It was the worst year. Football fell apart: There was the loss in Tallahassee, and then coach Dennis Erickson benched him, and then the '93 season went up in flames and blame rained down on Frank Costa like ashes. And he started to believe it all, every bad thing said about him: Costa had let the University of Miami down; Costa didn't deserve to wear a Hurricane uniform; Costa was no good. He would hear the words in his head early, before the sun rose, and they would push him from his bed. "I wake up and I'm not going back to sleep," he says. "I'm pacing the halls of my apartment. I don't know what time it is. I get something to eat." Sometimes he would drive. Once he cruised I-95, barely seeing the other cars or the brightening sky. He wandered 125 miles before it hit him: I've got to get back to Miami.
Maybe somewhere else college football is merely a game. But at Miami, four national titles and two Heisman trophies and that just-ended 58-game home winning streak have made it into something much more powerful and cruel. This is a place for success, and nothing but. Costa knows. Before last Saturday he had been among South Florida's most reviled figures—a struggling quarterback at Quarterback U, the man who triggered Miami's demise. Precisely a year ago, Costa had presided over the loss to Florida State that marked the beginning of a downward slide for the Hurricanes. Now the No. 3 Seminoles had come to the Orange Bowl to finish what they had started.
Who had confidence in him now? Some Hurricanes past and present were questioning his leadership. Former Miami defensive tackle Mark Caesar sniped, "You can't win with a high school quarterback." One day last week Costa was riding in his car with two teammates. "Hey," Costa said, "how much you want to bet I turn on the radio and they're ripping me right now?" No way, they said. Costa turned it on. Then they all listened as the radio guys ripped him apart.
Maybe somewhere else it is just a game, but on Saturday it was Florida State-Miami in the Orange Bowl and Frank Costa exacting his perfect revenge. For of all the criticisms leveled at him, none was more damaging than the one questioning Costa's ability to engineer scores under pressure. Yet against his greatest nemesis, in a showdown both teams considered key to national-title hopes, Costa led the Hurricanes on a 34-20 stomping of the defending national champions—and restored more than one reputation in the process.
Funny. But if any name has placed second in the Great Miami Trashing Expo this year, it's Erickson's. Despite his two national titles and a winning percentage that his predecessor, Jimmy Johnson, would envy, Erickson has been lambasted almost as severely as Costa. Coming into the weekend, the Hurricanes had lost five of their previous eight games against ranked teams—compared with five losses in the previous 72 such meetings—and the pressure to produce had linked Erickson and the quarterback he once benched. On Thursday, Erickson joked to Costa, "We're the most popular guys in the city, eh?" and Costa replied, "Yeah, we make a pretty good team."
As it turned out, they did. On Saturday the Hurricanes pieced together as complete a performance as they have in years, limiting Florida State to 47 yards rushing and forcing Seminole coach Bobby Bow-den to run through three quarterbacks without success, while Erickson's much-maligned one-back offense chewed up 185 yards on the ground. Costa, meanwhile, went 18 for 32 for 177 yards and proved himself by coolly orchestrating five scoring drives, including one 12-play, 89-yard march in the second quarter that put Miami ahead to stay. After it was over, after Erickson had run off the field flinging his arms to the night sky, he wrapped Costa in a tight hug and said to his quarterback, "We did it. How does it feel?"
"It's the greatest feeling I've ever had." Costa said.
"I've just never been happier in my life," Erickson said.
Believe them. For Costa and Erickson and the Miami program, this was a critical night. On Sept. 24 Miami's NCAA-record home winning streak died in a punishing loss to Washington while Florida State raised its record to 4-0. "They lost a lot of their mystique when they finally got beat down there," Bowden said before last week's game. Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell seemed to be stepping into Charlie Ward's shoes with ease: he'd averaged 308 passing yards in his five career starts and had never lost a game. After Florida State beat Miami last year—and went on to win Bowden's long-awaited national championship—there was a sense that the Seminoles had assumed Miami's once-dominant persona. "Florida State doesn't think they can win," said Seminole linebacker Derrick Brooks. "Florida State expects to win. That's just the feeling we have now."
Of course, Florida State has often come to the Orange Bowl thinking that way. And such is the topsy-turvy nature of this, the best current rivalry in college football, that neither side can afford to expect anything but trouble. The Seminoles haven't won a regular-season game in the Orange Bowl in a decade. Saturday, it seemed as if nothing had changed. "We came to dominate," says Miami all-everything defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who did just that by bagging eight tackles, 1½ sacks and batting away two passes. "I can't recall a time we played like this. For a total game? We smacked 'em tonight."