When did the end begin? This isn't easy to know. There's never an announcement when a dynasty dies, no voice of doom proclaiming that you are slipping, slipping...down from the mountaintop, down to where the also-rans live. No, one day you are the University of Miami Hurricanes, college football's premier team—hips thrusting, motor-jawed, doing this unstoppable dirty dance across the Reagan '80s, owning the American Saturday. Then comes the first day of 1994, and suddenly it's gone, undeniably, all the evidence there in Arizona's 29-0 stomp in the Fiesta Bowl, laid bare on national TV like bones in the desert wind.
"That game—everybody was like, Is this us? Is this really the Canes?" says freshman linebacker Ray Lewis. "You sit and you're saying, 'This can't be happening.' " Lewis's voice goes soft. "But in reality," he says, "it is."
Things in Coral Gables aren't what they used to be. South Florida's flirtation with spring has come and gone, leaving the Hurricanes to practice under a scorching sun and suspicious eyes. But it's not so much the recent jailing of former academic adviser Tony Russell for helping athletes, and a few others, fraudulently obtain Pell Grant funds intended for needy students—a case involving 85 current or former athletes, and one that could bring NCAA sanctions—that has people wondering. It's the inescapable feeling that after an 11-year run, Miami football isn't Miami football anymore.
Read the signs. Last season Miami finished 9-3 and ranked 15th in the country, ending a record 137-week streak in the Associated Press Top 10 and confirming a smell of decline that grew ranker with each underwhelming week. Hampered by the yo-yo handling of quarterbacks Frank Costa and Ryan Collins, which could linger into next fall, and fractured by internal discord, the Hurricanes lost to Florida State in Tallahassee, lost to West Virginia in Morgantown, and then had the whole mess summed up in one 68-yard romp by Wildcat running back Chuck Levy in the second quarter of the Fiesta Bowl. Levy busted through the Miami line and took off, zooming past a secondary that had, until then, been fast enough and together enough to catch almost anyone. To punctuate things, Levy did this nutty duckwalk across the end zone, strutting and drawing a penalty for excessive celebrating—acting, in fact, just as the Hurricanes used to. "You just don't see that!" cried color man Cris Collinsworth.
You do now. "Before, everybody we played respected us," says Miami junior running back Larry Jones. "But from the first play, they weren't intimidated at all. I don't know why they don't respect us anymore...."
Here's a good reason: Once a group of players that reveled in the outrage of critics and NCAA rule makers because it forged a steely us-versus-the-world unity, the Hurricanes last season broke into so many factions that it's remarkable to see them even talking this spring. Aside from the expected division between players backing Costa and those backing Collins, there was also a constant tension between big-headed underclassmen and seniors unable or unwilling to provide leadership. It got so bad that on the plane home from Phoenix and the Fiesta, sophomore linebacker Rohan Marley, the team's leading tackier, told a teammate he couldn't take it anymore; he was quitting.
"I've never seen anything like what was going on," Marley says, "not in high school, never. Guys started going their separate ways, the intensity level toned down. It was everybody on everybody: 'Screw you.' 'You're sorry.' 'You ain't in shape.' There was no positive vibe. We were always fighting."
Marley tells of older players who were "intimidated" when underclassmen like receiver Jammi German and Lewis racked up so much playing time; one freshman described the young players as going through "the terrible twos. We just didn't want to listen." Losing didn't help, especially once the chance at a national title withered in the loss at West Virginia. A few days later, just before the last game of the season, some of the younger players pulled what senior defensive end Kevin Patrick calls "an uprising," holding an impromptu meeting instead of a scheduled 12-minute run at the same time that the seniors were meeting with coach Dennis Erickson. "People didn't respect the program anymore," Patrick says.
"There was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, and it came to a head," says freshman linebacker Twan Russell. "Everybody was fed up with everybody. Coaches were sick of us, we were sick of the coaches, we were sick of each other."
Russell says the meeting made the Hurricanes a "more honest team," but that wasn't enough for Marley. After the season he met one by one with the foundation of the '94 Hurricanes: Collins, Lewis, defensive tackles Pat Riley and Warren Sapp, running back James Stewart and wideouts Chris T. Jones and A.C. Tellison. He asked each for assurance that this year's team would be free of divisiveness, would care only about winning.
"Are you going to be there for me when I'm there for you? Are we going to be the team we used to be? Are we going to hang out? Have fun together?' And they said, 'Yeah,' " says Marley. "I had to find out what these people want, because if they don't want what I want, I don't want any part of it." He liked what he heard. He promised he would play.
Yet his return guarantees no quick fix, and no one can sense that better than the opposition. After FSU whipped Miami 28-10 in October, the grapevine rattled: The Canes don't have it anymore. "The Miami teams that played in the past always came out feeling that no matter where they were, they were going to win," says Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks. "They had that confidence. They didn't have that this year."
To make sure no one in talent-rich Florida missed the point, Florida State went on to win its first national title while Florida routed West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. You could almost feel the recruiting tide shift right then; still, nobody expected what happened a month later, when FSU coach Bobby Bowden left Dade County with the cream of the area's prep talent, including the nation's top-rated linebacker, Lamont Green. "I can't ever remember doing so well in Miami," Bowden crowed, and it was a Miami coach's worst nightmare. Erickson had lost his own backyard.
"I think the program is slipping somewhat," says Green, who admits that Miami's depth at linebacker, more than anything else, tipped him toward FSU. "I thought it was just Florida State's time."
Is it any wonder that Miami's airwaves burned all winter with calls for Erickson's head? Or that athletic director Paul Dee came home each night knowing his answering machine would spit out at least one caller demanding, "It's time for a change"? It didn't matter that Erickson had won two national titles to Jimmy Johnson's one at Miami, or that he had the best winning percentage among active Division I-A coaches in his five-year tenure there. In any other college town the 1993 season would be cause for gloating. But at Miami, "that's a disgusting year for us," Costa says. "If LSU goes 9-3 and finishes 15th in the country, I'm sure they'd be happy. That's not the way it is here."
South Florida's restless population has never been celebrated for its patience with any coach. This is not a place of deep roots; dig six inches, and you strike a foundation of sand. "Such a transient town," Erickson says. And if you didn't grow up with the team—and don't expect to be here long—what do you care about three-year plans and developing talent? Fans are still wondering what to do with that journeyman whose Dolphins finished with five straight losses. The day after Jimmy Johnson left Dallas, the Miami Herald's front page uncorked what will surely be a protracted specu-fest: JJ WITH DOLPHINS?
"Think about it," Erickson says. "The greatest coach ever in professional football is Don Shula, yet we share one thing in common: If you don't win around here, you're out. Knowing that, knowing how they are, you just can't let it bother you. My problem is, who're the guys you can trust around here? Who're the guys stabbing you in the back?"
That intensity is only multiplied when a team has won four national titles in 11 years, played for the title three other times and flaunts a bad-boy style that perfectly reflects Miami's Vicetown image. "We've created our own monster, no question," Erickson says. And, sure enough, with each back-in-your-face—from the humiliating moment in the 1993 Sugar Bowl when Alabama's George Teague chased down tauntmeister Lamar Thomas and ripped the ball from his hands, to the exorcism of Wide Rights I and II in Tallahassee, to the sight of West Virginia pulling down the goalposts in Morgantown—the grumbling has grown. Dee has found himself buttonholed by many a concerned alum. "No one wants to see you lose the moment," he says.
But Dee stands by his man. Erickson's record, after all, is better than the now-canonized JJ's at the same point, and with luck, the team could bounce back next fall. So despite the Hurricanes' worst season since 1984, Dee extended Erickson's contract through the year 2000, and for now, Erickson seems content to stay.
"I like college football—right now, not that things might not change down the road—and this is the best job in college football," he says. "Why would I want to go any place else? When I leave here, it's going to be on a positive note—either after winning it all or coming close."
That reversal of fortune won't come easy. Neither Collins nor Costa has proved he can command the field under pressure. Erickson has shaken things this spring, handing over control of the offense to new coordinator Rich Olson and promoting Greg McMackin to defensive coordinator to replace Tommy Tuberville, who left for Texas A&M. Quietly, he landed two of the nation's top passers in Scott Covington of Dana Hills, Calif., and Ryan Clement of Denver, and the nation's No. 2 receiver in local Omar Rolle. But aside from replacing two defensive ends, two cornerbacks, a safety and a middle linebacker, firming up a porous offensive line, teaching his receivers how to hold on to the ball and revitalizing his anemic special teams, Erickson also must keep the peace and anoint a quarterback.
And despite the insistence of players and staff that the bad days are over, fence-mending is needed. Costa, for his part, never recovered from being blamed for the Florida State loss; his benching the next week, he says, began a downward spiral that resulted in "the worst year of my life." He considered transferring for his senior season—the threat remains if the more mobile Collins gets the nod when spring practice ends this week. "Our relationship never got where I hated Erickson; I hate what he did," Costa says.
Collins knows how Costa felt; he, too, failed to move the offense, in the West Virginia game, then found himself benched in favor of Costa after one quarter in the Fiesta. The two roomed together on the road and spoke about the situation—sparingly. "He was saying it was hard to be looking over his shoulder," Collins says. "And I started doing the same thing after the West Virginia game. You can't play the game like that."
Meanwhile, the Pell Grant investigation left this sticky residue: Twan Russell is Tony Russell's son. He stood with his dad in court just days before spring practice opened and listened to the judge hand down a three-year prison sentence. He listened as Costa, his teammate, testified that Tony Russell kept urging him to sign up for the illegal money. "You think I was happy? I didn't want that," says Costa, who says he repaid the money.
"I just hope he realizes that I didn't want to go up there," Costa says of Twan. "I hope he realizes that they called me. I had to tell the truth because if you don't, you go to jail."
The scandal broke long before Twan got to Miami; he says he never knew what was going on. "My dad never put me in that situation," Twan says. "I've been to court with him a couple times, and that's the extent of it. He just told me, 'Twan, what happened, happened. You're my son. You go play football.' It's over. I wish they would leave him alone and leave me alone. Talk to me about football and not about my father."
Asked how he will respond to Costa, Twan loses his smile for the only time in the conversation. "I have no comment," he says. Later, asked if he thinks the situation will cause friction, he says in a whisper, "No.... Frank's a teammate.... Why would it be a problem?" He doesn't grin again until the subject changes.
But as to football, Twan says, all is well. "Now everyone wants to know each other," he says. "We eat together, we throw picnics. I've never seen so much jelling." To a man, the players insist the Fiesta Bowl was a deserved slap, resulting in fewer egos, new unity. Everyone speaks of a new appetite.
"I'm hungrier right now than I've ever been in my life," Erickson says. "People better get ready to play us because we're going to come after their ass."
Of course, the prospect of facing a Miami team looking for redemption once guaranteed a most unpleasant Saturday. Not anymore. "They're still in the elite, but they're not up there like they were," Brooks says. "In the past they set themselves apart from everybody: 'We're up on a different level.' Now, nobody is above the rest." Now a new era begins. The old one collapsed in the sun, chasing what it could not catch.