For at least seven years, 1987 through 1993, the Miami-Florida State rivalry blazed red-hot, one of the best in both college football and all of sports. 1989 had an ironic twist—more often than not, the Hurricanes got the best of the Seminoles. Florida State won the ’89 battle, but even then, it was Miami who ended up winning the war before it was all over.
You can read more about the complete seasons of both teams, as well as their key players, at the links below. This post focuses specifically on the 1989 Miami-Florida State game.
It was a humid night in Tallahassee on October 28. Florida State was building momentum on their season after a rocky start left them 0-2 and out of the national championship picture. The Seminoles had responded with five straight wins, three over ranked teams. Beating #2 and undefeated Miami would validate their turnaround.
The Hurricanes were dealing with an injured quarterback. Craig Erickson had missed the last two games and been replaced by freshman Gino Torretta. It hadn’t come back to bite the ‘Canes yet, but the freshman had not faced an opponent of this caliber or a road environment that would be this loud.
And it showed on his first pass. Torretta was picked off by LeRoy Butler. FSU’s Dexter Carter immediately ripped off a 37-yard run for a touchdown. A first-quarter flurry was underway.
To his credit, Torretta settled down and led a 65-yard TD drive that tied the game. Florida State marched right back with another touchdown. Miami raced back the other way and got a field goal. All the back and forth left this a 14-10 game with FSU in front as the first quarter came to a close.
The remaining three quarters would be marked by Hurricane mistakes and missed opportunities. Miami drove to the one-yard line in the second quarter. Torretta’s third-down pass was intercepted in the end zone by Kevin Grant. The ‘Canes drove to the one-yard line in the third quarter. Kirk Carruthers recovered a fumble. The recovery went with Carruthers’ two interceptions and made it a dream night for the linebacker.
Florida State made the turnover hurt when they drove 99 yards for a touchdown that gave them some breathing room. After a field goal extended the lead to 24-10 it was time for Miami to make yet another drive to the FSU one-yard line. This time they were stopped on downs.
On the night, the ‘Canes committed six turnovers—four of them interceptions by the freshman quarterback. They were flagged for nine penalties totaling nearly 100 yards.
Lest we think that the evening was only marked by Miami shooting themselves in the foot, let’s also point out that Florida State dominated the line of scrimmage. The Seminoles rushed for over 200 yards, 142 of them from Carter. The Seminoles moved up to #6 in the polls with the win. The Hurricanes fell to #7.
Miami would rebound though, winning out and beating top-ranked Notre Dame in the season finale. The Hurricanes went on to the Sugar Bowl back at #2 and beat Alabama. When the Irish knocked off #1 Coloradoin the Orange Bowl, it handed Miami the national title.
As for Florida State, they kept on coming. The Seminoles won out and then blasted Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. FSU finished #3 and had a lot of people believing they were the nation’s best team, even if the two early losses made it impractical to crown them as champs.
As a purely sports story, the 2000 Miami-Florida State college football debate over who was #2 in the polls and deserved a chance at the national championship, wasn’t especially noteworthy. Interesting to be sure, passionate at the time yes, but nothing that altered the course of sports history. But the location of these two teams dovetailed with one of the biggest political controversies in history to create a rich irony and a lasting memory.
2000 was the year of Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case that settled the controversy over how to count presidential votes in the state of Florida, and ultimately decided the election itself. Miami and Florida State didn’t have quite the same stakes, but their own debate came right on the heels of the presidential battle.
Florida State was the defending national champion and opened the season at #1 in the country. Miami, after being out of the national picture for five years, had big expectations when the season began and were ranked #5. An early Hurricanes’ loss to Washington was deflating, but on October 7, all was well in South Beach–Miami upset Florida State 27-24 and put themselves back on the map.
Miami went on to beat Michael Vick and Virginia Tech in a highly anticipated battle of unbeatens, while Florida State hammered Florida in their season finale. Either the Hurricanes or the Seminoles would get an Orange Bowl shot for the national title. But though the voters liked Miami, ranking them #2 in both polls, the computer rankings strongly preferred Florida State, enough to lift the ‘Noles into that spot in the BCS standings.
The public outcry on Miami’s behalf was deafening and if this were a true two-candidate race, quite understandable. But what everyone overlooked was that there was a third one-loss team in the mix and that was Washington. And hadn’t the Huskies beaten Miami head-to-head?
Unfortunately for Washington, they were the Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan of this race–a third-party contender that everyone ignored, and settled for being an underappreciated #4.
Miami went to the Sugar Bowl and hammered Florida 37-20, while Washington dismantled the Purdue team led by Drew Brees in the Rose Bowl. All they could do was watch as Florida State got their chance at a national title. It was an opportunity the Seminoles did nothing with, losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But it served to add another chapter to the great rivalry between Florida State and Miami, and this one had a dose of presidential politics in the backdrop.
The 1984 Orange Bowl—following the 1983 college football season–was arguably the most seminal game in college football history, when the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers met the up-and-coming Miami Hurricanes.
When Miami pulled the 31-30 upset it not only won the national championship and produced one of the most-replayed plays in college football history, it was a landmark moment in the transformation of the sport itself. Let’s look back on the road Miami and Nebraska took to reach the Orange Bowl.
The Miami program had been in the doldrums when Howard Schnellenberger took over the program in 1979 and after a 5-6 opening year, promptly went 25-9 over the next three seasons.
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 moved into the national rankings at #13.
Another soft part of the schedule followed, with Duke, Louisville, Mississippi State and Cincinnati all finishing with losing records. Miami rolled 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.
Nebraska was hungry for its first national championship run since 1971 when Bob Devaney was on the sidelines. After head coach Tom Osborne took over, he had a hard time getting past the hump that was Oklahoma in the Big Eight.
But the previous two years had seen Nebraska win the conference and its attendant Orange Bowl bid. They had come close to the national title in 1982, losing only a disputed game at Penn State.
College football’s schedule had a new wrinkle this year—the Kickoff Classic, a new concept where two high-profile opponents would play at a neutral site. Nebraska would get its grudge match against Penn State in the Meadowlands.
This Nittany Lion team wasn’t in the same class as they one that ended up with the 1982 national title, but it didn’t make the pounding the Cornhuskers administered any less sweet. They were ahead 21-0 by half and didn’t allow a point until twenty seconds remained in the 44-6 beatdown.
Nebraska outrushed Penn State 322-82 and overcame a bizarre game where they fumbled nine times, but recovered eight of them. Penn State added five more fumbles, but got four of them back.
The game sent a clear message that Nebraska intended to validate its preseason #1 ranking. Mike Rozier was the latest in the assembly line of great Cornhusker running backs. He rolled up over 2,100 yards and won the Heisman Trophy this season. Rozier ran behind an offensive line that was led by Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkhuler.
Turner Gill was at quarterback, and while he didn’t have to throw a lot, Gill still completed 55 percent of his passes—respectable in 1983—and had a very good 8.9 yards-per-attempt and a sterling 14-4 TD/INT ratio. Gill finished fourth in the Heisman balloting and his top receiver was future NFL starter Irving Fryar, who caught 40 passes for 780 yards.
The defense was not great, but had a good ballhawk in Bret Clark who intercepted five passes. And with the way Nebraska’s offense rolled up yards and points, the defense didn’t need to be special.
Nebraska rolled up 56 points against Wyoming and a mind-boggling 84 at Minnesota. The Cornhuskers leveled UCLA, the defending and future Rose Bowl champions by a 42-10 count. A 63-7 romp over Syracuse followed before a trip to Stillwater finally brought a real test.
Oklahoma State won seven games under head coach Jimmy Johnson, who would be in Miami by the following season. Nebraska narrowly escaped with a 14-10 win.
The routs resumed with a 34-13 win over Missouri, a 69-19 bulldozing of Colorado and a 51-25 blasting of Kansas State. Nebraska’s final two home games saw wins over Iowa State and Kansas State—by scores of 72-29 and 67-13.
It was the stuff of all-time greatness and though the schedule wasn’t brutally tough, Nebraska had already beaten six teams that would finish with winning records (Penn State, Wyoming, UCLA, Syracuse, Oklahoma State and Missouri). And one more was on deck—the Cornhuskers were going to Oklahoma on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
This was not a great Sooners team. After opening the season ranked #2 they had already lost three games. But OU was 5-1 in Big Eight play and if they won this game, they’d tie Nebraska for the conference title and go to the Orange Bowl on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Predictably, Oklahoma played one of its best games of the season. Nebraska fell behind 14-7 in the second quarter, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to Spencer Tillman, the league’s second-best rusher behind Rozier. Then a 73-yard pass-and-catch between OU quarterback Danny Bradley and running back Buster Rhymes gave the Sooners the lead and put everyone on upset alert.
A Rozier touchdown run tied it by halftime, but Tillman answered with an 18-yard touchdown run that put Nebraska in a 21-14 hole. Osborne kept dialing up Rozier’s number, and the back ended up with 205 yards on 32 carries. Nebraska scored consecutive touchdowns and took a 28-21 lead.
Oklahoma came driving down the field in the closing minutes and got 2nd-and-goal on the one-yard line with less than a minute to play. What head coach Barry Switzer would do if he got the touchdown made for interesting speculation—a tie, as existed before the institution of overtime in 1996, didn’t do OU any good—Nebraska would win the conference title.
But a tie would knock Nebraska out of the #1 spot and put them at the mercy of #2 Texas, who was Cotton Bowl-bound. Would Switzer hate Nebraska enough to just kick the extra point in a decision that seemed imminent?
We never found out the answer. An illegal motion penalty set Oklahoma back. Nebraska’s Bill Weber than got a sack to push the ball back to the 9-yard line. Cornerback Neil Harris then sealed it, twice batting away passes into the end zone to preserve the 28-21 win.
It had been a struggle, but the Cornhuskers concluded their undefeated season and were fully expected to validate their standing as perhaps the greatest time of all-time in the Orange Bowl.
Nebraska was a 10 ½ point favorite in the Orange Bowl, a hefty number given that it was a literal home game for Miami. It didn’t take long for Nebraska’s weaknesses—a defense and kicking game that were really tested—to become exposed.
An early Cornhusker drive ended with a blocked field goal and then Kosar went to work. He began carving up the Nebraska defense, twice finding Dennison for touchdown passes and building up a 17-0 lead.
Nebraska finally broke through on a “fumble-rooskie” play, where Gill set the ball on the ground, Steinkhuler pulled around, picked it up and raced into the end zone for a touchdown. The Cornhuskers pulled even, 17-17.
Miami bounced back with consecutive touchdown drives of 70-plus yards and at 31-17, with Rozier having to leave the game with a bad ankle, it looked like it was all over but the shouting.
Osborne turned to his bench and found backup running back Jeff Smith. Early in the fourth quarter, he scored from a yard out. Miami then showed its own flaws in the kicking game, when Davis missed an insurance field goal from 42.
Nebraska had one more chance and Gill launched a last-ditch drive for glory. He led the Cornhuskers to the Hurricane 26-yard line. Gill dropped back to throw, had Fryar wide-open in the left corner and hit the receiver with a perfect pass…which Fryar dropped.
It would have been the play that lived in college football infamy if not for Smith. On 4th-and-8, Gill ran the option, read it correctly and pitched to Smith, who found the right sideline and took it the rest of the way. The score was 31-30 and there were 48 seconds left.
The events of earlier in the day could have impacted Osborne’s own decision now. Texas had lost and there were no other unbeaten teams. A tie meant a certain national title for Nebraska. But Osborne believed there was no honor in winning a championship by deliberately taking a tie and he never hesitated in going for two.
Gill rolled right. Smith flashed open in the end zone. Gill threw a pass right on target, but Hurricane safety Ken Calhoun got his finger in there and the ball bounced away. Miami covered the onside kick and the upset was complete.
There was still the matter of voting on the national champion. Fourth-ranked Illinois had been destroyed in the Rose Bowl, while #3 Auburn won the Sugar. It was a choice of Miami or Auburn for the crown.
Auburn had beaten eight bowl teams to Miami’s two and the Tigers had come through a particularly brutal stretch in November where they beat three Top 10 teams in three weeks, including a road win over the Georgia team that had upset Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
If it sounds like I think Auburn should have won the vote, that’s correct. But the incredible drama of Miami’s win over Nebraska, compared to Auburn’s dry 9-7 win over Michigan in the Sugar, were the last thing voters remembered and the Hurricanes took home the top spot. Auburn couldn’t even pass Nebraska, who was kept in at #2.
The ultimate historic impact of this game is in what happened afterward. Miami became a dynasty and won 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 was just one part of what became a surge in college football power to the Sunshine State, as Florida State and Florida became national powers.
Miami had overturned the establishment and it started with a landmark night in South Beach on January 2, 1984.
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.
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.