The Miami football program had been in the doldrums when Howard Schnellenberger took over as head coach in 1979 and after a 5-6 opening year, promptly went 25-9 over the next three seasons. The 1983 Miami Hurricanes were clearly a team on the rise, but no one could have guessed they would win one of the sport’s most historic national championships by season’s end.
Schnellenberger had freshman Bernie Kosar at quarterback, who would go on to an outstanding NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. Kosar threw for over 2,300 yards, completed 61 percent of his passes and averaged 7.1 yards-per-attempt, while orchestrating one of the more sophisticated passing attacks in the country.
Kosar’s favorite target was tight end Glenn Dennison, who caught 54 passes for 594 yards. The best big-play threat was Eddie Brown, who got 640 yards out of his 30 catches. Stanley Shakespeare was good for 34 more receptions.
Albert Bentley caught 32 passes out of the backfield and ran for 722 yards. Keith Griffin rushed for 447 in a well-balanced attack that moved the football around. The defense was led by linebacker Jay Brophy, who got some votes for All-American at the end of the season.
Miami still opened the season unranked and when they were beat up by a good Florida team, 28-3, there was no reason to expect a special season in the works.
Easy games against Houston and Purdue led to easy wins of 29-7 and 35-0. On the final weekend of September, 13th-ranked Notre Dame came to Coral Gables. The Hurricanes dominated in a 20-0 win and were rewarded with the Irish spot in the rankings at #13.
Another soft part of the schedule followed, with Duke, Louisville, Mississippi State and Cincinnati all finishing with losing records. Miami rolled to four easy wins, outscoring the opposition 146-45 and were up to #7 in the polls when West Virginia came rolling into town on the final weekend of October.
The Mountaineers were ranked 12th and had future pro Jeff Hostetler at quarterback. It was realistically an elimination game for major bowl consideration and the Hurricane defense was ready. They held West Virginia to two yards rushing. Miami sacked Hostetler five times in spite of only rushing three men.
WVA head coach Don Nehlen gave his opponent the supreme compliment by pulling Hostetler, feeling they could no longer keep him safe. Kosar went 19/36 for 211 yards, with Dennison pulling in in seven catches. The final was 20-3 and at #5 in the country, Miami was at the forefront of possible opponents for top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
The ‘Canes didn’t play well in a home game with East Carolina, but they won 12-7. A bigger test came at Florida State to end the season. The Seminoles were only 6-4, but this game was played with the competitiveness that would make it the hottest rivalry in sports within five years.
FSU led 16-14 in the fourth quarter, with an early safety threatening to be the difference. Miami kicker Jeff Davis had already missed field goals of 46 & 41. Instead of enduring the same kind of infamy that Seminole kickers would in the early 1990s, Davis got another chance.
Kosar drove his team to the two-yard line and Davis kicked a simple 19-yarder on the final play to win 17-16. Miami got the nod to the Orange Bowl, and with the three teams between them and Nebraska in the polls—Texas, Auburn and Illinois—all playing in different bowls, Miami had a theoretical path to the national title.
When Texas and Illinois lost prior to the Orange Bowl kickoff, the door was opened a little further. But it wasn’t something being seriously talked about. Miami was still a 10 ½ point underdog to a Nebraska team considered the greatest of all time.
But the Cornhuskers had weaknesses on defense and in the kicking game that hadn’t been tested all year. The ‘Canes would put them to the test. They blocked a field goal. Kosar went to work. He began carving up the Nebraska defense, twice finding Dennison for touchdown passes and building up a 17-0 lead.
The Cornhuskers certainly didn’t go quietly though. A trick play got them on the board and soon it was back to a tie game at 17-17. Now, surely it was team for the top-ranked team to assert themselves the rest of the way, right?
Wrong. Miami bounced back with consecutive touchdown drives of 70-plus yards of 31-17. Even when Nebraska responded with a TD early in the fourth quarter, Kosar drove the Hurricanes down to the Cornhusker 25. Davis came on to attempt what would surely be a clinching field goal.
He missed. Nebraska had one more chance and they drove it down to the 26-yard line. On 3rd-and-8, a dropped pass in the end zone seemed to ensure it would be Miami’s night. But the Cornhuskers were great because of their running game and even on 4th-and-8, they ran the option. It not only worked, it produced a touchdown.
Nebraska could choose to kick the extra point and settle for a tie. Overtime didn’t exist in college football until 1996. The fact Texas—the only other unbeaten team—had lost, made it certain that a tie would win the national championship for the Cornhuskers.
But Nebraska coach Tom Osborne believed champions play to win. They came out for a two-point conversion, winner-take-all with 48 seconds to play.
Hurricane safety Ken Calhoun was the hero. Nebraska running back Jeff Smith was open on the goal line and the pass was on target. But Calhoun was able to get his fingers in there to deflect the pass. Miami covered the onside kick and the upset was complete.
Now it was up to the voters. Auburn had beaten Michigan in the Sugar Bowl, but the 9-7 win hadn’t inspired anyone. Miami was riding a huge wave of media momentum into the vote. Even though the Hurricanes had only beaten two bowl teams all year (including the Orange Bowl), while Auburn had beaten eight, it was Miami voted as national champs.
If it sounds like I think Auburn should have won the vote, that’s correct. In either case though, Miami had overturned the establishment I college football. The program became a dynasty, winning national titles in 1987, 1989 and 1991, along with a resurgence in 2001. They had near-misses in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1992 and 2002. It all started with a landmark night in South Beach on January 2, 1984.