Looking for a game-changer in next week’s Sun Bowl? Look no further than the Miami football program.
Next week, Washington State will share the spotlight with a program with a legacy like no other: 30 years ago, the Hurricanes reinvented the game and left mark that’s followed them through victory, scandal and national notoriety.
The latter was provided by an ESPN show entitled “The U,” which became one of the most talked-about sports documentaries of all time – so popular, a sequel was released last year. The common thread: that along with five national championships Miami has earned a reputation for lawlessness and in-your-face outrageousness.
The Hurricanes didn’t invent the end-zone celebration, but they perfected it. Off the field, they were brash, confident and even thuggish – a product of the time and place that was Miami in the 1980s and ’90s.
Recalled former Miami coach Dennis Erickson, who was lured from Washington State in 1989, “It was Miami against everyone else, and I’m sure that we created a few of those problems ourselves.”
The Hurricanes have found trouble around every corner but have recovered each time. Officially, the University of Miami mascot is an ibis. In reality, it’s a phoenix, one that’s risen more than once from the football ashes.
From humble beginnings in the 1920s, Miami football stayed that way for more than half a century. The Hurricanes were barely a bump on the football landscape of the Southeast, a .500 program that seemed in decline in the late 1970s.
Former Buffalo Bills coach Lou Saban – the school’s fifth coach in eight years – took the reins in 1977 but lasted just two seasons. He resigned in the wake of scandal that resulted after three players threw a Jewish man into an off-campus lake. The incident had anti-Semitic overtones, causing a community stir that helped force Saban to leave for Army.
Meanwhile, attendance was down and recruits were dwindling. The school’s board of trustees was poised to de-emphasize football or eliminate it when executive vice president John Green convinced them to give it one more try.
In 1970, the school hired Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Howard Schnellenberger, who brashly promised a national championship within five years. Incredibly, he delivered, and in the process changed the culture of the university and the city.
In the early 1980s, Miami was rocked by several events: violence from the cocaine wars; the influx of thousands of criminal Cuban refugees during the Mariel Boatlift; and deadly race riots following the acquittal of Miami-Dade police officers who beat a black insurance salesman to death.
Schnellenberger found a synergy of sorts as he scoured some of Miami’s toughest ghettos and brought that talent to a predominantly white university. His players earned four national titles from 1983 to 1991, but also slapped the college football establishment in its face.
After two so-so seasons, the ’Canes went 9-2 in 1981, but two years later faced a crisis with the graduation of All-American quarterback Jim Kelly. They started the 1983 season unranked, but rode the talents of freshman Bernie Kosar all the way to a 31-30 Orange Bowl win over top-ranked Nebraska.
His promise fulfilled, Schnellenberger departed for the United States Football League and left the Hurricanes in the hands of Jimmy Johnson.
Johnson carried the Hurricanes to greater heights, winning another national title in 1985 and setting the table for Erickson to win two more, in 1989 and 1991. Along the way, they put the “nasty” into dynasty.
“It was nuts and great” at the same time, recalled sports talk host Dan Le Batard, who covered the team for the Miami Herald from 1988-92. “The administration wanted the players to cool it, but they had no interest in that. They liked being anarchists.”
Le Batard’s favorite memory was a photo shoot with safety Charles Pharms, who called himself the Grim Reaper and said he wore all black on Saturdays because he was in mourning for the other team.
When Johnson left for the Dallas Cowboys after the 1988 season, athletic director Sam Jankovich looked for the hottest commodity for a replacement. A former A.D. at Washington State, Jankovich got his man in Erickson, who had led the Cougars to a 9-3 record and their first bowl victory in 72 years.
The team was Erickson’s, but the players were still Johnson’s. Together they won another national title in 1989. A year later, they beat Texas 46-3 in a Cotton Bowl game that was remembered less for the score that the scorn that followed.
The Hurricanes pointed fingers at the Longhorns as the teams came on the field, then were whistled for 16 penalties totaling 202 yards – mostly for late hits.
“Most of the things that happened were done by the seniors,” junior receiver Lamar Thomas said. “They were recruited by Jimmy Johnson and called themselves ‘The Last of the Renegades.’ They wanted to make a statement.”
As wide receiver Michael Irvin put it, “We’re No. 1 with AP, UPI and the FBI.”
The NCAA made its own statement, instituting a penalty this season for excessive celebration or taunting opponents. It was called “The Miami Rule.”
Erickson won another national title in 1991, but with the threat of NCAA sanctions, he left three seasons later to become coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
Years later, Erickson said, “People talk about Miami and some of the bad things, but they don’t know the good things that happened. They don’t know the players that played there and how hard they worked, and how important football was to them, and the culture that they came from.”
Rebuilding and rising again
A year after Erickson left, the NCAA slapped the Hurricanes with major penalties for several violations, including misappropriation of federal Pell Grants and failure to implement drug testing. The school also provided or allowed $400,000 in worth of improper payments to players.
The penalty was 55 scholarships, sending the program in a tailspin on and off the field. While a Sports Illustrated cover story urged the school to shut down the program, new coach Butch Davis tried to right the ship.
The painful rebuilding process included a 5-6 record in 1997, the school’s first losing season in 18 years. But Davis persevered, winning the Gator and Sugar bowls in 1999 and 2000 before leaving for the Cleveland Browns.
Offensive coordinator Larry Coker was promoted, inheriting a talent-laden team that’s considered one of the best in history. Of the players on the 2001 roster, 38 would be drafted by the NFL, 17 in the first round. Players from that era include Ken Dorsey, Clinton Portis, Ed Reed, Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Bryant McKinnie and future Buffalo Bill Willis McGahee. Also in the group were Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow II, Antrel Rolle, Vince Wilfork, Najeh Davenport, Jonathan Vilma and Reggie Wayne.
The Hurricanes went 12-0 that year, crushing Nebraska 37-14 for their fifth national title. A year later, they lost in the championship game to Ohio State.
A steady slide ended with Coker’s dismissal after the 2006 season, which included a brawl against Florida International, the gangland-style shooting death of defensive tackle Bryan Pata and a late-season four-game losing streak.
Miami comes full circle
Off the field, recent years times have been relatively quiet at Miami. The scandals have lessened but so have the victories. In-state rivals Florida and Florida State have seized the best recruits, winning national titles along the way.
Coker’s replacement, Randy Shannon, was fired after four lackluster seasons. His successor, Al Golden was terminated this year in midseason for the same reason. It didn’t help that the program was slapped with more NCAA penalties after a rogue booster provided cars and sex parties to Miami players from 2002-10.
Now the program is in the hands of former Georgia coach Mark Richt, who will take over after the Sun Bowl. In some ways, Miami football has come full circle, back to the 1970s.
Perhaps mindful of the past, Richt hopes to deliver victories but without the collateral damage. In his first speech after being named coach, Richt said:
“I’m going to ask our players to take care of business academically,” said Richt, a 1983 Miami graduate.
“I want them to behave socially. And I want them to do their very best in every area of their life and represent this university the right way, but also set themselves up for the future by growing into men that can become wonderful husbands and fathers, and leaders in their communities where they choose to live in when it’s all done,” Richt said.
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