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Raising 'Canes

Miami won the national title by snapping Oklahoma's wishbone in a surprisingly one-sided 20-14 victory in the Orange Bowl


By Rick Telander

January 11, 1988

Sports Illustrated FlashbackWhen the bad guys played the bad guys for all the marbles in the 54th Orange Bowl Classic on New Year's Day, one thing seemed certain: Bad guys would win.

But did they?

Miami (evil, paranoid) beat Oklahoma (anarchic, bullying) 20-14 to run its record to 12-0, win the national championship and further spread the cloak of darkness over big-time college football. Right? Or has that perception been altered?

"Do you think winning cleans it?" Sooner coach Barry Switzer asked the day before the game. By "it" he meant the soiled image that shrouded his team and the Hurricanes. "Does winning wash it away?"

Does winning cleanse the sinner? Had Miami coach Jimmy Johnson -- he of the healthy tan and perfectly coiffed hair suddenly awash in celebratory ice water -- been transformed into a pure and good, even admirable, man? Just by winning? Maybe not, but the Orange Bowl game was so good -- as in entertaining -- that it may have temporarily overwhelmed at least some critics of the two schools' programs.

Forget that Hurricane offensive tackle John O'Neill and star middle linebacker George Mira Jr. flunked pregame drug tests for taking Lasix, a prescription diuretic that some experts believe can make the use of anabolic steroids less detectable. Forget all the run-ins that Miami players have had with police. Forget that last year Oklahoma had more academically ineligible freshman players than any other school. Forget also all the accusations that the Sooners ran up the score against opponents. Never mind all that. This was how college football should be played.

The Hurricanes' gangly sophomore quarterback Steve Walsh was masterful, completing 18 of 30 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns against a secondary that probably could start as a unit in the NFL. As Walsh zipped passes to running back Melvin Bratton, who had nine catches for 102 yards and a touchdown before leaving in the fourth quarter with a knee injury, and lofted floaters to wide receiver Michael Irvin, who had four receptions for 57 yards and the winning TD, he reminded one most of Bernie Kosar, Miami's former master of the scalpel, its quarterback in its championship season of 1983.

"He's less emotional than Bernie," said Johnson after the game. "I don't want Steve to be emotional. I can be hyper, but not my quarterbacks."

Walsh is so cool that he never questioned the audacity of going for a first down on fourth-and-four at Oklahoma's 29-yard line late in the third quarter. It was only the play of the game. The Hurricanes were ahead 10-7 at the time, and rain was pelting the field. Moreover, Miami kicker Greg Cox had blasted an Orange Bowl-record 56-yard field goal on the 'Canes' previous possession. Wisdom would have you go for three again, especially against an 11-0 team that hadn't been behind this late in a game all season. And especially against a defense that allowed the fewest points in the nation for the second straight season.

But instead of wilting, Walsh flicked a perfect six-yard out-pattern pass to Bratton while getting crunched by the Sooner rush. "I didn't really think about it," said Walsh. "Mel got out past the zone, and I laid it out there. I didn't see it. But it was pretty safe."

After the game Walsh nursed a blackening right eye. Three plays after that gutsy fourth-down conversion, Walsh had thrown the game-winning pass to Irvin, and he had bruised his cheekbone while hugging guard Mike Sullivan in the end zone. "I shouldn't go down there," he said. "I have to remain calm."

Certainly the explosive Irvin won't. A blaze of grace and verbiage from the side of Fort Lauderdale that tourists never see, he's the embodiment of a Miami program that's at once profane and sublime. His touchdown catch was a thing of beauty on which he outran and outclassed All-America safety Rickey Dixon. It was the 27th TD reception of his career, and it got Irvin excited. He snatched the ball from the ref, danced, high-fived everything in sight and saluted the cheering Orange Bowl crowd. On his first reception of the game, a seven-yarder in the first quarter, he had paraded around the field with both forefingers pointing to the sky.

It was a typical Hurricane display, the sort of cocky, stick-it-in-your- face gesture that many onlookers find jarring. It was a statement of self -- like the taunting of opponents after big plays -- that springs from the ghetto, an unbridled yawp of joy that Johnson says he would never try to repress, and for which he and his team have taken a lot of heat. The 'Canes are trash-talkers supreme. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown called Miami "a no-class team" after he and his Notre Dame teammates were embarrassed 24-0 by the 'Canes. You don't see Joe Paterno's boys acting like that, goes the standard refrain. Maybe not, responds Johnson, but my players are different from Paterno's.

"Many of them come from broken homes, with no money, no clothes, not much guidance," says Johnson. "People don't understand them. To be honest, a lot of people don't want to know them. They want them to score touchdowns, tackle, win games -- but after that they want them to go away."

There's some truth to that. Around the predominantly white Miami campus, the Hurricanes have been regarded as mercenaries, a necessary if somewhat threatening presence. More than half of Miami's players are black, and the 'Canes started nine blacks on defense and six on offense; a black linebacker, Bernard Clark, was named an MVP of the game. (Oklahoma started eight blacks on defense and six on offense -- including all the so-called skill positions.)

Certainly some people -- on the Miami campus and elsewhere -- would have trouble understanding a young man like Irvin, the 15th of 17 children, whose father died before he could see his son perform for the Hurricanes. He wears a diamond earring and a gold necklace the size of a logging chain, and when he preened and waved and danced with pals like defensive end Dan Stubbs and linebacker Randy Shannon, most of the Miami fans at the Orange Bowl seemed to love it. But could the folks watching at home on TV accept this behavior as aggressively good-natured rather than as a reflection of many of the bad things they had read and heard about the Miami football players?

Irvin, who came out of the locker room after the game to throw his sweatbands and towel into the crowd and hug as many people as possible, seemed puzzled when asked if he felt like a villain. "I don't feel like a bad guy," he said. "I feel like a football player."

If the Hurricane players have offended folks, Johnson apologizes. A little. In preparation for the Orange Bowl, he issued his guys white sweat suits so they wouldn't wear camouflage or black outfits as they had last year before their disastrous loss to Penn State at the Fiesta Bowl, where the Miami image plummeted to an alltime low. Johnson is correct in arguing that the Hurricanes' image problem is caused partly by the way a white public perceives black athletes. Still that doesn't explain the fact that Johnson's much ; sterner predecessor, Howard Schnellenberger, guided a team of presumably just as misunderstood -- and nearly as many black -- youths to the 1983 championship without alienating the American public or the Miami student body or adding to the burdens of the Coral Gables Police Department.

So let's not name Johnson Father Figure of the Year just yet. Coach of the Year, perhaps. Or Recruiter of the Year, or Tactician, or Motivator or something we can't quite put our finger on. The Hurricanes use the same offense they did under Schnellenberger, and their defense is an everyday 4-3. Where Johnson differs from Schnellenberger and many other college coaches is that his strategy has been to get the best local athletes he can -- 43 'Canes hail from a three-county area around Miami -- and cut them loose.

Obviously Johnson would have felt better if the NCAA suspension of O'Neill and Mira hadn't arisen. "All year nothing, and then it starts again," he said before the game. "The rehashing." But a patchwork offensive line covered splendidly for the missing O'Neill and injured tackle Matt Patchan. And Clark, who had 14 tackles and a fumble recovery, was brilliant substituting for Mira, the Hurricanes' leading tackler. Clark has lightning bolts shaved on his head -- "It's for when I strike people," he explains -- and he struck Sooner fullback Lydell Carr again and again, holding Carr to 38 painful yards on 16 carries. Deprived of its most basic option -- fullback up the gut -- Switzer's wishbone crumbled. Quarterback Charles Thompson, who was harassed all day by Stubbs and fellow defensive end Bill Hawkins, rushed for only 29 yards on 19 carries and completed only four of 12 passes for 56 yards. For the day Oklahoma gained just 179 yards on the ground, less than half its nation-leading average.

As for his banning, the circumstances of which were nearly identical to those surrounding the barring of the Sooners' star linebacker, Brian Bosworth, for steroids at the 1987 Orange Bowl, Mira could only say, "I'm furious with myself. I took the water pill because of swelling in my hands and feet. I swear I did. I've never tested positive for steroids." Yet it's difficult to understand Mira's failure to inform the NCAA, as he was obliged to, that he had used an expressly banned substance three weeks before the final game of his career.

Even shorthanded, Miami outplayed Oklahoma right from the opening drive when it scored on a 30-yard pass from Walsh to Bratton. The Hurricanes turned + the ball over just once -- an interception by Dixon midway through the second quarter -- and used punter Jeff Feagles to pin the Sooners far back in their own territory. Except for a trick "fumblerooski" play, on which 280-pound guard Mark Hutson scooped up an intentionally fumbled center snap and carried the ball for a 29-yard TD with two minutes left in the game, Oklahoma was impotent. On that play, however, all of the 'Canes were suckered. "Everybody on both teams went right, and then there was this fat kid with the ball running left," said Blades. Nebraska guard Dean Steinkuhler scored on the same gimmick play against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl game.

Before this Orange Bowl, observers wondered how the Hurricanes would stop the Sooners' flashfire wishbone, an attack Switzer has built by creating "three-on-two, two-on-one and one-on-none mismatches." Johnson was an assistant with Switzer at Oklahoma in 1970 when Chuck Fairbanks brought in the 'bone, and he knows its secrets. But Switzer says, "Systems don't stop us, great players do."

Great players slowed both offenses in the first half, but in the third quarter Miami stopped the Sooners cold, yielding only 37 yards. With the 'Canes ahead 17-7 at the end of the quarter, the game was essentially over. Even Switzer admits that the wishbone is one of the worst of comeback offenses. And a team that has completed only 34 passes in 11 games isn't about to suddenly learn how to drop back and pick apart a secondary with 15 minutes left in the season. Nevertheless Switzer says he'll stay with the 'bone forever: "We've won more games in the last 15 years than anyone. Why in hell throw? That would be crazy."

After the final gun, Switzer, whose only three losses over the last three years have been to Miami, fought his way over to the joyfully twitching Johnson at midfield and said to him, "How about that guard-around. Tricked you, didn't I!" The friendly gibe was simply an indication of how cleanly, fairly and intensely this game had been played.

The Hurricanes had whupped the top-ranked Sooners. Plain and simple. But had Miami been transformed by this win? Had it become wholesome enough to get an invitation to the White House, as squeaky-clean Penn State did last year? The New York Times reported that a White House invitation would depend on the schedules of the President and the winning team. Three days after the game, Miami had received no word. "If invited, I'll go," said Johnson.

Irvin laughed as he pondered that bizarre notion. "Miami in the White House," he said. "They're probably scared we'd steal something."

Well, not the championship trophy, anyway. The Hurricanes have already snatched that.

January 11, 1988

 

   
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