Thursday, January 2, 2003

Miami's 20-year run worthy of dynasty status

By Richard Rosenblatt
The Associated Press

TEMPE, Ariz. - Art Kehoe has been at Miami since the start, as a feisty offensive guard in the late 1970s, then as a graduate assistant, a line coach and now an assistant head coach.

Over the past 20 seasons, he's seen this private school rise up and become the premier college football program in the country.

No matter who's coaching, no matter how badly the school's image suffers because of rowdy behavior on and off the field, and no matter how severe the NCAA sanctions, the Hurricanes keep winning national championships.

"It's been just an incredible run," Kehoe said as No. 1 Miami prepared for Friday night's national title game against No. 2 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. "But it's no fluke. Believe me. There's been a lot of hard work by a lot of people for a long time."

If the 'Canes extend their winning streak to 35 games and capture a sixth national title, it would cap an unprecedented 20-year dynasty.

"We're not really worried about streaks and stuff," said head coach Larry Coker, whose team is trying to become the second since 1979 to take consecutive national crowns.

Since 1983, when Howard Schnellenberger led Miami to its first national crown with a 31-30 upset of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, the Hurricanes won titles in 1987 under Jimmy Johnson, in '89 and '91 under Dennis Erickson, and last season under Coker.

Miami could have won titles in 1986, 1992 and 1994, but lost bowl games each time.

Miami is 201-39 since the start of the '83 season, with three perfect seasons (this would be No. 4).

Along the way, there were two other huge winning streaks - an NCAA-record 58-game home streak from 1985-94, and a 29-game run from 1990-93.

How did all this happen at a school that nearly dropped football in the mid 1970s, and was still drawing crowds of 11,000 to the 75,000-seat Orange Bowl in 1980?

The first piece of the puzzle probably was snapped into place by Lou Saban, briefly Miami's coach, who left a legacy by recruiting quarterback Jim Kelly out of East Brady, Pa.

Two years later, in 1979, Saban departed. Schnellenberger stepped in with a pro-style passing offense from the Miami Dolphins.

People thought Schnellenberger was crazy when he predicted a national title within five years. But he delivered with a gangly quarterback from Ohio named Bernie Kosar - backed up by future Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde - and a cadre of talented in-state recruits.

"We had a unique situation," said Schnellenberger, now coaching at Florida Atlantic and trying to land local stars. "We were an independent with a strong national schedule. We played in the most recognizable stadium at the Orange Bowl and we were sitting on the hottest bed of prospects in the nation."

The momentum had begun. Miami became the place to go for quarterbacks with NFL aspirations, and that made the school an attractive place for receivers, including those starring at local high schools.

"Howard said we're going to make South Florida our landmark," Kehoe said. "We may get beat by Florida and Florida State for some kids, but we're going to control this area."

Then Jimmy Johnson arrived from Oklahoma State. He added an aggressive defense to the equation and quickly attracted even more local talent who saw the school of 14,000 students as a gateway to the NFL.

The formula worked. Since 1984, a nation-high 63 Miami players were chosen in the NFL draft.

"That school is like no other," said tight end Jeremy Shockey, a Miami All-American last season now starring with the New York Giants. "Anybody that comes out of there is going to be ready to play at the next level."

Warm weather, South Beach and a vibrant nightlife are strong selling points, too (there are three Canadians on the team).

Shockey is one of dozens of former players who stay in touch.

"I call down there and threaten them - 'Let's get it done,"' said former Miami running back James Jackson, now with the Cleveland Browns.

Kelly, Kosar, Steve Walsh and Craig Erickson return for games. Even Johnson roamed the sideline once this season.

Not all of Miami's tradition has been good. There was the fatigue fiasco of 1986, when Testaverde, defensive lineman Jerome Brown and other players walked off the team plane sporting Army fatigues. That cemented a reputation as the bad boys of college football.

Two years later, Miami's game against Notre Dame was dubbed "Convicts vs. Catholics." The Irish won 31-30 on their way to the national title.

And then there were the probation years from 1995-97, when the NCAA found Miami guilty of numerous rules violations under Erickson's watch from 1989-94.

Butch Davis, a Miami assistant under Johnson, returned as the new coach with a mandate to restore order. He shored up the academic end by adding study rooms and computers within the athletic department. He made sure recruits stayed away from trouble.

By 1997, as Miami's loss of scholarships hit hardest, the 'Canes went 5-6 - their only losing season since 1979. But by the time Davis left to coach the Browns, Miami had repaired its image and returned to the national title chase, finishing No. 2 in the final AP poll in 2000 after a 37-20 win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

"You have to give credit to Butch for getting it regenerated," said defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a Miami All-American in 1994 now starring for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "With everything that was going on, he found a way to regenerate the thing and get it back to where people actually wanted to come to school there."

Athletic director Paul Dee then made a decision that indicated the strength of Miami's program. He promoted Coker from offensive coordinator, the first time in 25 years Miami hired from within to replace its football coach.

Coker, of course, hasn't lost since, including last season's 37-14 victory over Nebraska for the national title.

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