The Miami Football Dynasty’s Last Vestige Says Farewell
An era comes to an end tonight when Dennis Erickson takes his Arizona State team onto the field in Las Vegas to play Boise State. Erickson will not be back as Sun Devil head coach and the odds are pretty good it’s his last game on the sidelines anywhere.
GREAT 1980s SPORTS MOMENTS
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With Erickson, along with Florida Atlantic’s Howard Schnellenberger, moving into retirement, the last vestiges of the great Miami Hurricane dynasty of the late 1980s and early 1990s has gone into the history books. While the Notebook was admittedly not a fan of the ‘Canes, their historical significance and on-field excellence is beyond dispute. So on this night, let’s take a look back on the glory years of Miami football history.
Schnellenberger took over what was a moribund program in the 1970s and on the verge of extinction. The coach immediately decided that the school, usually dominated in the recruiting wars, would take the third and fourth-best players at a position if they were from south Florida, for the purpose of building a local recruiting base. He went north for his quarterbacks—including future NFL stars in Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar—but otherwise, wanted to establish a foothold in his own backyard that could eventually be improved on. It was a strategy that paid immediate fruit and would be a positive gold mine over the long haul. Miami made its mark in 1981 when they upset top-ranked Penn State and by 1983 they were ready to make a move.
The ’83 season didn’t start out special, with a 28-3 loss to Florida, but behind the freshman Kosar, Miami gradually gained steam. The fact the team had never been in national championship discussion, along with the reality that Nebraska and Texas were dominating everyone allowed the ‘Canes to move up the polls quietly. The schedule was not particularly tough. Miami only beat a pair of bowl teams in West Virginia and Notre Dame, but they were at #5 when the regular season ended and then got a break when it came to the bowl matchups.
Nebraska was the consensus #1 and locked in to the Orange Bowl. Texas was still unbeaten at #2 and committed to the Cotton. Auburn was #3 and locked to the Sugar, while fourth-ranked Illinois was obligated to the Rose. That made the local Hurricanes the choice to get the crack at Nebraska. And when Texas was stunned by Georgia early in the day, while Illinois was blasted by UCLA, it gave Miami a chance at the national title.
No one really believed Miami had a chance in any case. Even on their homefield, the Hurricanes were a double-digit underdog and the 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers were considered perhaps the greatest team of all time.
In reality they were one of the great rushing offenses of all time, but the schedule had not been demanding, the defense was not great and the special teams problematic, but that wasn’t being noticed in the media frenzy to anoint this team. Miami blocked a field goal on the opening drive and then bolted to a 17-0 lead, stunning NBC’s prime-time audience.
The Cornhuskers tied it 17-17. Kosar led two long touchdown drives and with the score 31-24, had a chance to ice the game with a field goal. The kick missed and Nebraska got a chance to tie or win. A 4th-and-8 option play in the red zone produced a touchdown that could tie the game if Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne chose to kick. There was no overtime in college football then, so with 48 seconds left a PAT conversion all but ensured a tie that would have given the Cornhuskers the national title.
27 years in advance of Lebron James, Osborne had his own version of The Decision. But his mind was already made up. His team hadn’t taken their talents to South Beach to settle for a tie. Champions play to win and that’s what Nebraska did. They went for two and Miami safety Ken Calhoun got a finger on the pass and tipped it away by a hair.
There was still the matter of waiting for the votes to come in. Auburn had won an ugly Sugar Bowl over Michigan 9-7, but the Tigers were ranked higher than Miami coming in, they had beaten nine bowl teams and had a resume that was clearly stronger top-to-bottom. I would have voted for Auburn and strongly believe the Tigers being denied is one of the most short-sighted championship votes ever taken. The drama of Miami’s win and the perception they’d beaten a historically great team were enough to override the overall body of work and Schnellenberger had the national title. A dynasty was born.
JIMMY COMES TO TOWN
Jimmy Johnson’s future involved huge success in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, moderate success with the Miami Dolphins and then Sunday afternoons in the Fox studio with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long & Co. In 1984 he was a coach in the middle of building a program at Oklahoma State when he got a call. Schnellenberger had stepped down to take a job in the fledgling United States Football League (the USFL, built on spring football, mounted a formidable challenge to the NFL for three years in bidding on stars and only financial irresponsibility and NFL violation of anti-trust laws derailed them). Johnson was tapped as the new coach in Coral Gables.
1984 was a rocky year. It started well with a win over Auburn and its Heisman hopeful Bo Jackson and another win over Florida moved the ‘Canes to #1 in the polls. Kosar was churning out passing numbers, but losses to Michigan and Florida State ended any national title hopes. The defense collapsed down the stretch and in historic fashion. Miami blew a 31-0 lead to Maryland and allowed the biggest comeback in NCAA history. On Black Friday they were the victims of Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass, a play shown on ESPN Classic even more than Calhoun’s deflected two-point conversion. Then Miami lost the Fiesta Bowl to UCLA 39-37.
Johnson was able to get his own staff in place for the following season and the results were improved. Miami went 10-1 and that included a win at Oklahoma with far-reaching consequences. OU was quarterbacked by sophomore Troy Aikman, part of the Sooners’ commitment to throw the ball and move past their triple-option attack. Miami defensive tackle Jerome Brown, a future NFL star with the Eagles, sacked Aikman and broke his ankle. To save the season, Switzer installed the wishbone, put in freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway and never lost again. There was no going back and Aikman knew it. He transferred to UCLA where the pro-style offense had been in effect much longer and it prepared him for the NFL…where he would be drafted by Johnson and the two would go on to win a pair of Super Bowls together, while Aikman won a third—after Johnson was replaced by Switzer.
Miami got a Sugar Bowl bid to play Tennessee at season’s end and was ranked #2. Oklahoma was at #3 and set to get a crack at top-ranked and unbeaten Penn State in the Orange Bowl. While the Hurricanes had the head-to-head win over OU, there was a strong possibility that a Sooner win over the #1 team would override Miami’s overall body of work—putting the ‘Canes on the reverse side of the dynamic they’d benefitted from two years earlier. It ended up not mattering. Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde had an awful night, Miami lost 35-7 and OU’s win over Penn State gave them a national title. Though the ending was disappointing, Johnson had Miami back on track and the stage was set for three years as dominant as anything ever seen in the modern era of college football.
THREE YEARS OF DOMINANCE
The Miami Hurricanes of 1986-88 were a feeder system for the NFL only matched in recent years by the Pete Carroll era at USC. Testaverde won the Heisman in 1986 and went on to a 22-year NFL career. Other future NFLers included Brown, wide receiver Michael Irvin, running back Alonzo Highsmith and defensive back Bennie Blades, among the most notable. Bill Hawkins was an elite defensive end and linebacker Randy Shannon would one day become the school’s head coach himself. In September of 1986 they again beat Oklahoma and rolled to an undefeated season. Miami was headed for a showdown in the Fiesta Bowl with Penn State and were solid favorites to win a national championship.
Fate was cruel to the ‘Canes though. With extra preparation time, Penn State’s now-disgraced defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky devised a package of 20 coverages designed to confuse Testaverde. It worked and the Lions picked off the Miami quarterback five times. Miami kicker Mark Selig also missed a crucial field goal in the third quarter that loomed large when the ‘Canes made one final attempt at a game-winning drive.
Inside the Penn State 10-yard line they trailed 14-10. Had Selig made the earlier kick from 38, the 4th-and-8 call Johnson faced would have been easy—bring Selig out for a chippie that wins the championship. Instead Testaverde had to try one last pass in the end zone and it resulted in the final interception. A team Johnson would always believe to be the best college team he coached, had missed a national title by one play.
There were no missed opportunities the following year. Steve Walsh stepped in at quarterback, the defense kept rolling and though Miami didn’t look as dominant, they went undefeated again and this time against a more difficult schedule. They beat what was Bobby Bowden’s best team to date at Florida State in a 26-25 thriller, where FSU first missed an extra point, then missed a potential game-winning two-point conversion at the end. Miami shut out Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame squad 24-0 and beat a good South Carolina team.
It was time for another showdown with Oklahoma, this time in the Orange Bowl. Miami’s defense was just too fast to run the option on effectively and their 20-14 win does not reflect how decisively the ‘Canes controlled the flow of play. Miami was back on top of the college football world.
The following year Florida State was all the rage in the preseason polls, but Miami immediately showed who was boss. They hammered the ‘Noles on opening night 31-0, then won a wild game at Michigan 31-30. It set up an October battle in South Bend, where Holtz had Notre Dame looking like championship material in his third year as head coach. Dredging up memories of the ’86 Fiesta Bowl, Miami turned the ball over seven times.
Dredging up memories of the ’83 Orange Bowl, they trailed 31-24 before scoring on fourth down with inside a minute to play. They went for two and had it batted down in the end zone. The final ended with the same 31-30 score as that Orange Bowl and the earlier Michigan game this season. It was what decided the national title, as neither team lost again, finishing 1-2 in the national polls.
Thus, over three years, Miami went 32-1 in regular season play, with the only loss being by one point in a game they could have tied if they’d chosen—and while it wasn’t this clear at the time, a tie would have surely resulted in either a Miami national title or at least a bowl game rematch. ‘The Canes went 2-1 in major bowl games, with the only loss being decided by a single play. They were oh-so-close to three straight perfect seasons. In any case, their excellence seems only greater in memory.
THE ERICKSON YEARS
Johnson left after 1988 to pursue his NFL dreams and Miami tapped Washington State head coach Dennis Erickson. The raw talent level in the coming years wouldn’t be quite what it had been under Johnson, but Miami still produced pro standouts at defensive tackle in Cortez Kennedy and Russell Maryland, along with longtime Pittsburgh Steeler offensive tackle Leon Searcy. In ’89, they were moving along at #2 in the polls and looking ahead to a rematch with top-ranked Notre Dame on Thanksgiving Saturday. Then the ‘Canes lost to Florida State and were only ranked #7 when the showdown with the Irish came. But fate was smiling on Erickson. FSU had already lost twice and was out of the picture. Alabama, who’d moved up to #2 lost to Auburn. When the ‘Canes physically manhandled ND, they were able to pass Michigan in the polls and were back to #2 when the bowls game. Miami beat Alabama in the Sugar and when Notre Dame took out top-ranked Colorado, it meant the Hurricanes were champions again.
1990 was a wild year in college football and Miami was the victim of that from the outset. Ranked #1 to start the year, they lost their opener in BYU and it resulted in Cougar quarterback Ty Detmer getting the Heisman Trophy. Miami went to South Bend for the next installment of what was the hottest rivalry in all of sports at the time and lost to Notre Dame 29-20. They finished the season 9-2 and due to the whacky nature of the year, were at #4 and still had a shot at winning the whole thing. They needed Colorado and Georgia Tech in the top two spots to lose, while the ‘Canes could control third-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Even though they didn’t get the help, Miami battered Texas every which way in a 46-3 shellacking. The game is most remembered for Hurricane antics—they piled up 202 yards of penalties thanks to nine 15-yarders on personal fouls and unsportsmanlike calls. Their legacy lives on with the rules that ban excessive celebration
THE FINAL RUN
The years of 1991-92 produced more championship-level football. The ’91 team played suffocating defense, but managed the difficult feat of being #2 in the country and sliding under the radar. Florida State was #1, they looked unbeatable and they had Miami at home. But the 1991 game began a phase where this game, rather than the now-defunct rivalry with Notre Dame, became the new Greatest Rivalry In Sports. Miami pulled a 17-16 upset when FSU missed a field goal wide right. The Hurricanes closed the regular season unbeaten, took apart Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and shared the national title with fellow unbeaten Washington.
Miami and Washington ran 1-2 in the polls into November of the following year as well. Miami again beat Florida State, this one a 19-16 final where the Seminoles again missed a field goal wide right. The very phrase “Wide Right” became known nationally as the shorthand version of describing FSU’s agony in this series. Miami had other narrow escapes against Arizona, Penn State and Syracuse, and when Washington fell apart in November, the door was open to another national title. Miami only needed to dispatch Alabama in the Sugar. The 1992 Crimson Tide weren’t respected, thanks to an inept offense, but a powerful running game and tough defense were all they needed on New Year’s night. The ‘Canes fell flat and lost 34-13.
The Sugar Bowl loss effectively ended the dynasty. Miami went 9-2 the following year, finally losing to Florida State and also losing the Big East championship to West Virginia in that conference’s first year of complete round-robin play. A 29-0 humiliation at the hands of Arizona capped off the year in the Fiesta Bowl. The following year Miami’s 55-game home winning streak came to an end against Washington, although the ‘Canes were still #3 and playing top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. If Miami could win and get help in the Rose Bowl through a Penn State loss, another title could be theirs. But this was no 1983. Miami’s 17-9 lead disappeared at the hands of Nebraska’s powerful offensive line and the Cornhuskers won 24-17, effectively bringing the dynasty full circle. It ended where it had begun in 1983.
Miami football is far from finished. After a brief disappearance from the spotlight, they returned and won a national title in 2001 and the elements that made them a great team from 1983-92 are all there—the recruiting base, the national prominence, the access to top coaches. But that kind of run is tough to duplicate. For ten years, the Miami Hurricanes ruled college football. Four national championships. Two years within one play of a title. Two additional years within one game of a crown. That’s the legacy and the last man from that era still standing is Dennis Erickson. He says goodbye tonight and we let the Miami Dynasty take its rightful place in the history books.