Jimmy Johnson had produced great football teams since taking over as head coach of the University of Miami. After inheriting the national championship team of 1983, Johnson reached a major bowl game every year, won the national title in 1987 and came within one play of doing so in 1986. The 1988 Miami Hurricanes were his last college team before departing to the NFL, and while it wasn’t a national champion, the ’88 Hurricanes were another outstanding team.
Miami came into the season feeling disrespected after the previous year’s national championship. They had lost some great talent into the NFL, including wide receiver Michael Irvin, safety Bennie Blades, Outland finalist defensive end Daniel Stubbs and a great leader at middle linebacker in George Mira Jr. The preseason polls in 1988 ranked Miami #8.
The #1 team to start the year was archrival Florida State, and the Seminoles recorded a rap video proclaiming their greatness. Led by cornerback Deion Sanders, they had both bravado and talent. And their first game would be against Miami in the old Orange Bowl.
By the end of the game, the disrespect for the Hurricanes was gone. Miami completely dominated Florida State in all phases of the game. It was 17-0 by halftime, it ended 31-0 and it never even seemed that close. The ‘Canes were immediately vaulted all the way to the top of the polls.
The focus was now on who Miami had in their lineup rather than who they lost. The answers were impressive. Steve Walsh, one of the country’s most accurate passers, was back at quarterback. There were two good running backs, Cleveland Gary and Leonard Conley, who were also threats to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Bill Hawkins was a top defensive end and future #1 NFL draft pick Russell Maryland was at defensive tackle. Bernard Clark, and future Hurricane head coach Randy Shannon were at the linebacker spots. Bubba McDowell was a good defensive back. Johnson had no shortage of speed on defense, and along with coordinator Dave Wannstedt, they oversaw one of the country’s best D’s.
They also played one of the nation’s best schedules, and after a week off to celebrate beating Florida State, Miami was off to play Michigan. This game wasn’t quite as easy. In fact, the Hurricanes trailed 30-14 with 7:16 to play and it looked over.
Then Johnson surprised even his own players by going to the two-minute offense and Walsh orchestrated a rapid touchdown drive and two-point conversion that cut the lead to 30-22. With 3:45 left, Miami got the ball back and Walsh hit Conley for a 48-yard touchdown pass less than a minute later. But Michigan stopped the two-point conversion.
Miami lined up for the onside kick and covered it. They drove for the winning field goal and won 31-30. The comeback was stunning under any circumstances, but particularly given the quality of this opponent. Michigan would win the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl.
Johnson’s team churned through easy games against Wisconsin and Missouri, and set up an October 15 date at fourth-ranked Notre Dame. The hype for this matchup was through the roof. Miami had beaten Notre Dame badly in 1985 and 1987, and the bad blood between the two programs was running even hotter than the media hype.
The game’s place in college football history is remembered by a T-shirt that was sold on the ND campus, aiming at Miami’s bad-boy reputation—“Catholics vs. Convicts.”
To further add fuel to the fire, a fight broke out between the teams in the tunnels before the game. Miami’s reputation resulted in them being blamed, but Notre Dame players said afterward they had picked the fight. Even though the Irish had the more storied program, the Hurricanes were the power of the 1980s and it was ND who had the chip on their shoulder.
What followed on the field was one of the greatest college football games ever played. Miami didn’t play sharp—they turned it over seven times—but they moved it up and down the field. Trailing 31-24, and facing fourth-and-goal with less than a minute left, Walsh found Andre Brown in the right corner of the end zone. In the days prior to overtime, Johnson now had to decide—should he kick the extra point and take the tie or play for the win?
To Johnson’s credit, he didn’t hesitate in playing for the win. It was the same situation—and ironically the same score—that Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne had faced when his team played Miami in the Orange Bowl following the 1983 season. Osborne passed on a tie and a sure national title to go for the win, and ended up losing.
Just as Nebraska had done five years earlier, Miami threw a pass to the right side of the end zone. Just as had been the case five years earlier, the pass was batted down and the game ended 31-30. And just like five years earlier, being noble might have cost the Hurricanes a national championship.
Miami blasted Cincinnati, East Carolina, Tulsa and what was then a mediocre LSU program. They were ranked #3 in the polls, while Notre Dame and USC were in the top two spots, but slated to play each other on November 26. West Virginia was ranked #4, but undefeated. The plan was to pair them up with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, with the only question being if the Irish would be ranked #1 or if that would go to the Trojans.
Johnson reminded anyone who would listen that his team still had to play a tough game of its own on November 26. The opponent was Arkansas, undefeated in their own right, though ranked #8 in the weak Southwest Conference, they weren’t getting any love as a national title contender. In fact, having lost to Miami one year earlier by a 51-7 count in Little Rock, no one gave the Razorbacks any chance in Miami. The game turned out to be the war the head coach feared.
Arkansas got a 58-yard field goal, and they had a future NFL star in Barry Foster at running back. Foster broke an 80-yard touchdown run and Miami trailed 16-15 into the fourth quarter. The Razorbacks had another future NFL mainstay in the secondary, safety Steve Atwater. He nearly made the play of the game.
Miami was in the red zone, and Walsh lofted the ball toward the front corner of the end zone. It was an uncharacteristically poor decision by the Hurricane quarterback—needing only a field goal with five minutes to play, there was every reason to play it safe and this ball was underthrown. Atwater appeared to have the interception, before the ball was stripped at the last minute. Miami kicked the field goal and escaped with an 18-16 win.
Notre Dame blew out USC and the debate was on. The Fiesta Bowl could pair up two of the independents, and Johnson argued for a rematch. His team had beaten Michigan, Florida State (who had not lost since the opening night massacre) and Arkansas, and could have tied the top-ranked team in the nation on their home field had they so chose.
Pollsters ranked the Hurricanes #2. But Notre Dame, as the #1 team, called the shots under the old system, since they could go to whatever bowl they wanted, and they made it clear they were going to play West Virginia.
As much as Miami fans would protest, the correct decision was made. West Virginia’s resume was nowhere close to what Miami’s was, but the Mountaineers were undefeated and deserved their chance to try and beat Notre Dame. If WVA could do what Miami had not, how could the Mountaineers be denied the crown?
The Hurricanes settled for an Orange Bowl date with Nebraska and the game was never close. Miami coasted to a 23-3 win. Earlier that day, Notre Dame had an equally easy time with West Virginia. The ‘Canes finished #2 in the final polls.
Johnson would depart for the Dallas Cowboys shortly after and three years later he was coaching a Super Bowl champion. He certainly had nothing left to prove in college—over his final three seasons in Miami, Johnson had lost only two games and each one came on by a single play. He was two plays from going 36-0 over a three-year period.