Perhaps the sheer lightness of their surroundings makes the Miami Hurricanes run a step faster than everyone else. Everything seems easy in Ray Ban land, down there in the world of the thong and the ankle tattoo. It is school-skipping territory, where pastels wash over your tired eyes like Visine and where the breeze has a giggly, permissive quality, drawing you toward the turquoise bay and into the great tanning sublime.
The Hurricanes seemed no different from other players when they were recruited by the more traditional football schools, but buried in their hearts must have been a little deviant individualism that led them to choose Miami, a school so seemingly, well, uncollegiate. It is only 67 years old. And the young men who play football for this school have the charm and arrogance of social-climbing bootleggers; they are the Jay Gatsbys of the NCAA. Yet they have manufactured tradition at an alarming pace, winning four national championships in nine years, including three in the last five and two in the last three.
All comparisons fail when talking about this seductive private school of 14,200 students. In a mere decade Miami has become highly regarded as a center not only of football achievements but also of academic attainment. A five-year fund-raising drive, which ended in 1989, took in $517 million—at the time the second most lucrative such campaign ever and one that is surely related to the football team's extravagant success.
Miami has gone 77-7 in the last seven seasons and finished in the top three in the country an unprecedented six straight times, accomplishments that demand comparison with the Notre Dame teams of the 1940s—the Irish won four national championships between 1943 and '49—and Oklahoma's teams of '53 through '57, which won 47 straight games and two national titles. Both of those dynasties were achieved under the direction of a single coach, Frank Leahy of the Irish and Bud Wilkinson of the Sooners. The Hurricanes, however, have won their four titles under three coaches—Howard Schnellenberger in 1983, Jimmy Johnson in '87 and the incumbent, Dennis Erickson, in '89 and '91. Miami assistant coach Art Kehoe is the only member of the staff who has remained through all three administrations. He can honestly say, "I remember every loss."
August 30, 1992
And the Hurricanes' consistency shows no sign of abating. With 15 starters returning from last year's team, Miami is seeking to become the first school to win back-to-back national titles since Alabama did it in 1978 and '79.
The Hurricane program has become the maker of manners, the model for every coach and athletic director seeking to launch a winning tradition of his own. It is not unusual for 40 or 50 high school, college and even pro coaches to visit Miami's spring practice sessions. But is it possible to copy the Hurricanes? Probably not, for their success is the product of an elusive formula, a combination of many elements. Its essence is the players themselves, who, lacking any tradition of their own, decided to make some up as they went along.
The Miami alumni list of the last 10 years is an NFL Who's Who, and many of the entries can be found on the sideline at the Orange Bowl, where the Hurricanes have won 45 straight games. Bennie Blades, Melvin Bratton, Eddie Brown, Bernard Clark, Alonzo Highsmith, Michael Irvin, Jim Kelly, Brett Perriman and Daniel Stubbs are some of the current pros who can be spotted amid the orange jerseys. They chat. They clap. They cajole. They criticize. Frequently they threaten. They moan that the current Hurricanes aren't showy enough or throwy enough or talky enough or dancey enough.
The alums even go so far as to call up current players at night and complain. It is the most effective form of alumni pressure in college football.
Former players have stayed in unusually close touch with the program they helped build. It is a bond that sometimes mystifies even the coaches. "I don't know what they say or do, but I know it motivates this team," says Erickson. "So we encourage it. It's important."
It begins with some hazing of the freshmen. It grows into a big-brother affair. It is not unusual to find three generations of Hurricane starters staying in touch with one another. Linebackers are especially close. Clark, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys, and Maurice Crum, a former All-America who also plays for the Cowboys, often take their undergraduate successors, Micheal Barrow and Darrin Smith, to breakfast at the New York, New York restaurant not far from campus.
Russell Maryland, the defensive lineman who anchored the '89 national-championship team and yet another Cowboy, also calls Barrow regularly. "It's handed down personally," says defensive end Rusty Medearis. "It's fed to you. From the first time you step on the field, that confidence is handed to you by the Hurricanes. You consume it, and you start playing like one."
When Clark was a senior and Smith was a freshman, they shared a suite in the athletic dorm. Now Clark calls Smith whenever he feels the need to complain about Smith's play or to send a message to the rest of the team ("And you tell them I said so," Clark screams at Smith).
"Tiger's always been a loudmouth," says Smith of Clark. "He just yells into the phone. He always sees the play you messed up on. He threatens me more than anything."
During Smith's freshman year, in 1989, not long after he had moved into suite 36-A, his phone rang. When Smith picked it up, he heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. "Who's this?" the voice demanded.
"What do you mean? Who's this?" Smith replied.
"I asked you first, who is this?" the voice said.
"This is Darrin Smith. Now who is this?"
"This is Michael Irvin, and you're in my room," the voice said.
It was indeed Irvin, the former wide receiver who played his final season with Miami in '87 and is now with the Cowboys. Irvin still makes a practice of calling his old number to find out who is living in his suite. He befriended Smith over the phone that day and not long afterward returned to campus and stayed in the suite for several days.
Irvin, Clark and other former Hurricanes view themselves as guardians of the Miami legacy. "You want to fire them up, find a way to hit a nerve," says Maryland. "By any means necessary. So you say things. Personal things."
Irvin, an excitable sort who was the first player at Miami to perform demonstrative and arrogant end zone dances, has seen to it that the tradition of the end zone two-step lives on among the Hurricanes. In 1988 Irvin helped to recruit receiver Lamar Thomas. As a high school senior in Gainesville, Fla., home of the Florida Gators, Thomas wasn't sure he even wanted to visit Miami. Then he got a call from Irvin. "You're going to be the next Michael Irvin," Irvin said. When Thomas expressed some doubt, Irvin replied, "Let me tell you something. I'm on NBC, CBS, ESPN and PBS. You come here, you're going to be on them, too."
Over the past three seasons, with Irvin egging him on, Thomas became a virtual parody of the hip-waggling Hurricane. Last season Irvin left this message on Thomas's answering machine: "I'm watching you. Do something."
Irvin was nonplussed when Erickson, who replaced Johnson after the 1988 season, declared a moratorium on choreographed end zone displays. When the Hurricanes were upset by Brigham Young in the first game of the 1990 season, Irvin felt that part of the problem was that the Miami players were not dancing enough. So he called Thomas to complain. "What's going on down there?" Irvin said. "Somebody makes a big play, and you don't do anything?"
Irvin suggested to Thomas that the Hurricane offense was stalling because the players were keeping a lid on their arrogance. The next week, in a 52-24 rout of Cal in Berkeley that was nationally televised, the Hurricanes reverted to their high-stepping, hip-shaking ways after each of their touchdowns. A lot of season-ticket holders phoned the football offices to complain, and Erickson declared that, in the future, offenders would sit out the remainder of a game if "they celebrate in an embarrassing way."
For the remainder of the season the Hurricanes were model citizens—that is, until their 46-3 romp over Texas in the Cotton Bowl. In that game the Hurricanes were penalized 16 times for 202 yards. Nine of the penalties were for unsportsmanlike conduct or personal fouls. As it happened, Irvin had visited several of Miami's Cotton Bowl practices and had urged the Hurricane players not to abandon their raucous tradition. During the off-season the NCAA sent a videotape to member schools defining unacceptable conduct on the field. Of the 37 examples cited in the tape, the first dozen featured Miami players.
For all of that, some quite practical advice comes out of the relationships between players past and present. "Sometimes [former Miamians] know little techniques," says Barrow, who picked up a few pointers on using his hands from former linebacker Robert Bailey. On his most recent visit to campus, Wes Carroll, a wide receiver in 1989 and '90 who is now with the New Orleans Saints, taught current wideouts Kevin Williams and Horace Copeland how to break the jams of defensive backs.
Last season's starting quarterback, Gino Torretta, who is now a senior and whom many critics once compared unfavorably with his illustrious predecessors, was given a simple tip by one of them, Steve Walsh of the Saints. "Don't be greedy," Walsh told Torretta, who had been disparaged for having a weak arm.
There is, of course, no more enduring legacy at Miami than that of excellence at the quarterback position. Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde built reputations of mythical proportions. For a Miami quarterback, anything less than 10 victories and a bowl game is viewed as abject failure, a perception that has made the pressure of the position at times intolerable. Torretta can attest to that.
For some time he was haunted by a 1989 loss to Florida State during which he threw four interceptions while filling in for the injured Craig Erickson. Then he had to duel Brian Fortay for the starting job in preseason practice the next summer. (Having lost the battle to Torretta, Fortay transferred to Rutgers.) "There's always another person to compare you to," Torretta says. "Every year there will be another guy, and if he's not a superman, he's going to get criticized. There were times I just felt like saying, 'I don't want this. I don't need to play college football.' But you have to stop worrying about it. What good would it do me to think about how I was playing compared to Bernie?"
To Frank Costa, the sophomore who is regarded as the next star Miami quarterback, Torretta says, "Just believe in yourself and know you can do the job. You better have confidence in yourself, or you're not going to get it done."
Not all of the traditions are quite so benign. Take the haircuts. They began under Schnellenberger, who arrived in Miami in 1979. In the fall every freshman was forced into a chair in front of the athletic dorm, where his hair was not simply cut but obliterated by a gang of upperclassmen. Then the perpetrators took snapshots of the poor creatures and sent them home to their families. "They'd cut you bald," says Smith. "Absolutely bald. Or they'd cut some here and leave some there."
But the haircut thing turned nasty two years ago when linebacker Mick Barsala was so outraged by the experience that he protested to the administration and transferred to Cal. Coach Erickson and new athletic director Dave Maggard responded by outlawing the amateur barbering. Not that it did any good. The freshmen themselves decided to continue the tradition by shaving their own heads as a gesture of their commitment. Which should tell you something about Miami.
"Are they tough kids? Yeah," Maggard says. "And when you get them together, they're an even tougher group. That is part of how they get close."
Also drawing the Hurricanes closer is a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that comes from having a high percentage of players who grew up in disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods. At the same time, the middle-class kids on the team readily embrace the outlaw image. The Hurricanes perceive the college football establishment as being united against them. Sometimes it is.
"Miami's been trashed a little bit nationally," says Johnson, who replaced Schnellenberger in '84. "When people are taking shots at you, you draw closer. The general feeling when I was there was that no one wanted to see us succeed. A lot of the players came from poor backgrounds, and one thing they could take pride in was that they won a championship at Miami."
Actually the Hurricanes thrive on being insulted, as they were in the preseason last year when many observers were predicting that with the slow, weak-armed Torretta calling signals, they would lose at least three games. They were undefeated.
Sometimes even the school's president, Tad Foote, can seem like an opponent. Although Foote attends all the games and believes there is a relationship between a winning football team and successful fund-raising, he is wary of the prominent role that football plays on his campus and in the public perception of his school. "The football team is not central to the work of this university," he says.
Foote has worked hard to improve Miami's academic image, and at no time has the team made that task more difficult than during the notorious 1986 season. The players faced a litany of charges, including racking up $8,436 in long-distance telephone charges through the illegal use of a credit card, leasing a sports car through an NFL agent, shoplifting and assaulting a police officer. Then, a couple of days before the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, the Hurricanes, led by the late Jerome Brown, stormed out of a barbecue that was also attended by their opponent, Penn State. "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them," said Brown. He later claimed that the team's abrupt departure was in response to a racist remark by a Penn State player at the barbecue, but it's hard to believe that the exit had not been planned, considering that the Miami players had come to the dinner with combat fatigues under their civvies.
More recently, in July receiver Williams was arrested for having a stolen handgun in his car, and defensive tackle Mark Caesar was arrested for battery. Charges against Williams were dropped after he agreed to take a firearms safety course and stay out of trouble for a year, and Caesar has yet to enter a plea.
Of far more consequence to the program was the announcement in July by the U.S. attorney in Miami that as many as 65 current and former Miami students—40 of them football players—would be placed in a pretrial diversion program in exchange for their cooperation in a 15-month investigation of fraudulent financial-aid applications. On Aug. 18 Thomas and reserve running back Jason Marucci, who had expected to be among those placed in the program, were instead indicted on federal fraud charges. Lawyers for Thomas and Marucci said that they had simply missed a deadline for agreeing to the arrangement and requested that the charges be dropped and that the two be placed in the program with the other athletes who are cooperating. Thomas and Marucci are due back in court this Thursday, but Maggard has not permitted them to practice with the team since the indictment was announced.
Players at other schools often run afoul of the law. But it is Miami that has an aura of danger about it, and an arrest only serves to reinforce the image of a program twitching menacingly on the brink of lawlessness. The street-smart strutting and the flamboyant celebration have also overshadowed a deeply ingrained work ethic. The Hurricanes may well be the hardest-working team in the country. When former defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy was seriously overweight a couple of years ago, former linebacker Randy Shannon, who is now a graduate assistant, rose every day at 5 a.m. to run with him.
Barrow will never forget the vacation trip to Houston that he and former defensive back Charles Pharms took after their freshman year to visit Highsmith, who was a running back with the Oilers at the time. Highsmith woke them early every morning and took them on a run up a steep hill. When Barrow returned to Miami he taped a series of initials on his cleats. The letters COBTB, which are still taped to his shoes, stand for "commitment on [sic] being the best," words which Highsmith had drilled into him.
This rigid, almost military approach helps give the Hurricanes a level of self-confidence that is unshakable. They are so deep and so talented and so certain that they can outplay and outhit anyone that they are impervious to the pressures of close games. Florida State linebacker Kirk Carruthers summed up this sense of omnipotence after last season's showdown between his No. 1 Seminoles and the Hurricanes, who were then No. 2. "We thought we were going to win," Carruthers said. "But they knew they were going to win." Miami prevailed 17-16.
If you could credit the rise of the Miami program to a single person, that person would be former athletic director Sam Jankovich. From 1983 to '90 Jankovich survived all the coaching changes, player arrivals and departures and bad press. Jankovich's eye for coaching talent led him to grab Johnson from Oklahoma State and Erickson from Washington State. His stomach for taking risks and his adroit handling of often strained budgets allowed a modest program—before the '83 national-championship team, the Hurricanes had not been to a major bowl since 1951—to mushroom into the nation's preeminent one in less than a decade.
When Jankovich arrived in Coral Gables, Miami had an athletic budget of $5 million a year, $2 million of it provided by the university (the balance came from TV and gate revenues and merchandising). By the time he left, the budget had grown to $18 million, almost none of it university funded. Jankovich left behind a refurbished practice facility, renovated offices for the football coaches, a new artificial turf for the baseball field, a tennis stadium, various athlete-assistance programs and a football team that had brought in a yearly average of $2.5 million in bowl payouts and $14.5 million in TV revenues during his tenure.
Still, says Jankovich, "you always lived in fear that if you had that one bad season, the bottom would fall out of the budget." As the '80s ended he realized that life as one of the nation's dwindling number of independents was becoming increasingly difficult and that the time had come to join a conference. Wooed by several, Jankovich chose the Big East, and what a deal he struck. In what has to be an unprecedented arrangement for a conference member, Miami gets to keep 100% of its football revenue until 1995; the Hurricanes' hugely successful baseball program doesn't have to share any postseason revenues with other league members; and the recently revived Miami basketball team, which is struggling for respectability, not only gets to join one of the premier basketball conferences but beginning in '95 will also get a full share of the league revenue.
Jankovich left Miami to become general manager of the New England Patriots, but when he talks about the Hurricanes, he still says "we." He inspired tremendous loyalty in the Miami athletic department. He assembled a group of coaches and officials who both worked and socialized together. In Johnson and Erickson he picked not only two fine field strategists but also men he knew he could get along with. "I'm a firm believer that you win together," Jankovich says. "If you get islands and castles, it doesn't work. In my years with Jimmy and then Dennis, we never had an argument. I don't remember a single one."
Even with Jankovich gone, Miami is thriving. College football's most successful programs tend to remain so for a simple reason: The top schoolboy stars want to play in a bowl game on New Year's Day. The juggernaut that Jankovich created now has that inexorable momentum. The Hurricanes possess a level of depth at nearly every position that hasn't been seen since the Nebraska and Oklahoma teams of the '70s. When linebacker George Mira Jr. was declared ineligible for the 1988 Orange Bowl for having used a steroid-masking drug, his backup, Clark, stepped forward and won the game's MVP award. When running back Stephen McGuire missed last season's Orange Bowl with an injury, Larry Jones came from nowhere on the roster to run for 144 yards and one touchdown in the Hurricanes' 22-0 win over Nebraska. He, too, was named MVP.
Miami's relentless success has given it a decisive edge in recruiting Florida's bountiful schoolboy talent, but, as with Notre Dame football and Georgetown basketball, the Hurricane mystique reaches far beyond the borders of its home state. A lot of kids cruising through shopping malls from Duluth to Dallas are wearing Hurricane regalia, and at least a few of them will grow up to run 4.3 40s or throw 60-yard bullets for their high school teams. When a Miami recruiter comes to call, he doesn't have to do a lot of selling. Fifty percent of Johnson's last recruiting class consisted of non-Floridians, including two of the most highly sought-after players from Texas, Williams' and linebacker Jessie Armstead, both of whom are projected as All-Americas this season.
Once players get to South Florida, they tend to stay there. Nearly all the Hurricanes attend summer school, and for a lot of players from disadvantaged backgrounds, summer on campus beats summer at home. One happy result is that the Hurricanes are ahead of the academic eligibility game. According to the College Football Association, Miami's graduation rate for last year was slightly better than 70%. Six of the 22 seniors on this season's team are expected to receive their degrees before the season even begins, and Torretta is already pursuing an M.B.A.
Each of the three Miami coaches over the past decade has made his own contribution to this dynasty. Schnellenberger got in-state blue-chippers to become Hurricanes and established the pro-set offense that begat Air Miami. After a shaky (8-5) first season in 1984, Johnson fired all of Schnellenberger's defensive assistants but kept offensive coordinator Gary Stevens, the passing architect. Johnson instituted his own defensive philosophy, which stressed speed over size. He recruited cornerbacks and turned them into fleet, savage linebackers; he made linebackers stars as defensive ends; he bulked up defensive linemen into offensive linemen. He also doubled Schnellenberger's graduation rate. But Johnson's most conspicuous mark on the team is its penchant for arrogance and intimidation.
Thus far Erickson's chief talent has been to leave well enough alone. He has not tampered with Johnson's defense and has added only a slight wrinkle to the offense, going to a one-back set and moving a running back into the slot, though he may try a shotgun this fall. He also says he is determined to rehabilitate Miami's image. "I think we can have the work ethic and play hard without making fools of ourselves and getting penalized on the field," says Erickson.
The program that Erickson runs belongs more to the players than to any coach or athletic director or even, perhaps, to the university. As Maryland says, Miami is "no longer just a place you played football." It has become that mythical, rose-tinted thing 60-year-old men get teary over, remembering their days on campus. It has become, of all things, a tradition.