It was the worst year. Football fell apart: There was the loss in Tallahassee, and then coach Dennis Erickson benched him, and then the '93 season went up in flames and blame rained down on Frank Costa like ashes. And he started to believe it all, every bad thing said about him: Costa had let the University of Miami down; Costa didn't deserve to wear a Hurricane uniform; Costa was no good. He would hear the words in his head early, before the sun rose, and they would push him from his bed. "I wake up and I'm not going back to sleep," he says. "I'm pacing the halls of my apartment. I don't know what time it is. I get something to eat." Sometimes he would drive. Once he cruised I-95, barely seeing the other cars or the brightening sky. He wandered 125 miles before it hit him: I've got to get back to Miami.
Maybe somewhere else college football is merely a game. But at Miami, four national titles and two Heisman trophies and that just-ended 58-game home winning streak have made it into something much more powerful and cruel. This is a place for success, and nothing but. Costa knows. Before last Saturday he had been among South Florida's most reviled figures—a struggling quarterback at Quarterback U, the man who triggered Miami's demise. Precisely a year ago, Costa had presided over the loss to Florida State that marked the beginning of a downward slide for the Hurricanes. Now the No. 3 Seminoles had come to the Orange Bowl to finish what they had started.
Who had confidence in him now? Some Hurricanes past and present were questioning his leadership. Former Miami defensive tackle Mark Caesar sniped, "You can't win with a high school quarterback." One day last week Costa was riding in his car with two teammates. "Hey," Costa said, "how much you want to bet I turn on the radio and they're ripping me right now?" No way, they said. Costa turned it on. Then they all listened as the radio guys ripped him apart.
Maybe somewhere else it is just a game, but on Saturday it was Florida State-Miami in the Orange Bowl and Frank Costa exacting his perfect revenge. For of all the criticisms leveled at him, none was more damaging than the one questioning Costa's ability to engineer scores under pressure. Yet against his greatest nemesis, in a showdown both teams considered key to national-title hopes, Costa led the Hurricanes on a 34-20 stomping of the defending national champions—and restored more than one reputation in the process.
October 16, 1994
Funny. But if any name has placed second in the Great Miami Trashing Expo this year, it's Erickson's. Despite his two national titles and a winning percentage that his predecessor, Jimmy Johnson, would envy, Erickson has been lambasted almost as severely as Costa. Coming into the weekend, the Hurricanes had lost five of their previous eight games against ranked teams—compared with five losses in the previous 72 such meetings—and the pressure to produce had linked Erickson and the quarterback he once benched. On Thursday, Erickson joked to Costa, "We're the most popular guys in the city, eh?" and Costa replied, "Yeah, we make a pretty good team."
As it turned out, they did. On Saturday the Hurricanes pieced together as complete a performance as they have in years, limiting Florida State to 47 yards rushing and forcing Seminole coach Bobby Bow-den to run through three quarterbacks without success, while Erickson's much-maligned one-back offense chewed up 185 yards on the ground. Costa, meanwhile, went 18 for 32 for 177 yards and proved himself by coolly orchestrating five scoring drives, including one 12-play, 89-yard march in the second quarter that put Miami ahead to stay. After it was over, after Erickson had run off the field flinging his arms to the night sky, he wrapped Costa in a tight hug and said to his quarterback, "We did it. How does it feel?"
"It's the greatest feeling I've ever had." Costa said.
"I've just never been happier in my life," Erickson said.
Believe them. For Costa and Erickson and the Miami program, this was a critical night. On Sept. 24 Miami's NCAA-record home winning streak died in a punishing loss to Washington while Florida State raised its record to 4-0. "They lost a lot of their mystique when they finally got beat down there," Bowden said before last week's game. Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell seemed to be stepping into Charlie Ward's shoes with ease: he'd averaged 308 passing yards in his five career starts and had never lost a game. After Florida State beat Miami last year—and went on to win Bowden's long-awaited national championship—there was a sense that the Seminoles had assumed Miami's once-dominant persona. "Florida State doesn't think they can win," said Seminole linebacker Derrick Brooks. "Florida State expects to win. That's just the feeling we have now."
Of course, Florida State has often come to the Orange Bowl thinking that way. And such is the topsy-turvy nature of this, the best current rivalry in college football, that neither side can afford to expect anything but trouble. The Seminoles haven't won a regular-season game in the Orange Bowl in a decade. Saturday, it seemed as if nothing had changed. "We came to dominate," says Miami all-everything defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who did just that by bagging eight tackles, 1½ sacks and batting away two passes. "I can't recall a time we played like this. For a total game? We smacked 'em tonight."
And no one suffered more than Kanell. Following the example of Ward, who threw three interceptions and was sacked seven times in his first venture into the Orange Bowl, Kanell fired three mistakes that led to interceptions and was sacked twice. Bowden yanked Kanell in the third quarter after Carlos Jones scored with a pickoff that made the score 31-17 to seal the win. That was the role reversal Florida State least expected. Last year Seminole strong safety Devin Bush picked off a Costa fourth-quarter offering and returned it for a touchdown, and Costa did not start again for the last seven games of the season. Suddenly the questions have shifted to Tallahassee. Can Kanell lead Florida State in a big game?
"I just wanted to get in his face as many times as we could," Sapp said after Saturday's game. "From the first snap he took, you could see he had happy feet. He was back there hopping around. He had tunnel vision: I've got to get the ball right there, right now. You could see he was unsure about decision making.... We new we had to go get him."
And Kanell aside, how much resilience does this FSU team possess? "I saw the quit in their eyes, and when I saw that, I knew we had them," says Miami safety Malcolm Pearson. "That play Carlos Jones made—that broke their back. That was the end of their confidence."
While Bowden turned to replacements Jon Stark and Thad Busby, a serene Costa picked his way through the Seminole defense. Helped in no small measure by the running of James Stewart (95 yards, two touchdowns) and Danyell Ferguson and Larry Jones (124 yards, combined), Costa completed his first four passes and led the Hurricanes 80 yards for a touchdown on their second possession. Then, with the score tied at 14 in the second quarter, Costa started at his own 11 and threw three completions in an 11-play drive that set up the go-ahead touchdown. Backup quarterback Ryan Collins came in to get the TD on a pass to Derrick Harris off the option. Last season Collins took over when Costa went to the bench, and tension built. This time Costa was the first to congratulate Collins coming off the field. It was that kind of night.
"Frank stepped up," says Miami wide receiver Chris T. Jones. "Frank showed everyone he can be one of the best quarterbacks here. They didn't rattle him at all. They came at him, and he showed that he's the leader."
Like his teammates, Costa didn't step up against Arizona when he came in after the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, and he didn't step up against Washington this fall. But to beat Florida State so convincingly when few thought it could be done creates instant respect. "I'm extremely happy for him," Erickson says. "He's been through a lot of things, and he's come through like a champion."
It's true that Costa went through plenty, and football may have been the least of it. Last year was "a nightmare year," Costa will tell you, but the damage began long before football season. On Valentine's Day 1993, a childhood friend from his South Philadelphia neighborhood, Kevin Libucki, was killed when he was hit by a drunken driver as he strolled along a sidewalk. Then another friend Costa had known since he was six, Dominic Menitti, died after being shot in the chest. Then came the worst Miami season in a decade, and Costa would find himself buttonholed by every barstool coach in Dade County. "It'd go from a guy trying to be nice, saying, 'What happened against Florida State?' to "I lost a lot of money,' to some drunk in a bar saying, 'You suck,' " Costa says. "It got so tough on me mentally that after a while it wasn't hurting me just as a player, it was hurting me off the field."
He lost 20 pounds. He considered transferring. He called his parents, Frank Sr. and Rosemarie, nightly. "Unless it happens to you, you can never imagine," says Frank Sr., who drives a bus at the Philadelphia Naval Base. "You get a kid and all his dreams go away real fast, and when it happens, you don't know how to combat it. You think all crazy thoughts. It was horrible for him. Here we are, 1,100 miles away; how far can you reach out to him?"
But after the season, Costa decided to stay at Miami. Although Erickson gave him no guarantee except that he would have a shot at the starting job in spring practice, Costa figured he would spend his senior season fighting. "I told my parents, 'I'm not coming back to Philly.' I don't think I'm hated down here...but if I am, I am."
Now, Costa says, he's stronger. "I'm not the same person mentally I was last year," he says. "I don't let things bother me anymore. I don't care what people say."
Frank Sr. says his son is "calloused" now, which is not to say that he's incapable of feelings. Saturday, Costa was the last one to leave the Hurricane locker room. He walked out of the empty Orange Bowl looking like any 22-year-old—black-and-red-checked shirt, tail out, baseball cap on backward—and joined the family and friends from Philly who had waited one bad year for Costa, this Costa, to appear.
"He took a beating down here from everybody, newswriters, magazines—everyone buried him," says Frank Sr. "But he kept it to himself. He took punishment from everywhere. Was it just? I don't know."
For the moment, it wasn't important. Costa called to his dad, and father and son shook hands, and that dissolved into the quarterback's second strong hug of the night. Frank Sr. said something only his boy could hear, and then the moment was over as friends waded in to speak to them both. "Hey," Costa yelled to somebody, "where are we going now?"
Not that it mattered. Every place is flawless on top of the world.