Everywhere around the University of Miami the talk is of a national championship for the Hurricanes this year. And if you believe such chatter, well, there's also lots of choice beach-front property around Miami for sale at $100 an acre, if you'll buy sight unseen, pay cash and agree to getting the deed in the mail.
Obviously, the thought of a national title for the Hurricanes is utterly laughable, except for one thing: Everything Coach Howard Schnellenberger has said his team would achieve since he arrived on the Coral Gables campus on Jan. 8, 1979 has been achieved. In 1980, his motto was "A bowl is the goal." Miami went 8-3 and to the Peach Bowl, its first postseason appearance since 1967. In 1981, his slogan was "Reaching higher," and the Hurricanes went higher, to 9-2, including a shocking win over then No. 1-ranked Penn State. Had the NCAA not put the Hurricanes on probation for the year, they surely would have gone to a bowl. This year the pipe-gnawing Schnellenberger's line is "Go for it"—"it," of course, is the national championship.
Come on, Howard, is your team really any good? "They think so," he says. "And in fact, they have a chance to be a very good football team. I predicate that on Jim Kelly." Ah, yes, Jim Kelly, the senior quarterback with the golden arm who already has passed for 4,643 yards, breaking the school record set by Miami's greatest football legend, George Mira, 1961-63. Kelly has established a slew of other marks, including Most Affable. That means the other guys will block for him. When Schnellenberger is asked about Kelly's weaknesses, he sucks on his pipe and then says, "It's hell when a coach has to study on a question like that." After a spell more, Schnellenberger says, "His improvement will be based on how much our coaching improves, because he does everything we ask him."
Kelly himself claims he needs to get better at knowing when to pull the ball down and run, rather than stand interminably in the pocket until he's suddenly involved in a big wreck. And former Quarterback Earl Morrall, who coaches the Miami signal-callers, says Kelly needs to improve on his timing so he'll have the confidence to throw at the moment his receiver is open, even with a defensive back nearby, instead of waiting for the receiver to get a step in the clear. And, says Morrall, Kelly needs to have a better idea of what's going on behind him while he's concentrating downfield.
Kelly will have impressive help from a big, tough offensive line. Make that two big, tough offensive lines. The Hurricanes have six 1981 lettermen ready, willing and able for blocking duty, plus three good people who were red-shirted last year. Says Center Don Bailey, "We are intense and we are mean."
Another key returnee is Split End Rocky Belk, who had an appendectomy early last year and missed two games. He still made 15 catches for an average gain of 23.8 yards—gulp!—and showed a ton of courage on the crossing patterns.
Overall the offense, which set school records for total yardage each of the past two seasons, should be even better this time around.
There is somewhat less to cheer when it comes to the defense, mostly because the two fine tackles from 1981, Bob Nelson and All-America Lester Williams, are gone. To fill the breach, Middle Guard Tony Chickillo, who was second among the Hurricanes in tackles last year with 96, has been shifted to one tackle. At the other tackle will be Fred Robinson, who at 235 pounds is too small except when it comes to his ticker. Says Chickillo, "We ain't going to have the defense we had last year, so we'll have to hustle." There is also concern about the secondary, especially at free safety, where Fred Marion starred for three years. Marion is gone, and neither of his replacements, Eddie Williams and Dave Ditthardt, has much experience.
The basis for the pervasive optimism at the U of M isn't so much the Hurricanes' talent, which is considerable, but Schnellenberger's success in getting the players and fans to believe in him and his system. After all, in the '70s the Hurricanes had six coaches before Howard, and none of them got anywhere. You had to knock on a lot of doors in those days to find a Miami fan. As Schnellenberger says, "It's hard to care after 13 years of being terrible." But the fans care once again. The average attendance was 24,001 in 1980; last year it was 39,851.
The Hurricanes open on Sept. 4 at Florida. Make that Hated Florida. Miami has whipped the Gators four years running, including last season, when Danny Miller's 55-yard field goal with 40 seconds left hit an upright and caromed through for a 21-20 win. Florida was not amused. Anyway, if the Hurricanes beat the Gators again and then whip Houston the following week, they could be well on their way to proving that all those optimists in Miami may not be cockeyed after all.