Just once did the mountain seem too high to climb. It was in the
spring of 1996, after Butch Davis's first season as football
coach at Miami, and every day was worse than the one before.
Players were being arrested for transgressions great and small,
fueling speculation that Miami could never win with good
citizens. Junior linebacker Marlin Barnes and a female friend
had been murdered in his campus apartment by her ex-boyfriend.
Davis's team was only one year into NCAA sanctions that would
cost it 31 scholarships over three years, crippling a once
mighty program. One evening the phone rang in the Davises' home.
A voice on the other end of the line delivered one or another of
those kernels of bad news, and Davis snapped. "He hurled the
telephone," says Davis's wife, Tammy. "He just had such a
feeling of frustration. But then he immediately regained his
She would think of this moment, and others almost as bleak, as
she sat in the Louisiana Superdome on Tuesday night, awaiting the
start of the Sugar Bowl showdown between Miami and Florida.
Almost four hours later, just past 11 p.m. inside the cavernous
dome, Butch Davis would be similarly replaying recent history in
his mind as the clock drained away on the Hurricanes' 37-20
victory over the Gators. "A lot of adversity, more than most
people will ever know about," Davis would say later. His sideline
reverie was interrupted by a celebratory ice-water dousing from
his players, to the delight of 10,000 Miami fans crammed into one
corner of the dome, far outnumbered by Florida rooters.
Few programs in college football history have fallen more
shamefully than Miami's did between 1992 and '98. A school that
won national titles in '83, '87, '89 and '91 was pounded by the
NCAA in 1995 after its administration admitted that 57 of its
players had received fraudulent Pell Grants. (In the spring of
'95, SI called for Miami president Edward "Tad" Foote to disband
the football program until it got its house in order.) On the
field, the Hurricanes went 5-6 in 1997, losing 47-0 to Florida
State, and one year later to Syracuse 66-13. All these demons
were expunged in a brilliant 2000 season in which Miami followed
a 34-29 loss to Washington on Sept. 9 with 10 consecutive wins to
put itself in position to argue for a slice of the national
title, until Florida State lost to Oklahoma.
The last of the victories was among the most fiercely fought and
renewed a dormant rivalry. Miami and Florida played every year
but one from 1938 through 1987 before the Gators abandoned the
series, citing the demands of an expanding SEC schedule.
Hurricanes fans found that explanation wanting, believing that
Florida was ducking a neighbor that had become too strong.
Whatever the case back then, the two schools have agreed to play
each other in 2002 and 2003. Meanwhile, their rosters are
stuffed with former high school rivals who had no trouble
generating ill will in New Orleans.
Six nights before the game, groups of Florida and Miami players
scuffled in the middle of Bourbon Street. Gators defensive end
Alex Brown was punched in the eye during the melee, which ended
with two Florida players being handcuffed and briefly detained by
police. Gators players insisted that the fracas had been
instigated by a group of Hurricanes players, led by senior safety
Al Blades, who were mocking them for their 30-7 loss to Florida
State on Nov. 18. "They set the tone for the game right there on
Bourbon Street," said Florida wide receiver Jabar Gaffney a few
days later. "Al Blades was telling us the Gators aren't anything
anymore and they're going to mop the floor with us. That's what
made this a rivalry again, right there."
The incident underscored what a narrow line Davis has had to walk
in rebuilding Miami. Good Hurricanes teams have always trafficked
in swagger. "That's Miami, always will be," says senior
Hurricanes defensive lineman Damione Lewis. In the final four
games of the regular season, in which Miami outscored Virginia
Tech, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College by a combined
154-34, the Hurricanes started to look a little, for better and
worse, like the great Miami teams coached by Jimmy Johnson or
Dennis Erickson. Tackles led to gyrations, touchdowns to dances.
All-Americas Edward Reed and Santana Moss whipped off their
helmets after scoring touchdowns, incurring penalties. Most of it
was harmless, and Davis didn't jump ugly on any of his players.
"I don't want to say I turned guys loose to behave any way they
wanted to," he says, "but we've got a bunch of kids who have
started 40 games in their careers. You let those guys go a little
Senior linebacker Dan Morgan, who this year became the first
player to sweep the Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski awards, endured
three seasons in which the Hurricanes were making strides but had
not yet returned to BCS caliber. "A lot of the celebrations you
saw with us this year, that was three years of frustration coming
out all at once," he says. Morgan was also one of the voices
calling for Miami players to stay the hell out of the French
Quarter in the nights following the scuffle; there were few
Hurricane sightings after that.
On Sugar Bowl night Florida was battling its emotions as well.
The Gators played far more physically than in their loss to
Florida State, but they were often sloppy, and coach Steve
Spurrier would say he was "embarrassed" by his team's
performance, which included two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties
for taunting. Still, as Morgan said, "You could tell they were
Early in the third quarter, Florida took a 17-13 lead on a
36-yard touchdown run by sophomore tailback Earnest Graham,
following an interception by freshman cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.
To make matters worse for the Hurricanes, their leading rusher,
James Jackson, left the game with a foot sprain in the second
quarter, and Moss suffered a left hip pointer. However, sophomore
Clinton Portis rushed for 97 yards in relief of Jackson, and
junior Daryl Jones replaced Moss and contributed a 44-yard punt
return and two pass receptions.
It was sophomore quarterback Ken Dorsey, though, who did the most
to the Gators. Dorsey completed four of six passes on an 80-yard
drive and found freshman fullback D.J. Williams on a sweet,
19-yard throwback route for the touchdown that answered Florida
and gave Miami a 20-17 lead with 8:23 left in the third quarter.
One possession later Dorsey threw his third touchdown pass of the
game, a two-yard goal line rollout floater that senior fullback
Najeh Davenport snatched from linebacker Marcus Oquendo-Johnson
to push the Hurricanes' lead to 27-17.
Dorsey completed 22 of 40 passes for 270 yards and three scores
and was named the game's most valuable player, but he also
endured a persistent, nightlong pounding. "It was a very physical
game," he said, perfectly deadpan. More eloquent was his ashen
face, brought on by postgame nausea, and his pronounced limp, the
result of a bloody-sirloin rug burn on his left shin suffered on
a scramble-slide in the second quarter. "Florida beat the heck
out of Ken Dorsey out there," said Davis.
Yet there was a fitting symmetry to Dorsey's work. His nerves and
uncertainty at the line of scrimmage had contributed greatly to
the Washington loss, but in New Orleans he was a portrait of
maturity both before and during the game. While many of his
teammates hit Bourbon Street early in their visit, Dorsey hung
out at the team hotel with his girlfriend, Lauren Hole, a high
school senior in Dorsey's hometown of Orinda, Calif. On the field
Dorsey checked off with ease, despite the din caused by the
pro-Gators crowd. After the game he was the last player to leave
the Miami locker room, dressing slowly and struggling to maneuver
the bulky MVP trophy into a small duffel bag.
The Hurricanes' victory was sealed when Morgan intercepted a pass
thrown by Florida backup quarterback Jesse Palmer with 1:55 to
go. Morgan, who started 43 of 46 games in his Miami career, had
pulled out a piece of paper last summer and written out an
ambitious list of goals for his final season: Gain 15 pounds, get
faster and stronger, jump rope every morning and every night, eat
three MET-Rx shakes every day, win the Big East title, make
All-America, win the Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski awards and win
the national championship. Only the last goal remained in doubt
at the close of the Sugar, though not to Morgan. "No doubt, we're
the best team in the country," he said.
That proclamation had been hanging unsaid since the Hurricanes
held a players-only meeting on Dec. 4, two days after Oklahoma's
victory over Kansas State in the Big 12 title game ensured that
Miami would not get to play for the outright national title in
the Orange Bowl. (Florida State, which lost to the Hurricanes
27-24 on Oct. 7, got the chance instead.) Miami players watched
in groups--some in the football complex, others at senior
cornerback Leonard Myers's house, still others with junior
offensive tackle Joaquin Gonzalez's brother--as Oklahoma beat
Kansas State. All were deflated by the result. Two days later
Davis called a meeting and urged the players to forge ahead.
"Don't have any regrets about what you do from here," he told
them. "Control what you can control."
When Davis left the room, the players stayed and spoke
emotionally about what was left of their season. Despite Miami's
win over Florida State, the Bowl Championship Series rankings had
put the Seminoles ahead of the Hurricanes. Reed got up and said,
"I'm ticked off about this BCS stuff." Others agreed. Yet slowly
the tone changed. "We started to talk about what we could still
do," recalls Gonzalez. "Some guys said, 'Hey, we can still win
part of this, and even if we don't, we can finish a great
season.' At the end of the meeting, we left the room with a
promise that we wouldn't talk about the BCS anymore and would
just concentrate on Florida."
They were together again on Tuesday night, in the belly of the
Superdome, crammed into a small dressing room minutes before
kickoff. It was another moment rife with emotion: Seventeen
seniors were among the players gathered around a coach who hadn't
yet signed the contract extension that would keep him at Miami.
Davis sensed the pressure in the room and tried to steer his
players from it. "Listen," he said. "Don't go out there and play
like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It's not. Play
with the heart of a child. Think back to the sandlot games you
played, when nobody kept score and you kept playing until your
mom or dad called you in because it was dark. That's the way you
should play tonight. Just have fun."
Before the night ended, Hurricanes players would slip Mardi Gras
beads around their necks and dance in a corner of the stadium,
celebrating the rebirth of their program and the defeat of a new,
old rival. University president Foote, who will retire in June,
would visit his players in the winning locker room and tell them
sincerely that he was proud of them all. Davis would hoist his
seven-year-old son, Drew, into the air and carry him through
subterranean tunnels toward a waiting car and a party that had
been six years in the making. Fun doesn't even begin to cover
like the great Miami teams of old.
the tone for a bruising game.