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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- There are no echoes from the past here, not when the past shows up every day in the offseason begging for revenge.
|Ken Dorsey and Miami came close to winning back-to-back championships.|
Every former Miami player who walked through the campus this summer had a simple message for the current torchbearers: They have to beat Ohio State. For them. For a championship lost. For a controversial call that ended up altering the direction of the program.
Believe it or not, the rematch of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl this Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, provides the perfect beginning for the reawakening of the Hurricanes' program. Miami has not been close to a national title since that devastating loss in overtime, which was marked by a controversial pass interference call in the end zone.
Instead, the Hurricanes went on a downward spiral, costing coach Larry Coker his job and Miami its coveted spot among the elite. But a 5-1 start last season provided glimmers of the Miami that once was. Now this one begins with expectations higher than they have been in seven years.
Winning at Ohio State might not provide closure for what happened in Arizona, but it would be the most definitive declaration yet that the program is ready to make a return to the spotlight.
"To me, it's more about them winning a big game to put themselves back in an elite status," said Ken Dorsey, the quarterback on that 2002 Miami team. "All of us want to see Miami win this game, but even more so we want to see Miami back in the national title hunt. This is potentially a starting point for that more than anything."
Dorsey never used the word revenge, but many former Hurricanes did when they worked out with current players. Cornerback Brandon Harris said Jonathan Vilma, Andre Johnson and Ed Reed all spoke about the importance of winning this game.
"A lot of them, they're going to live their dreams through us this week," Harris said. "They realize they can't go out there and play them again, but we have the opportunity to take them down."
When asked for the theme of the week, defensive lineman Olivier Vernon bluntly said, "Revenge time. Nobody's forgotten about that. I feel like I was playing that game. Everybody -- the fans, the coaches, I can sense it. All the players, we want to get that game back."
There is no getting that game back, of course, no taking back the pass interference call on Glenn Sharpe, no taking back all the time spent lamenting a lost sixth championship. Dorsey says the only time he thinks about the game is when he is asked about what happened.
That is not the case with so many others who played, and coached, in that game. "You don't get over those as a coach," recalled Coker, now putting together a team at UT-San Antonio to begin play in 2011. "You remember more the bad times than the good times. We won a lot of games at Miami and won the national championship, but that one stands out more than the others."
|Brandon Harris and the current Canes are trying to make a statement.|
The next season, Miami went 11-2 and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. That was the last time the Hurricanes made it into a BCS bowl game. Recruiting started to slip, and so did discipline and accountability. Coker tried to shake up his coaching staff, firing several longtime assistants after the worst bowl loss in school history -- a 40-3 defeat at the hands of LSU in the 2005 Peach Bowl.
Things got uglier in 2006. A benches-clearing brawl against Florida International marred an unacceptable 7-6 season. Coker was fired.
When asked whether the loss to Ohio State had any impact on the direction of the program, Coker said, "I don't think that game had a lot to do with that. Not many teams ever win two national championships back-to-back."
Randy Shannon was hired in 2007 to restore the once-proud Miami tradition, but the winning takes time. Miami went 5-7 in his first season, its first losing record in 10 years. But the 2007 Hurricanes had a full complement of players. The team that went 5-6 in 1997 was reeling from the effects of probation and the loss of 31 scholarships.
Still, Shannon was putting together recruiting classes that would be the envy of many across the country. He saw much of that talent begin to emerge in 2009, when Miami handled a brutal start to the season against four straight ranked teams beautifully. The Hurricanes jumped all the way to No. 8 in the rankings before sliding back down, with inexperience and mistakes taking a toll.
So Miami fans wait, and the players wait, for their return to glory. Anybody will tell you the downfall of a program happens more swiftly than the climb back up. Where national championship appearances were once routine, Miami is waiting on its first 10-win season since 2003.
Shannon has tried to downplay the magnitude of the Ohio State matchup, using the old cliché that it is just another game and what happened at the Fiesta Bowl is in the past. Quarterback Jacory Harris tried to follow his coach's lead, using the same clichés.
But there is a deep meaning to this game, beyond revenge. There is a sense this is the time to prove Miami really, truly is back.
"When we win -- I don't want to say if -- we're going to set the standard for the younger guys," running back Damien Berry said.
Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.