Bay Area’s first Super Bowl in 1985 reflects transformation of Silicon Valley
Long before Levi’s Stadium’s modern-day luxury suites, exclusive wine tastings and mobile app to watch video replays, there was Stanford Stadium, a huge and forlorn crater of a place with gangling weeds poking through splintered wooden bleachers.
In 1985, for the Bay Area’s first and until now only Super Bowl, Jim Steeg’s job as head of special events for the NFL was to gussy it up for the title game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins and make it comfortable for the VIPs paying $60 a ticket.
So he walked into the Cupertino office of the man who the year before had unveiled the first Super Bowl-specific commercial, the Orwellian “1984” ad to launch the inaugural Macintosh. Would Steve Jobs mind paying for 85,000 seat cushions? Steeg asked. He could print his rainbow Apple Computer logo on each one.
As Steeg recalls, Jobs had only one question: “Will they last forever?”
It was an ironic if not prescient question posed at a pivotal time both in the history of the Super Bowl and in the personal computer revolution taking hold across the Santa Clara Valley. By year’s end, Jobs himself would be gone, ousted from the company he founded.
To consider who we were in 1985 and how far we’ve come on the road to Super Bowl 50, we need look no further than inside and outside the gates of Stanford Stadium on Jan. 20, an unusually foggy day when President Ronald Reagan tossed the coin via satellite and Joe Montana, Dwight Clark and Ronnie Lott took down Dan Marino and his Dolphins 38-16.
No one sitting on their Apple seat cushions on that Super Bowl XIX Sunday, from then-San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery to Computer History Museum curator Chris Garcia, who was just 11 then, could anticipate how quickly antiquated their film-filled cameras would become or that the transistor radios many carried to listen to the game on KCBS were the grandfathers of ubiquitous personal electronics. The football fans were all perched on the squishy precipice of change that would dramatically redefine this place and the world as they knew it.
“Up until then, when you said where you were from, you’d say San Francisco or the Bay Area,” said author and historian Michael S. Malone, an adjunct writing professor at Santa Clara University. “Right about then, you could say Silicon Valley.”
Until then, business in San Francisco was mostly known for its lawyers and bankers and Palo Alto for its venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road. The geeks of the valley — the engineers with pocket protectors — were only starting to cross the border of San Antonio Road. When you said technology, many people still thought of Hewlett-Packard. When you said software, people thought flannel pajamas.
And back then, the Super Bowl began its transformation from sport to spectacle.
The 49ers’ home at Candlestick Park, along the edge of the bay in south San Francisco, was too small and too cold for Super Bowl standards, which required at least 70,000 seats and a mean temperature in January of 50 degrees
Before it was renovated and downsized for intimacy, 84,000-seat Stanford Stadium met the criteria, but its crude amenities and other challenges necessitated the kinds of invention that would come to exemplify the event three decades later. The megasized banners that now drape from stadiums were born from Steeg’s attempts to cover up the stadium’s bland walls. Corporate villages for Super Bowl VIP pregame parties arose from Steeg’s fear that the big wigs would be bored for hours before kickoff since he encouraged them to leave their San Francisco hotels four hours early to beat the traffic on Highway 101.
It was also the first year the Super Bowl moved away from the tradition of having the local university band play in the pregame show.
“I love the Stanford band, but I was going, ‘That’s not going to happen,’“ Steeg said of the notoriously irreverent and unpredictable ensemble.
For entertainment at the 1985 Super Bowl — instead of a hot band like Coldplay headlining this year’s halftime show — the performance featured cartwheeling clowns and sparring pirates and an astronaut in a spacesuit honoring the space shuttle Discovery, which was orbiting the Earth.
And while Super Bowl coaches these days are usually escorted to the media day conference by limousine and police escort, in 1985, Steeg said, Dolphins coach Don Shula took BART from Oakland, where the team was staying, to the San Francisco event.
The press box at Stanford was expanded to accommodate the burgeoning media interested in the game. Steeg ordered 65 typewriters along with fax machines so reporters could send their stories back to their offices. Only the earliest adopters (was that even a hip term yet?) were outfitted with brick-size Motorola DynaTAC mobile phones or the portable TRS-80 Model 100, a Tandy Radio Shack computer released in 1983 that ran on four AA batteries. Transmitting required suctioning “acoustic couplers” onto a telephone’s handset.
On game day, Doug Menuez, who went on to chronicle some of Silicon Valley’s most historic moments, was working as a freelance photographer for USA Today. Across the street at the Holiday Inn, he and his team employed the latest technology at hand: a “refrigerator-size” computer and a Scitex scanner that transmitted images to his editors in Virginia.
“Picture me standing in a room at the Holiday Inn processing film in the bathroom,” he said. “I’m trying to transmit. Somebody turns on a hair dryer to dry the film and a fuse blew out the whole wing of the hotel. It could have been me.”
In 1985, email was a “curiosity” and innovation was the purview of the establishment, said tech forecaster Paul Saffo.
Now, he said, “We’ve had a perfect inversion of innovation in that sense. I think we’ve gone too damn far. Everyone wants to do a startup,” Saffo said. “The great irony is that people are thinking much more short-term today than they did in 1985.”
Fry’s Electronics opened its first store in Sunnyvale in 1985, and in June of that year the San Jose Mercury News switched from a paper clipping file to electronic archives. On the Stanford campus, the “Center for Integrated Systems,” which began the intense development of microelectronics, was built, the first building on campus to break with the traditional sandstone architecture. And just months earlier, Stanford University started collecting pieces for its Silicon Valley archives, “a recognition that something was going on that’s historically important,” said Henry Lowood, curator of Stanford’s History of Science & Technology Collections.
At the same time, Silicon Valley was barreling into the future, with IBM’s PC and Apple’s Macintosh, complete with mouse, plotting a digital path into our homes. San Jose would give itself the name “Capital of Silicon Valley,” and the coveted Fairmont Hotel would complete construction and help transform downtown San Jose. Just two years earlier, Mayor McEnery took a helicopter ride with Steve Jobs over the verdant Coyote Valley to the south, where Jobs first dreamed of building an I.M. Pei version of the spaceship headquarters now under construction along Interstate 280 in Cupertino.
“We were at the end of the rainbow and had the pot of gold, a lot of land,” McEnery said. “If I looked as a historian, I’m amazed how far we’ve come and I’m disappointed that we didn’t go a bit further.”
The Super Bowl sure has. The $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, now the Santa Clara home of the 49ers, is considered the most technologically advanced, equipped with more than 400 miles of data cable, 1,300 Wi-Fi access points and two of the largest high-definition video boards in the NFL.
Looking back, it seems like the 1985 Super Bowl was in many ways a celebration of Silicon Valley and the Apple seat cushions a symbol of what was to come. If he looked hard enough, McEnery said, he would probably find the souvenirs in his basement. Garcia, from the Computer History Museum, went to the game with his father and wishes he kept his, too.
“Even then I was an Apple geek,” he said. “We had an Apple II.”
Steve Jobs died in 2011 of cancer at the age of 56, but his Silicon Valley legend grows on. And what about those seat cushions? Would they last forever?
Check eBay, a company founded in the heart of Silicon Valley in 1995. You can buy one for $198 — just about the price to upgrade to an iPhone 6.