Just once did the mountain seem too high to climb. It was in the spring of 1996, after Butch Davis's first season as football coach at Miami, and every day was worse than the one before. Players were being arrested for transgressions great and small, fueling speculation that Miami could never win with good citizens. Junior linebacker Marlin Barnes and a female friend had been murdered in his campus apartment by her ex-boyfriend. Davis's team was only one year into NCAA sanctions that would cost it 31 scholarships over three years, crippling a once mighty program. One evening the phone rang in the Davises' home. A voice on the other end of the line delivered one or another of those kernels of bad news, and Davis snapped. "He hurled the telephone," says Davis's wife, Tammy. "He just had such a feeling of frustration. But then he immediately regained his composure."
She would think of this moment, and others almost as bleak, as she sat in the Louisiana Superdome on Tuesday night, awaiting the start of the Sugar Bowl showdown between Miami and Florida. Almost four hours later, just past 11 p.m. inside the cavernous dome, Butch Davis would be similarly replaying recent history in his mind as the clock drained away on the Hurricanes' 37-20 victory over the Gators. "A lot of adversity, more than most people will ever know about," Davis would say later. His sideline reverie was interrupted by a celebratory ice-water dousing from his players, to the delight of 10,000 Miami fans crammed into one comer of the dome, far outnumbered by Florida rooters.
Few programs in college football history have fallen more shamefully than Miami's did between 1992 and '98. A school that won national titles in '83, '87, '89 and '91 was pounded by the NCAA in 1995 after its administration admitted that 57 of its players had received fraudulent Pell Grants. (In the spring of '95, SI called for Miami president Edward "Tad" Foote to disband the football program until it got its house in order.) On the field, the Hurricanes went 5-6 in 1997, losing 47-0 to Florida State, and one year later to Syracuse 66-13-All these demons were expunged in a brilliant 2000 season in which Miami followed a 34-29 loss to Washington on Sept. 9 with 10 consecutive wins to put itself in position to argue for a slice of the national title, until Florida State lost to Oklahoma.
The last of the victories was among the most fiercely fought and renewed a dormant rivalry. Miami and Florida played every year but one from 1938 through 1987 before the Gators abandoned the series, citing the demands of an expanding SEC schedule. Hurricanes fans found that explanation wanting, believing that Florida was ducking a neighbor that had become too strong. Whatever the case back then, the two schools have agreed to play each other in 2002 and 2003. Meanwhile, their rosters are stuffed with former high school rivals who had no trouble generating ill will in New Orleans.
Six nights before the game, groups of Florida and Miami players scuffled in the middle of Bourbon Street. Gators defensive end Alex Brown was punched in the eye during the melee, which ended with two Florida players being handcuffed and briefly detained by police. Gators players insisted that the fracas had been instigated by a group of Hurricanes players, led by senior safety Al Blades, who were mocking them for their 30-7 loss to Florida State on Nov. 18. "They set the tone for the game right there on Bourbon Street," said Florida wide receiver Jabar Gaffney a few days later. "Al Blades was telling us the Gators aren't anything anymore and they're going to mop the floor with us. That's what made this a rivalry again, right there."
The incident underscored what a narrow line Davis has had to walk in rebuilding Miami. Good Hurricanes teams have always trafficked in swagger. "That's Miami, always will be," says senior Hurricanes defensive lineman Damione Lewis. In the final four games of the regular season, in which Miami outscored Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College by a combined 154-34, the Hurricanes started to look a little, for better and worse, like the great Miami teams coached by Jimmy Johnson or Dennis Erickson. Tackles led to gyrations, touchdowns to dances. All-Americas Edward Reed and Santana Moss whipped off their helmets after scoring touchdowns, incurring penalties. Most of it was harmless, and Davis didn't jump ugly on any of his players. "I don't want to say I turned guys loose to behave any way they wanted to," he says, "but we've got a bunch of kids who have started 40 games in their careers. You let those guys go a little bit."
Senior linebacker Dan Morgan, who this year became the first player to sweep the Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski awards, endured three seasons in which the Hurricanes were making strides but had not yet returned to BCS caliber. "A lot of the celebrations you saw with us this year, that was three years of frustration coming out all at once," he says. Morgan was also one of the voices calling for Miami players to stay the hell out of the French Quarter in the nights following the scuffle; there were few Hurricane sightings after that.
On Sugar Bowl night Florida was battling its emotions as well. The Gators played far more physically than in their loss to Florida State, but they were often sloppy, and coach Steve Spurrier would say he was "embarrassed" by his team's performance, which included two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for taunting. Still, as Morgan said, "You could tell they were motivated."
Early in the third quarter, Florida took a 17-13 lead on a 36-yard touchdown run by sophomore tailback Earnest Graham, following an interception by freshman cornerback Keiwan Ratliff. To make matters worse for the Hurricanes, their leading rusher, James Jackson, left the game with a foot sprain in the second quarter, and Moss suffered a left hip pointer. However, sophomore Clinton Portis rushed for 97 yards in relief of Jackson, and junior Daryl Jones replaced Moss and contributed a 44-yard punt return and two pass receptions.
It was sophomore quarterback Ken Dorsey, though, who did the most to the Gators. Dorsey completed four of six passes on an 80-yard drive and found freshman fullback D.J. Williams on a sweet, 19-yard throwback route for the touchdown that answered Florida and gave Miami a 20-17 lead with 8:23 left in the third quarter. One possession later Dorsey threw his third touchdown pass of the game, a two-yard goal line rollout floater that senior fullback Najeh Davenport snatched from linebacker Marcus Oquendo-Johnson to push the Hurricanes' lead to 27-17.