Perhaps the sheer lightness of their surroundings makes the Miami Hurricanes run a step faster than everyone else. Everything seems easy in Ray Ban land, down there in the world of the thong and the ankle tattoo. It is school-skipping territory, where pastels wash over your tired eyes like Visine and where the breeze has a giggly, permissive quality, drawing you toward the turquoise bay and into the great tanning sublime.
The Hurricanes seemed no different from other players when they were recruited by the more traditional football schools, but buried in their hearts must have been a little deviant individualism that led them to choose Miami, a school so seemingly, well, uncollegiate. It is only 67 years old. And the young men who play football for this school have the charm and arrogance of social-climbing bootleggers; they are the Jay Gatsbys of the NCAA. Yet they have manufactured tradition at an alarming pace, winning four national championships in nine years, including three in the last five and two in the last three.
All comparisons fail when talking about this seductive private school of 14,200 students. In a mere decade Miami has become highly regarded as a center not only of football achievements but also of academic attainment. A five-year fund-raising drive, which ended in 1989, took in $517 million—at the time the second most lucrative such campaign ever and one that is surely related to the football team's extravagant success.
Miami has gone 77-7 in the last seven seasons and finished in the top three in the country an unprecedented six straight times, accomplishments that demand comparison with the Notre Dame teams of the 1940s—the Irish won four national championships between 1943 and '49—and Oklahoma's teams of '53 through '57, which won 47 straight games and two national titles. Both of those dynasties were achieved under the direction of a single coach, Frank Leahy of the Irish and Bud Wilkinson of the Sooners. The Hurricanes, however, have won their four titles under three coaches—Howard Schnellenberger in 1983, Jimmy Johnson in '87 and the incumbent, Dennis Erickson, in '89 and '91. Miami assistant coach Art Kehoe is the only member of the staff who has remained through all three administrations. He can honestly say, "I remember every loss."
And the Hurricanes' consistency shows no sign of abating. With 15 starters returning from last year's team, Miami is seeking to become the first school to win back-to-back national titles since Alabama did it in 1978 and '79.
The Hurricane program has become the maker of manners, the model for every coach and athletic director seeking to launch a winning tradition of his own. It is not unusual for 40 or 50 high school, college and even pro coaches to visit Miami's spring practice sessions. But is it possible to copy the Hurricanes? Probably not, for their success is the product of an elusive formula, a combination of many elements. Its essence is the players themselves, who, lacking any tradition of their own, decided to make some up as they went along.
The Miami alumni list of the last 10 years is an NFL Who's Who, and many of the entries can be found on the sideline at the Orange Bowl, where the Hurricanes have won 45 straight games. Bennie Blades, Melvin Bratton, Eddie Brown, Bernard Clark, Alonzo Highsmith, Michael Irvin, Jim Kelly, Brett Perriman and Daniel Stubbs are some of the current pros who can be spotted amid the orange jerseys. They chat. They clap. They cajole. They criticize. Frequently they threaten. They moan that the current Hurricanes aren't showy enough or throwy enough or talky enough or dancey enough.
The alums even go so far as to call up current players at night and complain. It is the most effective form of alumni pressure in college football.
Former players have stayed in unusually close touch with the program they helped build. It is a bond that sometimes mystifies even the coaches. "I don't know what they say or do, but I know it motivates this team," says Erickson. "So we encourage it. It's important."
It begins with some hazing of the freshmen. It grows into a big-brother affair. It is not unusual to find three generations of Hurricane starters staying in touch with one another. Linebackers are especially close. Clark, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys, and Maurice Crum, a former All-America who also plays for the Cowboys, often take their undergraduate successors, Micheal Barrow and Darrin Smith, to breakfast at the New York, New York restaurant not far from campus.