Questions Swirling Around Miami
By BJ Bennett
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As pundits talk about the potential demise of the ACC, and the correlated rise of the Big XII and SEC, where does Miami fit?
From the early 1980s to the early 2000s, there was no program in college football like the University of Miami. The Hurricanes won a staggering five national championships and, from 1983-2003, went an unfathomable 212-42. Under the likes of iconic leaders Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, Miami became a force the game had never before seen. Programs had won, and done so emphatically, in the past. This, however, was different. Everything about the Hurricanes set them apart from their peers. What made Miami special wasn't just that they won, rather how they did it instead.
In a sport defined by history and tradition, the Hurricanes of the early 1980s had little. Prior to Schnellenberger's 11-win season in '83, Miami had never before reached double digit victories in a single season. In fact, the five coaches before Schnellenberger had compiled a winning percentage of just over 37%. Legendary players like Don Bosseler and Ted Hendricks had passed through, but, unlike other schools, there wasn't a storied list of stars to serve as the program's foundation.
There wasn't a conventional home venue, either. The Hurricanes played their games in the Orange Bowl, named Burdine Stadium until 1950, over 20 miles from the Coral Gables campus just west of downtown Little Havana. In addition to serving as the home of the Hurricanes, the school shared the Orange Bowl with the NFL's Miami Dolphins for their first 21 seasons of their history. The versatile facility also hosted the Orange Bowl, the North-South Shrine Game, multiple Super Bowls and various other athletic and entertainment events.
The school itself differed greatly from many of the traditional athletic powers of the era. A private school not established until 1925, Miami's enrollment, and academic focus and student life activities, were always a little different than the large school status-quo. Because of this, the Hurricance fan base has always been a smaller, more nationally-dispersed group. Translation; the by-the-books institutional infrastructure for consistent athletic achievement has never really been in place.
Miami's unprecedented successes in the 1980s and 1990s didn't hide those issues. They celebrated them. The Hurricanes were a wrecking ball, crushing the college football establishment with a distinct personality and a swagger while essentially serving as the minor league system for the NFL. Players like Vinnie Testaverde, Bennie Blades and Michael Irvin and Russell Maryland, Gino Torretta and Warren Sapp were bad-ass ambassadors for a program that marched to the beat of a different drum -- then marched all over you. Dan Morgan, Ed Reed and Kellen Winslow carried that sentiment through the turn of the millennium.
Cite coaching changes, conference realignment or a dip in recruiting, but Miami's run of dominance slowed to a lull after two consecutive 9-3 seasons near the end of the Larry Coker era. Since that point, the Hurricanes have gone just 41-35 in six years. Counting interim Jeff Stoutland, four different head coaches have led during that span. The bottom fell out in late 2007 when, with program pillars from the past on the sidelines, the 'Canes no-showed against Virginia in the famed Orange Bowl's orange and green finale. A 48-0 home loss to the Cavaliers signaled the end of an era on South Beach.
"I have too much pride in myself and this football team to think something like this could happen," then-Miami coach Randy Shannon said afterwards.
This past fall was year one of the Al Golden era. There were positives in the 6-6 debut, wins over Ohio State and South Florida, but the Hurricanes finished 3-5 in conference play. Since 2005, Miami has finished above .500 in the ACC just twice. Looking ahead to this fall, questions surround the quarterback position and the leadership void left on defense. That said, the team's biggest concern comes not on the field -- but in the fray.
College football is in an identity crisis. With UM rival Florida State possibly serving as one of the catalysts in an attempt to better pay their bills, leagues are gearing up for round two of the conference realignment saga. The growing pains are obvious; the near future, not such much. As all parties involved jockey for more money and better postseason positioning, the hope is that a more fair method for determining a national champion will be the resulting byproduct.
The idea of the Seminoles, and maybe Clemson, heading west of the Big XII, would be a devastating blow to the ACC. Per reports, recent negotiations have upset the football-first members of the Carolina-centered conference. With the most leverage and appeal of that group, Florida State is now exploring all options. One would think a football-purge of the ACC, which could result in Virginia Tech, and say NC State, one day landing in the SEC, would include Miami. Sources suggest the Seminoles want it that way. The problem, though, may be this. What made the 'Canes such a novelty in the past may now be preventing them from securing a spot in the future.
In the craze over what a program/school can offer, Miami's enrollment and attendance numbers, lack of their own stadium and overall non-traditional BCS conference structure, could have them behind the likes of Clemson, Florida State, NC State, Virginia Tech and others in the picking process. While the Hurricanes are located in the Miami market, some critics point to a lesser example of the "Boston College concept", where other attractions in the area dilute the school's athletics relevancy. While Golden is fresh off an impressive recruiting haul, the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions somewhat nullifies that momentum. Minus the wins and national platform, many are now viewing Miami in a different light. Considering what's at play in college football, it's a bad time for that gleam to be dim.
Miami is a proud program with a story that does set them apart. While some may put parameters on what they think tradition is, "The U" has helped college football change and grow. Even when it didn't necessarily want to. The Hurricanes have their own chapter in the game's autobiography. As pundits talk about the potential demise of the ACC, and the correlated rise of the Big XII and SEC, where does Miami fit? Though they deserve to be in moving forward, they never really have been looking back. For the program that broke the mold, that independence may now be a difficult sell.