Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire
By BJ Bennett
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While South Beach waits for a spark, the city's once-invincible extension goes back to the basics.
College football in the 1980s was taken over by a proverbial lightning strike, a raging fire ablaze in the hearts and minds of the young men who formed the most dominant gridiron force in the country. The Miami Hurricanes were more than just a football team, they were an individually-numbered outlet of expression: the colors were bright, the personalities were too. They were the flamboyant embodiment of all that we tried to be when our manners weren't looking.
It was a feeling that bellowed right out onto the field at the old Orange Bowl.
"I grew up in northern California," 1992 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Gino Torretta explained. "First game of the season I remember running through the smoke and looking around and going 'oh my god, this is what college football is all about in the south'."
A small, private school without the benefit of years of generations of support, Miami was an uncharacteristic contender. For as much as the Hurricanes defied college football tradition, during their heyday it was them that defined the sport. The rest of the nation, superpowers included, watched as Miami blew right by. The Hurricanes brought a brand of physicality and speed that took the game by storm. The end result was a very real, and surreal, college football dynasty.
"During my time in college, my teams were 55-5. We never lost a home game in the Orange Bowl. We were, I guess you could say, a young upstart. We were a young university only being about 50 years old. To win five titles in 20 years, it was just amazing," the two-time national champion Torretta continued.
As startling as Miami's toppling of the status quo may have been, the way they did it furthered their polarizing status. The Hurricanes were comfortable in their own skin, even if, at times, it came across as slick and slimy to you. This was a bunch that was loud, proud and ready to take on all comers. The 'Canes did just that, beating the likes of Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Oklahoma from the mid 1980s on.
The program forged a unique bond with the surrounding area. While most schools are beloved at home, Miami's teams were formed almost exclusively of prep players from the region. Through that, teams became extensions of the fans they represented. That atmosphere helped fortify the Hurricanes' colloquial tone. With overwhelming and oftentimes-unrelenting talent on display each Saturday, some outsiders viewed Miami as a team unfocused. Such was a falsity oftentimes mistakenly shared by UM opponents. Torretta's viewpoint was much different.
"It was a collection of guys that worked their butts off," he stated. "A lot of guys were underrated but when we came together as a team and you had the fans behind you in the old Orange Bowl, which I thought was the probably the best homefield advantage ever for a big game, there weren't a lot of bad memories down there."
The school's ascension to football fame was unforeseen. The college game's hub was in the heartland and that collective stranglehold was one with knuckles baring. As they started their climb, the Hurricanes lacked facilities, funding and the assumed infrastructure needed to sustain a winning program over the long-haul. Miami didn't have a coffee table book worth of memories on which to build their foundation. Their expectations instead came from within. Those who saw that pull deemed it "swagger". Those who lived it explain it much more simply.
"I think it was just a confidence. We felt we worked harder than anyone else. I can remember if we had a bye week early in the season, it was hell on Saturday because we had to play against each other and go full speed," Torretta continued. "There wasn't a doubt when we stepped on the field that we knew we were going to win the game. I don't know if that was swagger or whatever you want to call it, we felt like we were prepared better than anybody. We knew we had the talent. If we went out and did as we prepared all week, we would have a chance and most of the time would win the game. Guys just had fun playing. Guys danced and had fun and obviously we were successful."
As the Hurricanes gyrated their way to the top, some watched with baited breath. Others, with a gasp and channeled gumption.
"I think they came out with the 'Miami rule' my senior year, where guys couldn't take their helmets off and they were throwing the 15-yard penalty. Any kind of celebratory act on the field they were throwing a 15-yard penalty. I don't think the NCAA wants anymore of some the stuff we used to do. My thought on that was, you're playing a game, you're 18 to 22 years old, you're having fun doing it. As long as you are not dancing in somebody's face, rubbing it in their face and delaying the game then do whatever you want to," Torretta detailed. "The NCAA, they didn't want that image where we did what we wanted to, said what we wanted to and went out and won every game."
Like it or not, Miami was in the spotlight. These teams filled with future NFL stars played their best when on the big stage. Throughout the era, the Hurricanes' rivalry with Bobby Bowden's Seminoles became the showcase series in college football. Two national newcomers, Florida State and Miami brought speed and spunk to the playing field. As implications grew, so did tensions. The viewing audience was in awe. Looking back on his experiences, one of UM's all-time greats was as well.
"My first game in 1988 my freshman year, and I had never even gone to a game in the Orange Bowl, was Florida State who was pre-season number one. They had come out with a music video and all. Jimmy Johnson told us just to not believe the hype. We kept preparing and we ended up blowing them out 31-0. That was the start," Torretta reflected. "My last two years were Wide Right I and Wide Right II. Very seldom does the game that's billed as the 'Game of the Century' match the label. In my years it seemed like the game matched the label and whoever won had the inside track to win the national championship."
It was a scene that college football, quite frankly, won't see again. And not necessarily because the 'Canes and 'Noles have slipped off of the national stage. Miami's one lone artifact, their tangible piece of heritage, was torn down in 2008. Inexplicably, the Hurricanes lost the Orange Bowl's finale 48-0 to division rival Virginia. Given it's past stature, it was an unfathomable outcome for the most storied stadium on the east coast. The old Orange Bowl's demise was a difficult one for the many athletes, college and pro, who experienced the best of their playing days in the relic. Vivid memories, though, are alive and well.
"Running through the smoke the first time as a true freshman and never having lost in that stadium. Having been a fan in that stadium subsequent to my playing days...Obviously the amenities aren't what Joe Robbie Stadium has where they are playing now. But the memories, the homefield advantage. It was just an old rickety, metal stadium that vibrated. The noise, the heat...I remember my freshman year with Jimmy Johnson, this was before TV controlled the sport. We scheduled games at noon because we knew high-noon was going to be hotter than heck in Miami and it was going to be humid and the other team was going to crumble. That added to the lore of the old Orange Bowl. Leaky faucets, leaky toilets and everything else involved," laughed Torretta.
Miami has long been a program built on relationships. Even as the program struggles for consistency, many former greats continue to come back to Coral Gables to offer insight and perspective. Head coach Al Golden has spent the early part of his tenure trying to strengthen those bonds and use the school's past to guide it through the future. It's been a trying last few years for the Hurricanes, as the team is a pedestrian 41-35 since 2006. Miami hasn't played in a January bowl game since the end of the 2003 regular season. For as much as talent and coaching led the Hurricanes through their dynasty era, it was a deeper theme that pushed Miami over the top.
"I look back on all my years and all my teammates were my best friends. There wasn't bad blood between any of us and I think that's why we were so successful. We wanted success for each other individually and we knew that the team would be successful if we all had individual success," Torretta added.
Today, program legends look to the future with hope. They also reflect, however, with keen advice.
"I think they can," Torretta responded when asked if his alma mater can return to the national forefront. "I think they were complacent to an extent and then when Randy [Shannon] came in I think they just missed on recruits and he never assembled the right staff. Just kind of never seemed to come together. I think they were very divisive, didn't play as a team. It's going to take some recruiting, a change in attitude of, you know what, you aren't given anything. When I went to Miami, nobody was given anything. You had to work your butt off to be the starter every single week. It didn't matter what position you played. The minute you lose competition in football, or any sport for that matter, for position, then you get complacent and you don't get better."
The future remains in question. Sanctions from NCAA violations loom. Golden's current roster lacks depth. Miami no longer has national appeal, a true homefield advantage or outward optimism moving forward. Critics have already turned the page on this part of college football's history, dousing the ashes of the Hurricanes of old. While South Beach waits for a spark, the city's once-invincible extension goes back to the basics. After all, this isn't a program that yields at adversity's veil. When "The U" reaches a swirling cloud of uncertainty, they run right through it.