NOSTALGIA ALERT: Vintage Miami swagger isn't dead after all. It's just been held in reserve so it can be sprinkled around on fitting occasions, such as last weekend's visit to Tallahassee. During a Friday afternoon walk-through at Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium, a bunch of Hurricanes used their feet to gouge the letters UM into white paint on the protruding chin of the Seminoles logo at midfield, an act of landscape vandalism started by senior fullback Najeh Davenport, who was quickly joined by several teammates. "Simple message," says senior tailback Clinton Portis. "We came up here to Doak Campbell, but ain't no Hurricanes intimidated by it."
That message was reinforced before Saturday's noon kickoff, in the cramped Miami locker room beneath the rocking northeast stands, when the Hurricanes' fifth-year seniors—seven of whom were redshirt freshmen in uniform during a humiliating 47-0 loss in Tallahassee in 1997—told the team to huddle and join hands. "A huge moment," says tackle Joaquin Gonzalez, one of the fifth-year players. The first to speak was another fifth-year senior, All-America strong safety Edward Reed, who implored his teammates to remember the pasting of '97, the low point of Butch Davis's six years as coach. "We came here and got beat, 47 to nothing," Reed shouted. "Forty-seven to nothing!" Others echoed his words, the anger building.
The Hurricanes (5-0) played as passionately as they prepared, beating Florida State 49-27 and handing the Seminoles their first home loss since Miami's 17-16 win 10 years ago, a span of 54 games. Coupled with Florida's 23-20 defeat at Auburn, the victory allowed the Hurricanes to regain their No. 1 ranking. Nearly as significant as the final score were Miami's 15 penalties for 125 yards, including three personal fouls and three for unsportsmanlike conduct, in a defiant performance that is perhaps best illustrated by mild-mannered Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey's frequent jawing sessions with Florida State defenders, which looked as incongruous as Alistair Cooke's slinging mashed potatoes in a food fight. " Florida State has made a living hitting quarterbacks late," Dorsey said after the game, "and I wanted them to know that I wasn't going to let it affect me."
The entire performance was an amped-up version of the laidback 2001 Hurricanes who had rolled past Penn State, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Troy State. They have been riding the feel-good wave they caught on Feb. 3, when offensive coordinator Larry Coker was named to replace Davis after athletic director Paul Dee failed to entice, among others, Barry Alvarez ( Wisconsin), Sonny Lubick ( Colorado State) and Dave Wannstedt ( Miami Dolphins). Coker, a sad-eyed, jug-eared, 53-year-old grandfather who hadn't been a head coach since leading two Oklahoma high school teams in the '70s, has responded by running Camp Coker, a low-maintenance program geared to a talented, mature team.
Coker (who, it should be said, didn't approve of the vandalism or the penalties) mingles with players during practice, telling cornball jokes. "He's with us, like a player's coach," says Portis. No longer do the Hurricanes go full contact in every Tuesday and Wednesday practice, as was Davis's preference. "We're intense, but nobody gets taken to the ground, and that keeps everybody fresher," says senior offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.
No segment of the team has thrived more under Coker than the offensive line, a collection of three seniors and two juniors who are all likely to play in the NFL and who form the backbone of the Hurricanes. They are bound together by the absurd goal of keeping Dorsey, who was sacked only eight times in 2000, unsacked for the entire season (so far, so good), and they unwind by going, en masse, to a Miami dance club and ripping it up, more than 1,500 pounds of gyrating, floor-shaking flesh.
They are also a mini- United Nations: Senior right guard Martin Bibla (6'4", 306 pounds), regarded by one scouting service as the best guard in the nation, is the son of first-generation immigrants, a mother from Poland and a father from Russia. He speaks fluent Polish and passable Russian and drive-blocks like a steamroller. Junior left guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli (6'6", 315) was born in Iran and spent the first tense days after Sept. 11 explaining the nonviolent tenets of Islam to classmates and teammates. Junior center Brett Romberg (6'3", 289), Dorsey's roommate, is from Windsor, Ont., and sings and plays guitar in a rock band.
The core of this team-within-a-team is a yin and yang who are among the best pairs of tackles in recent college football history. One of them, 6'9", 336-pound senior left tackle McKinnie, is a freakish combination of size and agility, a nimble giant with a pterodactyl's reach who has only been playing football since his junior year in high school. Huge money awaits him after he's picked in "the top half of the first round [of the NFL draft], maybe higher," says John Dorsey, director of college scouting for the Green Bay Packers. The other is right tackle Gonzalez, a 6'5", 295-pound Miami native who passed up Harvard to take a shot at the Hurricanes' program as a walk-on with an academic scholarship. Gonzalez, who weighed only 225 pounds after he graduated from Miami's Columbus High, has willed himself into an All-America. He eats a dozen meals a day to keep up his weight. Together they make Dorsey nearly untouchable.
"They're an ideal tandem," says Rick Reiprish, director of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "You get people built like that, who play like that and have experience playing together, it's invaluable. That's what we're looking for on this level."
As always, assorted quarterbacks and running backs are vying for the Heisman Trophy, but McKinnie might be the best player of all. This is remarkable, considering that as a high school sophomore he was a 6'6", 220-pound bass drum player in the Woodbury ( N.J.) High School marching band. McKinnie was raised by his mother, Michele Green, who would buy eight boxes of cereal each week and hide one in her closet so that Bryant wouldn't consume them all. "When I baked macaroni and cheese, he got his own pan," says Green, who works as an executive assistant at the Atlantic City Convention Center. McKinnie went out for football as a sophomore, quit one month later after a disagreement with the coach, then returned to play his junior and senior seasons. He was a 6'8", 255-pound senior defensive end when Iowa assistant coach Frank Verducci found him and recommended him to Mark Duda, a former defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Rams, who was the coach at Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, Pa.