The message was written in bold white strokes on a green
chalkboard inside the visitors' locker room at the Orange Bowl:
11-0. fiesta bowl bound. The words mocked UCLA players as they
showered and dressed in shock after last Saturday's 49-45 loss
to Miami. Dead dreams are buried in this room, a dank bunker
beneath the northwest end zone bleachers. Nebraska. Oklahoma.
Notre Dame. Florida State. Each has shuffled into this tomb,
suffering in silence after devastating losses to the Hurricanes
in years past. Now the Bruins were the victims, 10-1 instead of
11-0, Rose Bowl-bound instead of Fiesta-bound, eliminated from
the national championship race.
Next to the chalkboard, junior offensive tackle Kris Farris
pulled a white golf shirt over his bare shoulders and slipped on
a pair of shorts. Slowly and deliberately he scooped a towel off
the floor, turned his back on the room, went to the board and
wiped the chalk away. Farris is a film buff who would appreciate
the metaphorical weight of his erasure. The day had begun with
one regular-season game to play for three unbeaten teams--UCLA,
Kansas State and Tennessee--and with the public in a lather over
the arcane mathematics of the Bowl Championship Series rankings
and the possibility that one of the unbeatens would be unjustly
excluded from the Fiesta Bowl national title game. As swiftly as
the Bruins' perfect record was improbably wiped away, however,
the landscape was changed.
It seemed only fitting that such a chaotic regular season should
end with madness. Only Tennessee survived the day undefeated,
and the Vols will play 11-1 Florida State for the national title
on Jan. 4 in Tempe, Ariz. But who would have thought that Miami
would recapture past glory and inflict such pain on UCLA? Its
upset of the Bruins came seven days after the Hurricanes lost
66-13 to Syracuse, a defeat that cost Miami the Big East
championship, a spot in the BCS and most of its dignity. That
loss was so decisive that Hurricanes coach Butch Davis
instructed his assistants to study the tape closely, in search
of players who had "surrendered." They claimed to have found none.
This was reassuring to Davis and his staff, but worthless to
them in their preparations for UCLA. Last Friday, Davis sat
behind a sprawling desk in his office and recited a litany of
injuries and other handicaps (a lack of depth resulting from two
years of scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA in December
1995 for numerous violations, too many young players, etc.) that
had weakened his team. "After this game we could have as many as
12 guys in surgery, and they're all playing tomorrow," said
Davis. "How well we'll play against UCLA, I just don't know." A
visitor was tempted to take Davis's order for a last meal.
December 14, 1998
Yet as Davis had studied the Bruins, he saw something familiar:
West Coast offense, lefthanded quarterback, explosive wideouts.
"They are a carbon copy, college version, of the 49ers that I
coached against when I was with the Cowboys [from 1989 to '94],"
said Davis. "[Quarterback] Cade McNown is Steve Young. [Wideout]
Danny Farmer is Jerry Rice. It's the same stuff." He remembered
the 1992 NFC Championship Game, in which Dallas went to
Candlestick Park and beat San Francisco, a victory that earned
the Cowboys a spot in their first Super Bowl under Jimmy
Johnson. "The Niners were a machine against us, ran up all kinds
of offensive yardage, punted once the entire game--but we hung
in there and beat them," said Davis.
So on Saturday morning he waved one of his two Super Bowl rings
in front of the toddling Hurricanes and told them his NFL story.
"This is not just going to be a game of stats," he said. "We're
not going to shut down UCLA, they're too good for that. But we
can limit them by staying on the field and wearing them down. You
don't have to get beat just because of their big stats."
It was a surrender of sorts. Davis knew that his defense would
get slaughtered, and it did. The brilliant McNown, a senior who
will make some NFL general manager look very smart, passed for
513 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions, and the
Bruins rang up 670 yards in offense. But Miami was just as good,
and as Davis walked through a tunnel out of the Orange Bowl on
Saturday evening clutching a victory cigar in his right hand, he
recalled the conversation of the day before. "What did I say to
you?" he said, grabbing his listener hard by the arm as though
he were a walk-on wideout. "What did I say? It's not a game of
stats. Just like against the 49ers."
UCLA's defensive unit made Davis's vision become reality. The
Bruins, who came into the game ranked 91st in the nation in
total defense, gave up 689 yards in offense to a Hurricanes team
that had churned out all of 210 against Syracuse. UCLA defenders
wilted in the South Florida heat, as Nebraskans had done on many
occasions. "You could hear them sucking wind in the first
quarter," said Miami offensive tackle Joaquin Gonzalez.
This was no surprise to Hurricanes junior tailback Edgerrin
James. "If you looked at their games on tape, they weren't
physical," James said. "They try to force turnovers, strip the
ball, but they don't want to put pads on you." They hardly put
any on James, who rushed for a school-record 299 yards on 39
carries and became Miami's leading single-season rusher.
James was playing in perhaps the last regular-season game of a
three-year career contested entirely in the shadow of a fallen
power's mediocrity. Had James been a Hurricane during Miami's
glory days (1983 to '91), even casual fans would know that he is
a 6'1", 220-pound power back in the mold of Alonzo Highsmith;
that he wears his hair in a nest of short, tight twists; and
that his ready smile reveals three glimmering gold teeth on the
top and two more on the bottom. They would probably even know
that his first name was coined by his mother, Julie James, in
tribute to his father, Edward German. Instead, because Edgerrin
is considering a jump to the NFL, there's precious little time
to appreciate his talent or his vintage Cane candor. "To tell
you the truth, I was actually laughing in the locker room after
the Syracuse game," he said. "It was so bad you couldn't take it
If only Hurricanes quarterback Scott Covington could laugh off
the trials of his arduous career. Since arriving at Miami,
Covington, a fifth-year senior, has been beaten out (by Ryan
Clement), operated on (hernia surgery), frightened (two years
ago doctors found spots on his left lung, and the organ
collapsed when they attempted to take a tissue sample; tests
revealed that the spots were not life-threatening) and
discouraged (he tried to transfer in the spring of 1996; school
officials refused to release him from his scholarship).
Covington didn't become a full-time starter until this fall and
didn't lead Miami to a big win until the Hurricanes beat then
No. 13 West Virginia in October. On Saturday he threw for 318
yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
After UCLA's dying gasp ended with McNown throwing a Hail Mary
through the back of the end zone, the noise in the crumbling
stadium grew louder, until the voices of the modest crowd of
46,819 seemed as deafening as the full houses of yore. At the
finish, fans flooded the field and danced in celebration, proof
that the Hurricanes haven't forgotten how to party. A group of
celebrants hoisted Covington onto their shoulders and carried
him toward the tunnel leading to the Miami locker room. He had
seen scenes like this on TV but hadn't witnessed one in person.
"I've never been a part of anything like that," he said. "I hope
someday Miami players will look back at this game as the
beginning of something. But right now, I don't even think I'll
understand the magnitude of what happened for a long, long time."
The UCLA players needed no time for reflection. Emerging from the
postgame scrum at midfield, Farris walked slowly toward the
locker room. He paused at about the 20-yard line and looked up
into the stands at the fans streaming downward, gleefully leaping
railings and running onto the grass. Oddly, he smiled. "I was
thinking about how happy they were," he said, "and I was thinking
about how our dream is gone."
Carried away like chalk dust.
Davis studied UCLA and saw "a carbon copy of the 49ers that I
coached against when I was with the Cowboys."