When did the end begin? This isn't easy to know. There's never an announcement when a dynasty dies, no voice of doom proclaiming that you are slipping, slipping...down from the mountaintop, down to where the also-rans live. No, one day you are the University of Miami Hurricanes, college football's premier team—hips thrusting, motor-jawed, doing this unstoppable dirty dance across the Reagan '80s, owning the American Saturday. Then comes the first day of 1994, and suddenly it's gone, undeniably, all the evidence there in Arizona's 29-0 stomp in the Fiesta Bowl, laid bare on national TV like bones in the desert wind.
"That game—everybody was like, Is this us? Is this really the Canes?" says freshman linebacker Ray Lewis. "You sit and you're saying, 'This can't be happening.' " Lewis's voice goes soft. "But in reality," he says, "it is."
Things in Coral Gables aren't what they used to be. South Florida's flirtation with spring has come and gone, leaving the Hurricanes to practice under a scorching sun and suspicious eyes. But it's not so much the recent jailing of former academic adviser Tony Russell for helping athletes, and a few others, fraudulently obtain Pell Grant funds intended for needy students—a case involving 85 current or former athletes, and one that could bring NCAA sanctions—that has people wondering. It's the inescapable feeling that after an 11-year run, Miami football isn't Miami football anymore.
Read the signs. Last season Miami finished 9-3 and ranked 15th in the country, ending a record 137-week streak in the Associated Press Top 10 and confirming a smell of decline that grew ranker with each underwhelming week. Hampered by the yo-yo handling of quarterbacks Frank Costa and Ryan Collins, which could linger into next fall, and fractured by internal discord, the Hurricanes lost to Florida State in Tallahassee, lost to West Virginia in Morgantown, and then had the whole mess summed up in one 68-yard romp by Wildcat running back Chuck Levy in the second quarter of the Fiesta Bowl. Levy busted through the Miami line and took off, zooming past a secondary that had, until then, been fast enough and together enough to catch almost anyone. To punctuate things, Levy did this nutty duckwalk across the end zone, strutting and drawing a penalty for excessive celebrating—acting, in fact, just as the Hurricanes used to. "You just don't see that!" cried color man Cris Collinsworth.
You do now. "Before, everybody we played respected us," says Miami junior running back Larry Jones. "But from the first play, they weren't intimidated at all. I don't know why they don't respect us anymore...."
Here's a good reason: Once a group of players that reveled in the outrage of critics and NCAA rule makers because it forged a steely us-versus-the-world unity, the Hurricanes last season broke into so many factions that it's remarkable to see them even talking this spring. Aside from the expected division between players backing Costa and those backing Collins, there was also a constant tension between big-headed underclassmen and seniors unable or unwilling to provide leadership. It got so bad that on the plane home from Phoenix and the Fiesta, sophomore linebacker Rohan Marley, the team's leading tackier, told a teammate he couldn't take it anymore; he was quitting.
"I've never seen anything like what was going on," Marley says, "not in high school, never. Guys started going their separate ways, the intensity level toned down. It was everybody on everybody: 'Screw you.' 'You're sorry.' 'You ain't in shape.' There was no positive vibe. We were always fighting."
Marley tells of older players who were "intimidated" when underclassmen like receiver Jammi German and Lewis racked up so much playing time; one freshman described the young players as going through "the terrible twos. We just didn't want to listen." Losing didn't help, especially once the chance at a national title withered in the loss at West Virginia. A few days later, just before the last game of the season, some of the younger players pulled what senior defensive end Kevin Patrick calls "an uprising," holding an impromptu meeting instead of a scheduled 12-minute run at the same time that the seniors were meeting with coach Dennis Erickson. "People didn't respect the program anymore," Patrick says.
"There was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, and it came to a head," says freshman linebacker Twan Russell. "Everybody was fed up with everybody. Coaches were sick of us, we were sick of the coaches, we were sick of each other."
Russell says the meeting made the Hurricanes a "more honest team," but that wasn't enough for Marley. After the season he met one by one with the foundation of the '94 Hurricanes: Collins, Lewis, defensive tackles Pat Riley and Warren Sapp, running back James Stewart and wideouts Chris T. Jones and A.C. Tellison. He asked each for assurance that this year's team would be free of divisiveness, would care only about winning.