Miami dynasty born out of '83 defeat
Loss to Gators sparked a turnaround that fueled Hurricanes' rise to national power
The team that started a dynasty trudged into the locker room after its season opener, bracing for the wrath of its coach.
Miami had just played a terrible game, losing to hated in-state rival Florida 28-3. The Gators were the higher ranked team, and had the home-field advantage, but that was no excuse for the turnovers that piled one on top of the other.
Howard Schnellenberger looked at the young men before him. And he made a decision that ultimately changed college football. He did not yell. He did not point fingers. He simply told his team, "We gave that one away. Let's clean up the mistakes and get ready to go play."
"We practiced like we had won the game and that to me was the biggest decision that I've ever made in my life -- particularly in that season for that situation," Schnellenberger recalled in a recent phone interview.
That loss to Florida, 30 years ago almost to the day, could have broken Miami. Instead, the 1983 Hurricanes were emboldened. Miami reeled off 10 straight victories in 10 consecutive weeks to earn a spot in the Orange Bowl against No. 1 Nebraska for the national championship.
But not as impressive as its shocking win over the Huskers in perhaps the greatest championship game ever played, a victory that propelled Miami to five titles over an 18-year period, an era of dominance unmatched since.
Before Miami became known as "The U," though, it was a program struggling to find itself. Schnellenberger, himself familiar with college football dynasties from his days as an assistant to Alabama coach Bear Bryant, would change all that. He got players to buy into his master plan to make Miami into a powerhouse. Schnellenberger promised every single one of his players that Miami would be a champion one day.
Every single one of those players believed him.
"He told us in his fifth year that we'd challenge for the national championship," recalled Jay Brophy, a linebacker on the '83 team. "Now, he could tell me, 'Jump off the roof, you'll be fine,' and I'll do it. Because what he told us is true. In the fifth year, we won the national championship."
That might not have happened had Schnellenberger reacted differently following the loss to Florida. Schnellenberger was always a coach who drove his team hard. Alonzo Highsmith, a 17-year-old freshman running back in 1983, recalls watching spring practice before he officially arrived on campus and seeing that relentlessness. It continued when all freshmen arrived on campus in the fall.
"He told us, 'This is how it's going to be,'" Highsmith recalled. "'You're going to have to be tough; you're going to have to be physical; you're going to have to be a man to play here.'"
That fall was particularly tough, with Florida up first on the schedule. Back in the early 1980s, the rivalry between Florida and Miami was as heated as any in the country. Guest speakers used to come in and talk to the team about how important it was to beat the nemesis Gators.
"You almost felt like the season was over when we lost to them," Brophy said. "And if you beat 'em, no matter what, at least we beat Florida."
You almost felt like the season was over when we lost to them. And if you beat 'em, no matter what, at least we beat Florida.
-- Former Miami linebacker Jay Brophy
Schnellenberger worked his players even harder, knowing what was at stake in Week 1. But even then, the staff was unsure what it would see come game time. Current Miami assistant Art Kehoe, a graduate assistant working with offensive line coach Christ Vagotis in 1983, recalls, "We kept looking at each other going, 'Oh my God, we're just not very good.' We didn't think we were very good at all. The defense was whipping our butt every day in practice."
Schnellenberger knew he had talent, but he also knew he had a first-time starter in Bernie Kosar, who survived a quarterback competition with Vinny Testaverde to start. He had first-time starters all over the place. Florida jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to Miami mistakes. The Hurricanes felt themselves coming apart. Whatever it was -- first-game jitters, inexperience, physical and emotional exhaustion -- Miami ended up with seven turnovers and a disheartening loss.
"After the game, I really felt bad because I felt we took ourselves out of the game early on so it changed the game for us," safety Kenny Calhoun says now. "I think we competed with them, but that 13 points in the first quarter was defeating to us, so we were never able to get going."
Players feared what Schnellenberger would do to them when they arrived home in Coral Gables.
"We were all thinking, 'Oh God, we're going to get killed this next week at practice,'" Brophy said.
Had Schnellenberger delivered the firestorm players expected, he may have lost the team. Schnellenberger had dished out plenty of punishment after ugly losses in the past, making his players scrimmage on Sunday until they figured out how to cut out all the mistakes.
But to Schnellenberger, the loss to the Gators did not qualify as a complete washout. The score may have been ugly, but there were playmakers everywhere he looked. Young talent, guys like Highsmith, Eddie Brown and Jerome Brown. But more than that, he saw Kosar hang in the pocket like a veteran.
Kosar tied a school record at the time for completions. That, quite frankly, is all Schnellenberger needed to see. He simply knew he could not blister his team. He could sense, even after a 25-point loss, that he had a special group.
"If I had taken the other approach, then they would have not only been embarrassed and down and divided, they would have been pointing fingers," Schnellenberger said. "But by making that decision, it brought us together on that Sunday when we studied the film. That Monday when we went to practice, they were able to get the feeling that we won the game – except for the score."
Highsmith recalled: "Coach Schnellenberger and the coaches realized we had so much talent on this team that they couldn't destroy us mentally or physically because of this loss. Let's treat it like we won, let's see how that works out, and it worked out perfect."
If I had taken the other approach, then they would have not only been embarrassed and down and divided, they would have been pointing fingers.
-- Former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger
The key was the way Schnellenberger believed in his players. But never once did he mention the national championship after the loss to Florida. He just wanted to see improvement week after week. If improvements were made, the wins would follow.
They did. Calhoun remembers Schnellenberger protecting his players from the media and the growing hype as the Canes racked up their wins with a balanced offense and overpowering defense. After the loss to Florida, the Miami defense gave up an average of 7.8 points per game and pitched two shutouts.
Miami had its share of challenges. Not surprisingly, the biggest came to close the regular season against another in-state rival, Florida State, in Tallahassee. Miami trailed 16-7 midway through the third quarter. Down 16-14, Kosar and the Canes got the ball back with 2:12 left at the Florida State 49. Kosar got Miami into field goal range. Jeff Davis -- who missed two kicks earlier in the game -- nailed a 19-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Hurricanes to a 17-16 win.
It must have seemed like a nightmare scenario for the Hurricanes after what happened against the Gators.They simply could not allow another rival to derail their magical season.
A meeting was called for Sunday. Players gathered. Schnellenberger walked down from the coaches offices.
"I saw that pipe coming," Brophy said. "He looked at us and said, 'Gentlemen, we have now earned the right to challenge for the national championship.' The whole room erupted."
What ensued is left to the pages of history. Miami, the scrappy underdog, found a way to beat Nebraska, hailed as the most dominant team in college football. Calhoun has his place in history, too, as the player who batted down Turner Gill's 2-point conversion pass to seal the Miami win 31-30.
Immediately after he made the play, there was no time to think about what the Canes were on the verge of accomplishing. Time remained on the clock. Miami could not celebrate just yet.
And what if Calhoun had not made that play?
"Bernie still reminds me, 'Hey if you didn't bat down that pass, we still would have had time to win the game," Calhoun said with a laugh.
Such swagger, years before Miami became synonymous -- and oftentimes hated -- for its swagger. Miami would never be known as a scrappy underdog again.
Not even today, as the Hurricanes try to climb their way back to the top. The man trying to get the Hurricanes there, Al Golden, watched the championship game from his home in Pennsylvania. His older brother, Greg, walked on at Miami in 1981. Though Greg was no longer on the team in '83, the Goldens kept their rooting interest. And a game tape of the victory they used to watch from time to time.
Golden says he remembers that game like it was yesterday. A man well-versed in Miami history even before he became head coach, Golden is now charged with getting the Hurricanes back to the top. And who should loom on the schedule Saturday?
An old foe: Florida, in the last scheduled regular-season meeting between the two programs. On the 30th anniversary of the 1983 championship season, no less. Florida and Miami players were not born when this rivalry was at its peak. Ask Miami quarterback Stephen Morris about the 1983 season and he says, "It's a little before my time."
Florida State, meanwhile, has grown into a bigger rival for both teams. But there simply is no denying the place the Florida-Miami game has in the sport's history.
Especially in 1983, the season that started a dynasty.