Miami leaving bad days in past The Hurricanes' play has been marked by excellence this season. And so has their behavior.

Posted: January 03, 2002

PASADENA, Calif. — If the Miami Hurricanes win the 88th Rose Bowl this evening and claim their fifth college football national championship since 1983, a few of the players might be moved to take off their helmets and dance. They might bump chests and wave their arms about. It wouldn't be surprising if they used the occasion to "get down."

But whatever Miami does, should it beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the title game of the Bowl Championship Series, it will have been done many times before, and louder, and wilder, and better by Hurricanes players in the past.

The current Miami group, undefeated this season and on a 26-1 roll since quarterback Ken Dorsey became the starter, can probably match its predecessors in talent, but this team is a relative stranger to taunting, NCAA violations and parole officers - the triple-wing of Miami's storied history.

"The image has changed partly because of the NCAA. They don't let you do things now that maybe even our guys would like to," Miami coach Larry Coker said, referring to on-field behavior. "I love enthusiasm. I love passion for the game. I think there's a right way to do it, and there's a fine line. I'm proud of the way our players conduct themselves."

That's not a sentence many Miami coaches have had the opportunity to utter. But the bad old days came to an end after the 1994 season, when coach Dennis Erickson left the program in a heap, facing five-year NCAA sanctions that lopped off 31 scholarships and amounted to what Butch Davis, who followed Erickson, called "half a death penalty."

Davis, with help from Coker, then the offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, turned things around relatively quickly, but not before Miami suffered a losing season in 1997 (and a humbling 47-0 loss to Florida State) and stumbled several times on its road to recovery.

The Hurricanes were back in the mix for the national title last season, but came up just short in the BCS computer rankings. Davis, after promising to return to see the final puzzle piece put into place, accepted the head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns.

Now, Coker has the chance to become just the second rookie coach in college history to win the national championship (Michigan's Bennie Oosterbaan in 1948 is the other). To get the title, the Hurricanes will have to subdue a Nebraska team that is motivated by its controversial BCS placement in second place and is eager to show that it belongs in the championship game.

The Cornhuskers have the top-ranked rushing offense and one of the best pass defenses in the nation. They also have quarterback Eric Crouch, the Heisman Trophy winner, who finished the regular season with more than 1,000 yards in both rushing and passing.

Miami, whose quarterback, Dorsey, won the Maxwell Club award as the nation's best all-around player, is the only undefeated Division I-A team this season. It has an Outland Trophy winner in offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and perhaps the best college safety in Edward Reed.

The great Miami teams of the 1980s and 1990s always had talent, though, and didn't mind telling you about it. Coker's players win quietly and with class, as opposed to loudly and with camouflage fatigues.

"They're certainly as talented as the great Miami teams that have been there through the years," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "They're playing at a very high level."

And that doesn't refer to their blood-alcohol or THC level anymore, either.

All 12 of the seniors are on schedule to graduate with their classes and four of the Hurricanes are working on postgraduate degrees, including offensive tackle Joaquin Gonzalez and tight end Robert Williams, who will pick up MBA degrees in May.

The contrast is nice, but it was also made out of necessity. With its number of scholarships slashed, Miami didn't have the luxury of recruiting talented players who might or might not work out. The Hurricanes had to bring in sure things, players less likely to end up with a rap sheet instead of a playbook.

"They made a concerted effort to recruit some quality people who aren't going to do things that are going to cause controversy," said Dorsey, who, like almost all the Hurricanes, was brought in by Davis.

Not that controversy ever slowed down the program before. In fact, it might have helped.

Miami very nearly dropped football in the mid-'70s, but decided to take a last swing at Division I-A by hiring Lou Saban as its first high-profile coach. Saban stayed only two seasons, but he did snatch a quarterback from under the nose of Penn State's Joe Paterno, who, so the story goes, was going to turn Jim Kelly into a linebacker.

When Saban was replaced by Howard Schnellenberger in 1979, the program had lots of good recruits, and Schnellenberger built on that foundation until the Hurricanes won the national title following the 1983 season with freshman Bernie Kosar at quarterback.

Schnellenberger jumped to the United States Football League soon afterward - not a great move - and Miami lured Jimmy Johnson away from Oklahoma State to keep the ball rolling. Johnson won the 1987 season title behind quarterback Steve Walsh, but the Hurricanes were becoming as unstoppable off the field as they were on the field.

A year earlier, the Jerome Brown-led Hurricanes wore their camouflage and then walked out of a dinner with Penn State players before the Fiesta Bowl, won by the Nittany Lions, 14-10. The Miami players led the nation in taunting and braggadocio and had a few run-ins with the law as well. Or as wide receiver Michael Irvin put it, the Hurricanes were top-ranked by "the AP, the UPI and the FBI."

(Brown, a defensive tackle, would later play for the Eagles.)

However, the behavior of the Hurricanes under Johnson was that of choirboys compared to the antics that took place when Erickson, the Washington State coach, took over in 1989. Miami won two more titles under Erickson, but the program was becoming blemished by recruiting violations, scholarship improprieties, and a long list of positive drug tests and other missteps.

On the 1994 team, one of every seven players had been arrested at least once. It was later found that a group of former Hurricanes and Luther Campbell, the rap star and frequent sideline figure, had contributed to a fund that paid players for big hits and such. A national magazine called for the school administration to shut down the program, and Erickson got out of town just ahead of the NCAA posse.

Davis got the job and suffered through the lean times with his staff, waiting for the sanctions to end. When he left, and Schiano took the head job at Rutgers, the players went to athletic director Paul Dee to demand that Coker be hired.

"He's a players' coach," McKinnie said.

"We didn't want anybody who didn't know us," Dorsey said.

Dee had other ideas and contacted Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez and Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt before finally settling on Coker, whose last head coaching assignment had been Claremore (Okla.) High School in 1978.

Along the way as a college assistant at Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Miami, Coker had worked with players such as Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Eddie George, Orlando Pace and Edgerrin James. He had been on the Miami staff for the previous six years and proved a lot tougher than his mild-mannered exterior would indicate. Although Davis left before the recruiting season was completed, 22 of 23 players who had committed to Miami decided to stay with the program.

Maybe taking the talented Hurricanes to the title game was simply a matter of getting out of the way - and Coker is a big believer in giving his assistants responsibility - but Coker didn't mess it up. He is quick to credit Davis with building the team, and the two have stayed close.

"I talked to him, and he was in cold Cleveland and I was going to Disneyland," Coker said earlier this week. "He might regret that part of it. I thought he would stay with this team for another year. There's no good time to leave. I don't think he regrets it. He's happy for these players."

This time around, Miami has players it's easy to be happy for. They win all the time, but they don't embarrass themselves or their opponents in the process. Forgive them if they take off their helmets and holler on the floor of the Rose Bowl tonight. It's been a while between dances.

Bob Ford's e-mail address is bford@phillynews.com.

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