They were built for speed to counter the bulk of others. From 1983 to 1991, the University of Miami Hurricanes were a football dynasty. During that stretch, the team won four national championships under three different coaches, revolutionizing the sport by moving away from the plodding ground game of such traditional powerhouses as Oklahoma and Nebraska to a dynamic passing attack akin to what was displayed at the professional level.
The team’s rise to prominence and dominance surprised many. Before Howard Schnellenberger was hired as coach prior to the 1979 season, there was no college football tradition in South Florida. Sports headlines in Miami were dominated by Don Shula’s NFL Dolphins, who won back-to-back Superbowls in the early 1970’s, including an unprecedented undefeated 1972 season which culminated in a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Superbowl VII. The Hurricanes, with a history of football futility, garnered nary a thought, and were consistently overshadowed by their mid-state rivals, the University of Florida Gators.
That is why the team’s 31-30 victory over the heavily favored and number one ranked Nebraska Conrhuskers in the 1984 Orange Bowl was so surprising. That victory earned the Hurricanes their first national championship and opened the door to a decade of domination by a team that would be emulated for the next quarter century.
The Hurricanes’ success caught up with them in the 1990’s. Other programs copied their blueprint and built squads that relied on speed rather than size. It may be said that the most successful college team of the past decade, the University of Southern California Trojans of the mid 2000’s, was a mirror image of the 1980’s Hurricanes, displaying quickness and depth at skill positions and relentlessly attacking through the air. With the recent revelation of improprieties by USC (some of the team’s most prominent players were apparently paid to play, in contravention of NCAA rules), additional comparisons may be made to a Hurricanes team that was universally reviled for harboring what was perceived as a thuggish atmosphere. The “outlaw” nature of the Hurricanes’ glory years is compellingly captured by the ESPN film “The U,” which recently became available on DVD. That “outlaw” atmosphere led Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly to suggest that the university should disband its football program in the midst of the team’s success.
While the Hurricanes’ discipline during their championship runs of the 1980’s may be questioned, what the team produced on the field could not. For eight years they were the most compelling and entertaining college football team in the country, routinely traveling to other schools and dominating opposing teams on their home turfs. That all changed during the 1990’s, when aggressive recruiting by others, coupled with NCAA sanctions imposed on the university, culminated in a decade of lethargic and unsuccessful play. During the latter part of the decade, the successful recruiting of coach Butch Davis (who left for the NFL after the 2000 season) and his assistants led to the resurgence of the program, and one additional championship in 2002 under first-year head coach Larry Coker. The Hurricanes followed their championship season with an undefeated 2002 regular campaign, before falling to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (the BCS national championship game) in overtime after a questionable late penalty favored the Buckeyes.
After their brief return to national prominence, the Hurricanes sank into a decade of mediocrity and unfulfilled promise. While each year promises to bring a resurgence of the program, the team has repeatedly fallen short in big games. The most recent example of the Hurricanes’ inability to thrive in the spotlight came this past weekend, again against Ohio State, now the number two ranked team in the country. The week leading up to the nationally televised affair was replete with South Florida news stories about the squad’s chance at redemption, a curious approach since none of the players participated in the 2003 bowl game with the questionable outcome.
Miami marched into Ohio State on a mission. By defeating the Buckeyes, the Hurricanes would signal to the world that they were back, ready to return the championship tradition to Coral Gables. What followed, however, was a display of ineptitude by the Hurricanes, who were intercepted four times on the way to a 36-24 defeat.
The team’s inability to seize the day brought to mind a prior defeat suffered during its decade of success. In 1986, the Hurricanes were clearly the best team in the country, featuring a star-studded cast of NFL-bound players, including Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde. The team headed into the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Joe Paterno’s Penn State squad a heavy favorite, undefeated and ranked number one in the country. The players displayed their bravado by wearing fatigues on the flight to Arizona, an act that was severely criticized for reasons that, to this day, escape me.
I was in Cancun, on my honeymoon, on the day of the game. This was back in the days before satellite television came to prominence, and access to American sports in Mexico was limited. Nevertheless, the game was carried on a network feed picked up by our hotel, and I was able to witness what transpired.
The Hurricanes dominated, outgaining Penn State 445 yards to 162. They attained 22 first downs to the Nittany Lions’ 8. Yet, as with their recent game against Ohio State, turnovers proved costly. The Hurricanes turned the ball over seven times and, after Testaverde’s fifth interception settled into the arms of a Penn State defender, the Nittany Lions held the national championship trophy, winning 14-10.
The Hurricanes rebounded from that crushing defeat by going undefeated during the 1987 season and winning the 1988 Orange Bowl, and the national championship, over an overmatched Oklahoma squad. It may therefore be said that the Hurricanes’ failure in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl was just a temporary glitch on the team’s road to success. It remains to be seen whether the same may be said of this weekend’s collapse.