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Schnellenberger Reflects on ‘83 Title

By Carlos Pineda
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Miami's 1983 national championship team will be honored by the school Friday as the Hurricanes take on Florida Atlantic.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The 1983 Miami Hurricanes turned the college football world upside down.

Led by Bear Bryant disciple Howard Schnellenberger, the small private school in Miami won college football's biggest prize by beating top-ranked Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, 31-30. The game is famously known for Nebraska's use of the fumblerooski and for Tom Osborne's decision to go for the two-point conversion with 48 seconds remaining in the contest.

The Hurricanes became an overnight national power and won three more titles (1987, 1989 and 1991) within a nine-year span to produce one of college football's greatest dynasties.

That same '83 team will be in attendance on Friday night in Miami's 2013 season opener as part of the 30th anniversary honoring the program's first national title. The Hurricanes play against Florida Atlantic University, another program Schnellenberger built from scratch.

"As I look back on it, it reiterates how big of an event that was," the 79-year old Schnellenberger told Southern Pigskin. "We knew it was big at the time but as the years pass, it gets bigger and bigger, because not only was it the winning of a national championship by a team that nobody believed could do that. To do it with the style and tenacity that they did was astronomical."

Schnellenberger arrived at UM in 1979 and swiftly changed the culture at a program that was nearly dropped a few years prior. He believed Miami had the "natural resources" to develop a "great" football team. Boasting strong high school football talent in South Florida, he was able to get them to stay home and play for the hometown team.

UM had only four winning seasons in 16 years prior to Schnellenberger’s arrival. After going 5-6 in his first year, the Hurricanes won nine games in Schnellenberger's second season and played in their first bowl game (1981 Peach Bowl) since 1967. Three seasons later, Miami pulled off the miracle in Miami.

"They were in a state of depression because they had 13 years of mediocrity, if not bad football," the baritone-voiced Schnellenberger described the state of the Miami program when he took over. "They thought the stadium was too big. They thought the schedule was too tough.

"They didn't think they could get young players to come to their school from South Florida and all that proved to be wrong."

The 1983 season began with a loss to the Florida Gators, but wins over Notre Dame, West Virginia, East Carolina and Florida State set the stage for the Hurricanes' upset bid against the Cornhuskers.

"Everything worked out smooth," he said. "That doesn't mean there wasn't a hell of a lot of hard work and dedication, and playing better than we knew how to play.

"It was right on schedule from day one."

Road to the national championship

Sept. 3 loss at (7) Florida     28-3

The Hurricanes lost the season opener, but the 25-point loss wasn't nearly as lopsided as the final score indicated. Miami had eight turnovers and the Gators took advantage of UM's miscues. Freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar shined, passing for 223 yards and tied a school-record for completions with 25.

"We beat the hell out of them. The difference in the game was [that] we gave the ball up eight times and all of the times they were on the ends of the field rather than the middle of the field, so that made it easier for them to score.  In essence, we outplayed them and I was smart enough to recognize that from the sideline..."

In the locker room after the Florida game, Schnellenberger told the team they would practice Monday and get ready for their next opponent as if they had won the first game of the season.

"And that was a good way to approach it because they responded by going undefeated from that game on."

The Hurricanes took care of business in Houston (29-7) and shut out Purdue at home (35-0) before hosting a prime time showdown against 13th-ranked Notre Dame.

Sept. 24 win vs. (13) Notre Dame     20-0

Miami blanked the Fighting Irish before 52,480 fans at the Orange Bowl. Linebacker Jay Brophy had two interceptions for the Hurricanes. Fullback Speedy Neal scored a rushing touchdown late in the first quarter and Kosar had a 12-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to give the Hurricanes a 14-0 lead entering the half.

"We had a rock-hard defense and we were getting the turnovers... They couldn't score and we scored enough to win. It was a good game for us, it wasn't a great game."

In October, Miami entered the Top 25 ranked 15th. The Hurricanes rattled off wins against Duke (56-17), Louisville (42-14), Mississippi State (31-17), Cincinnati (17-7) and No. 12 West Virginia (20-3) before running into a close call against East Carolina.

Nov. 5 win vs. East Carolina      12-7

Miami trailed at halftime for the first time since the Florida game and scored two second-half touchdowns to keep its dream season alive.

“That was a close game. They had more guys drafted than we did. Talent-wise, they had as good a team or better than we were.”

Nov. 12 win at Florida State        17-16

The Seminoles led 16-7 before Kosar hit receiver Eddie Brown for a 37-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. The Miami defense shut down Florida State in the fourth quarter and kicker Jeff Davis’ 19-yard field goal sealed the Hurricanes’ bid to play in the 50th Orange Bowl Classic against Nebraska.

“They got ahead of us by nine points going into the fourth quarter and it took a valiant defensive effort to not let them [FSU] move the ball.”

Orange Bowl, Jan. 2 win vs. (1) Nebraska     31-30

Miami scored 17 unanswered points in the first quarter before the Cornhuskers scored a second-quarter touchdown on the fumblerooski. UM led by three points at the intermission, but touchdown runs from Alonzo Highsmith and Albert Bentley extended the lead to 31-17. Miami withstood a Nebraska surge in the fourth quarter to win its first college football title.

"We had talked about the fumblerooski during practice because we knew anytime they get in a desperate situation they run it."

Schnellenberger told his players during practice if Nebraska used the fumblerooski that they had them beat.

"If they ever run the damn thing you could rest assured that you have them beat because they don't run that unless they're unable to move the ball any other way."

Tom Osborne two-point conversion:

"I don't think he had a choice. I think his position as the coach of the No. 1 team in America, and the pride of the Nebraska nation riding on his shoulders would not allow him to take such a wimpish position as to kick an extra point. He didn't make it there on the sideline. He had made it long before that going into the game."

Carlos Pineda - Carlos Pineda is a featured writer for Southern Pigskin. He covered the UCF Knights football team for Florida Today in 2010. Carlos' work has been published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel and Orlando Business Journal. He attended the University of Central Florida. Follow Carlos on Twitter @CarlosFPineda.