Most college football dynasties are marked by a transcendent figure at head coach. The University of Miami was different. Their national championship of 1983 was won with Howard Schnellenberger at head coach. In 1987, Miami won with Jimmy Johnson at the helm. And the 1989 Miami Hurricanes reached the top of the polls in the first year of Dennis Erickson’s tenure. That’s three championship with three coaches in a seven-year period.
Miami was ranked #4 to start the season, with Erickson replacing Johnson and another Erickson—quarterback Craig—replacing Steve Walsh behind center. The skill positions were ably manned by a deep corps of talent, with three good receivers in Dale Dawkins, Wesley Carroll and Randall Hill. At running back was the shifty Leonard Conley and the more powerful Stephen McGuire.
The ‘Canes had top talent up front, with future NFL players on both sides of the trenches, including Leon Searcy at offensive tackle, with Cortez Kennedy and Russell Maryland on the defensive front. Miami was ranked #4 to start the season.
It wasn’t an imposing schedule, the kind the 1987 and 1988 teams had to navigate. Miami was able to open with three cakewalk wins over bad teams in Wisconsin, Cal and Missouri. The first test came at Michigan State on September 30, and even here we should note that while the Spartans would finish the year 8-4, they weren’t even ranked at the time Miami went to East Lansing.
Things went wrong early for the Hurricanes, as Craig Erickson hurt his hand and redshirt freshman Gino Torretta was inserted. Miami trailed 10-3 in the second quarter, before Torretta capped a 57-yard drive with a short touchdown pass to Carroll. In the second half, they blocked a punt and pulled out to a 20-10 lead.
The game seemed in hand, but the Spartans got a field goal and then Torretta threw a pick-6 with five minutes remaining. The game was tied, and if it ended that way—overtime did not exist prior to 1996—it would be disastrous for Miami’s national title hopes. They might as well have been trailed, and a redshirt freshman had to lead the way on the road.
Torretta came through. He got the ‘Canes into field goal range and All-American kicker Carlos Huerta kicked a field goal to get the lead. Huerta kicked one more before it was over and Miami escaped 26-20.
Two more easy wins over Cincinnati and San Jose State at home followed, and it set up a prime-time visit to ninth-ranked Florida State. The Seminoles had lost their first two games of the season, effectively ending their national championship hopes, but FSU was coming on strong and wanted badly to end a three-game losing streak in their series against Miami.
Craig Erickson’s hand was not recovered and Torretta remained in the lineup. His inexperience showed on this night. He threw an interception on his first pass of the game and ended up with four picks before it was over. Miami lost 24-10, slipped to #7 in the polls and their national championship hopes appeared dead.
The Hurricanes blew out lowly East Carolina and then got a nice 24-3 road win over an eight-win Pitt team. Another home rout, this one over San Diego State followed. Miami hadn’t moved in the polls—they were still at #7. But all ills would be healed if they could beat Notre Dame.
Miami’s crushing 31-30 loss to Notre Dame the previous year in South Bend was the game that settled the national championship. Indeed, Johnson’s parting request to the team upon leaving to coach the Dallas Cowboys was “beat Notre Dame.” The former coach sent the team a telegram reminding them of his request in the week leading up to the battle on Thanksgiving Saturday night. Notre Dame was ranked #1 in the country and riding a 23-game winning streak.
The Hurricanes looked like the quicker, hungrier team right from the outset and built up a 10-0 lead, with Craig Erickson hitting Dawkins on an early 55-yard touchdown strike. ND got a field goal back, and then tied the game when Craig Erickson threw a Pick-6 near midfield late in the second quarter. Fortunately for Miami, Irish quarterback Tony Rice threw an interception to Bernard Clark and Miami quickly cashed it in and led 17-10 at half.
Early in the third quarter, Miami was backed up in its own end and facing an impossible 3rd-and-44. Hill ran a fly route down the sidelines. Erickson let the ball fly. An improbable 50-yard completion gave Miami a first down. A grinding drive ensued. By the time it was over, Miami had taken 22 plays to drive 80 yards and taken 10:47 off the clock. They got into the end zone and with the soul-crushing drive, Notre Dame was all but finished. Miami won 27-10.
The Hurricanes not only had revenge, but the impressive quality of the win shot them back up to #2 in the polls and they were in the national championship race. Colorado was ranked #1 and tied into the Orange Bowl. But the bowl matchups had been put in place over the previous couple weeks, as was the norm in the anything-goes-chaos that preceded the Bowl Championship Series in later years.
Miami was already ticketed for the Sugar Bowl to play Alabama. The Orange Bowl paired up Notre Dame with Colorado, anticipating a 1 vs. 2 battle. Instead, the matchups gave the Hurricanes season a new irony—they had to root like heck for Notre Dame.
Both games took place in prime-time on New Year’s Night. McGuire ran in a first-quarter touchdown from three yards out, Alex Johnson ran in another, and Craig Erickson hooked up with Carroll on a short TD pass. But Miami’s defense was having a tough time keeping Alabama’s overachieving quarterback, Gary Hollingsworth, under control and the score was 20-17 at half.
The Hurricanes talent was too much though. Craig Erickson threw TD passes towards the end of the third quarter and early in the fourth, though the normally reliable Huerta missed his second extra point of the night on one of them. The result was the score was 33-17, and still within two possessions.
That looked like it might matter when Alabama scored with 2:53 left and converted the two-point play to make it 33-25. A tie would be as good as a loss, even with the scoreboard showing Notre Dame was in command against Colorado. But the Hurricanes were able to run out the clock and win the game. They were voted national champions.
The dynasty was nowhere near over. Dennis Erickson would win another national championship in 1991 and play for another in 1992. The 1989 Miami Hurricanes made it apparent that “The U” was bigger than any one coach.