highlight of the week for Chapman was persuading a few teammates to skip a tour of an auto plant to attend a Neil Diamond concert at Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit. The bowl sponsored a trip across the border to Canada, but other than that, the team hunkered down to prepare for the game. A few days before it, the team couldn’t use the Silverdome field for some reason, Mesner recalled, so Ross had his team practice in the tunnels of the stadium.
“Being that we respected Coach so much, and always gave him our all,” Mesner said. “We practiced hard in the hallway.”
The game was as uneventful as it was quiet – neither Mesner and Chapman could remember the score. Maryland scored 22 consecutive points in the second quarter to cruise to the win, and after that, nothing was the same. Not only were both schools paid about $700,000 less than what was promised, but bowl officials also reportedly missed the deadline to pay the following April.
“That check never came,” Ross said.
It was part of a turbulent time for Maryland athletics. Dull resigned the following October, after the death of Maryland basketball player Len Bias, and Ross stepped down two months later, after a 5-5 finish.
Ross’s career path would lead him back to the Silverdome as head coach of the Detroit Lions. He began in 1997, the same year the city welcomed back the college football postseason with the creation of the Motor City Bowl. Ross spoke at the bowl luncheon several times during his four-year tenure in Detroit. He was reminded of December 1985 when he did so, but Ross always preferred to distance himself from the sour memory of the Cherry Bowl.
“I really, kind of never brought it up,” he said. “I just kind of let it subside.”