On the day before last week's game with Houston, the president of the University of Miami, Dr. Henry King Stanford, sat in his sunshine-bright office and talked good-humoredly about the varying fortunes of the Miami football team. He told of how the team had earned the "sheerest admiration of our campus community." Of how its "heroic struggles" against alien hordes (mostly Oklahomas, Nebraskas and Colorados) had "unified" the entire school. Of how the sportscasters and writers who pick at Miami football the way barnyard chickens pick at a wounded hen—to use his own native Georgian analogy—had only strengthened team resolve. And by way of summing up, Dr. Stanford then said that reports of the death of football at Miami, at age 50, were not only exaggerated but subversive, "a myth promoted by our recruiting competitors."
Miami football, he said, was here to stay, drooping attendance figures and won-lost percentages notwithstanding. A current report by a faculty committee studying athletics at the university lay on his desk. The report not only supported the program, but called it "a powerful force in the building of school spirit and in the projecting of the university's image." The football team, said Dr. Stanford, was an image-serving, spirit-building force to be proud of.
The team (or force) was 0-4 at that point in time. In 49 previous seasons no other Miami team had made so quiet an opening statement. But in its futility it had been, well, unifying. Not to mention heroic. In a three-point loss to top-ranked, heavily favored Oklahoma, Miami fumbled away its last chance to win. It led before running afoul of superior numbers and its own youthful blunders in close losses to Nebraska and Colorado, both highly ranked. The Hurricanes had been described by solicitous players and coaches from the other (winning) sides as "the best 0-4 team in college football." Actually not the sweetest kind of solace, admitted Dr. Stanford, who said he "agreed with the newsman who wrote that being the best 0-4 team is the equivalent of being the fastest three-legged horse." He predicted that Carl Selmer was on the verge of adding the fourth leg.
Selmer, also 50, is the new coach of the Hurricanes. He had never been a head coach, but wherever he assisted he was considered the pick of the litter. He was No. 1 assistant to Pete Elliott, the Miami athletic director, for two years, and before that was Bob Devaney's right hand for 11 years at Nebraska. Selmer admits to having been resentful when he was passed up for that job after Devaney quit, "but I didn't look back." He now considers himself lucky to have been in town when Elliott retired from coaching last February. He has come to love Miami. His golf game has improved and he knows he is going to like deep-sea fishing as soon as he can stand the movement of the sea.
But lucky? Miami is almost always dealt the toughest hand in college football. Miami athletic directors have never backed off from providing their coaches with a good fight. And Miami fans love a good fight—if their team wins. Miami fans support winners. In a preseason poll of Florida sportswriters, a losing season was unanimously forecast for the Hurricanes. One predicted an 0-11 finish. Welcome to Miami, Carl. Selmer said he knew he could beat that because Miami plays only 10 games. Elliott, now scheduling into the '80s, promised that Selmer would not have to play every national champion every year. Though he has Michigan, Penn State, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas, et al., booked to go with the usual complement of Notre Dames and Floridas, he pointed out that there were a few VPIs and Syracuses sprinkled in with the lineup. (Miami never gets to play Slippery Rock.)
Selmer said anybody could tackle a soft schedule; that this was "a challenge." He said he would play a lot of boys, freshmen included, and by midseason when the Hurricanes were usually worn out maybe they wouldn't just be playing giants, maybe they'd be one, too. Coaches with five-year contracts can talk like that. Sure enough, the Miami players rallied round. "I don't care if it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, nobody's coming in here on a free pass," said End Steadman Scavella, the defensive captain, after Miami had stuck out its jaw against Oklahoma and Colorado. Players were actually volunteering for the specialty teams.
Though winless, Miami arrived at mid-season not yet a giant, but a growing boy—and an eight-point favorite over Houston. Some who do not know about Miami football even predicted a rout. Miami does not rout. The good and the bad, the ranked and the rank, Miami plays them all the same. Close. Miami coaches get vertigo from hanging from cliffs. Miami fans never get to go home early. Unlike their sophisticated Dolphin counterparts, who can usually pack their handkerchiefs and head for the parking lot midway in the third quarter, Miami fans have to stick to the last reel to see what's going to happen.
Against Houston the Hurricanes gave them a half-minute cushion to beat it home. Just when it appeared Miami was about to pull another defeat from the jaws of victory, it drove 61 yards in a little more than two minutes to beat the clock and a 20-17 Houston lead. I Back Don Martin dived a yard into the end zone with exactly 30 seconds to play and the point after made it 24-20.
For Miami the game was alternately thrilling and horrifying. Obviously in knots at the heady prospect of finally winning one, the Hurricanes squandered a 17-6 lead (partially built by Tim Morgan's school-record 100-yard kickoff return) and presented Houston with one opportunity after another by fumbling seven times. Fortunately, one of the two they recovered themselves was off an erratic pitch that bounced from Quarterback Kary Baker into the-stomach of freshman Fullback Ottis Anderson, who happened to be heading full speed toward the Houston goal. Anderson made 12 yards to the Houston two, from where Martin took it over in two tries.
Baker is a senior from Miami who, like Scavella, typifies a remarkable—and significant—trend in Hurricane rosters: a swing to Florida-breds. Of the 26 freshmen Selmer brought in, 23 are Floridians. A few years ago they might well have been from Pennsylvania. Cheaper recruiting? No, an awareness that "the high school football in Florida is excellent," says Selmer. "I'd like to have as many as we can get from here." Most of Miami's better varsity players are, in fact, home-grown, including such pro prospects as Scavella, Fullback Larry Bates and Defensive Tackles Eddie Edwards and Gary Dunn. The latter is the son of Eddie Dunn, the alltime Miami rushing leader.
Baker is a lithe, quick-footed, strong-armed quarterback who can handle the intrigues of the Selmer slot I. He was superb in the last quarter against Houston. With the gauntlet thrown, he twice took the Hurricanes on drives of more than 50 yards (the first wrecked by an Anderson fumble), and in their course completed six straight passes. For the night he was 12 for 16, 137 yards, one TD and no interceptions. He was booed only occasionally.
Miami fans always boo their quarterbacks because they are not George Mira. Miami has not had a quarterback equal to Mira since Mira himself (1961-63), and the incumbent usually finds himself blamed though blameless. In Baker's case it is a tragic flaw that leads not only to booing but to inexplicable lapses of concentration that result in sudden miscues—a fumble, an indecisive play, a sack, an interception. "The pressure on Kary has been unbelievable," says Selmer. Nevertheless, Baker is still Miami's best quarterback—since Mira.
Miami football did, in fact, pass from the positive to the negative pole in those intervening years. Under Coach Andy Gustafson, Miami won often, was expected to win all the time and got booed for not doing it. Now the Hurricanes are expected to lose and get ignored for it. Until 1970, they consistently outdrew the pro Dolphins by as much as 17,000 a game. Ironically, their slide came at the same time the Dolphins hired Don Shula—terrible timing.
The Houston game drew only 15,362 and after you have said that the people got their money's worth and Selmer a victory he said was not just necessary but "imperative," you have to say it was still a small crowd. But some positive charges were certainly felt. For one, the team's remarkable poise—Baker's, most especially—in coming back when they had a chance to blow and didn't. For another, team members carried Selmer off the field on their shoulders without dropping him. And for a third, the cheering—Chinese fire drills in the streets holding up traffic—could be heard all the way down U.S. 1 to the Miami campus.
At LeJeune Road, a carload of coeds stumbled around their car a couple times shouting "U of M!" and trying to get the hang of the drill. Asked by a delaying motorist what they were up to, a blonde in a Miami T shirt explained breathlessly that Miami had won, and they were celebrating. "We're all pretty new at this," she said. "But we'll get better."