Ah, the 80’s. What a time to be alive.
It captivated us with big hair, epic movies, power ballads, and horribly wondrous fashion. Slasher films came back to the big screen, something called New Coke was invented and flopped, and the Berlin Wall was toppled.
Oh, and two college football national powers were officially born….in the same state, no less. For the University of Miami, the phrase better late than never would be most applicable. Having started playing football in 1926, Miami never was able to find any form of success to raise the program to a respect-worthy level. Sure, Miami had its key wins once in a blue moon. Upsetting Purdue put the city in a fever pitch in 1950. Ted "the Mad Stork" Hendricks’ single-handed terrorization of LSU’s backfield at Tiger Stadium in a 17-15 win comes to mind. Dethroning Sports Illustrated’s preseason #1 Texas at the Orange Bowl 20-15 in the 1973 season opener was special.
But for each success, the failures were threefold. After all, the school earned its moniker of "Suntan U" from Nebraska, Notre Dame, and any other national power that scheduled the Canes for a simultaneous easy win and beach vacation. Attendance had dropped to where going to a Canes game then would have made today’s attendance seem like a Billy Graham gathering in the South. There were even internal talks about ending the football program altogether.
A man, a pipe, and a plan changed all that.
Howard Schnellenberger was hired, bringing with him a combination of toughness and level of proven success that commanded the respect of the college football world. His proclamation of winning a national championship in 5 years drew snickers, but those died down quickly in his first season. With freshman and native Pennsylvanian Jim Kelly getting the nod from Schnelly to start at Penn State, the young man responded as many of us would – he puked in the locker room. Then he responded as many of us would not have – he led the Canes to a shocking 26-10 victory, one that many former Canes still point to as the one that "put Miami on the map." The Canes were off, and on their way to great things.
As for Florida State, who began play in 1947, their successes were modest prior to the arrival of Bobby Bowden. They finished in the polls in four seasons before Bowden took over as head coach in 1976. Under Bowden, went 10-2 in 1977 and a then-school-best 11-1 in 1979, which included a 40-23 win over Miami at Doak Campbell Stadium. Miami finished 1979 at 5-6, highlighted by a win over Florida in the season finale.
1980: Miami 10, #16 FSU 9
In 1980, the Canes entered their matchup with the Noles at the Orange Bowl at 3-0 and unranked, having won two road games, at Louisville and #18 Houston sandwiched around a home shutout of Florida A&M. Meanwhile, FSU entered the game 3-0, ranked 9th, having allowed only 7 points combined to LSU, Louisville, and East Carolina.
While the task seemed daunting for Miami, an unplanned pep rally helped rally the troops and get the team in the right mindset for the game. Unable to sleep and jacked up for the game the Thursday night before, defensive lineman Jim Burt woke up his roommates Art Kehoe and Tony Fitzpatrick and took outside with several other teammates for a series of exercises. The shouts and commotion woke up others, and an impromptu pep rally broke out outside of the players’ dorm.
As for the game, Florida State’s defensive prowess was apparent, as points were at a premium. Jim Kelly ran 1 yard for a touchdown, and Dan Miller kicked a 26-yard field goal to account for Miami’s only points. However, the Miami defense, ranked No. 1 in the country against the run, was equally up to the challenge. Leading 10-3, Florida State mounted a last-minute comeback, scoring on an 11-yard pass from QB Rick Stockstill to Sam Childers with only 39 seconds remaining. As would doom Bowden in another later meeting, he went for two points and the win instead of the tie. Dropping back, he Stockstill. His pass deflected harmlessly off the helmet of Burt, who was breaking through the line. Burt helped the Miami defense limit FSU to 25 yards rushing on 33 carries.
Miami’s 10-9 win would be FSU’s only loss of the regular season. The Noles rose to the AP #2 ranking, but fell 18-17 to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Miami toppled Florida 31-7, earning the school’s first bowl birth since 1967 – a 20-10 Peach Bowl triumph over Virginia Tech.
1983: #6 Miami 17, FSU 16
At 9-1 and trailing 16-14 late in the fourth quarter at 6-3 Florida State, Miami’s Orange Bowl hopes hung in the balance in its season finale. With two-plus minutes to play, Miami’s defense got a stop and forced an FSU punt that Ed Brown returned to the FSU 49 yard line. From there, Bernie Kosar found the late Stanley Shakespeare for 10 yards on consecutive plays, followed by a 20-yard run by Keith Griffin to put the Canes in goal-to-go and in chip shot field goal range. Having missed twice in the game from over 40 yards, Canes kicker Jeff Davis split the uprights from 19 yards out as time expired, putting the Canes at 10-1 and in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know what happened next. Miami edged Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl, with Kenny Calhoun knocking away Turner Gill’s pass to preserve the win with seconds remaining. Schnellenberger rode his players’ shoulders off into the sunset, earning the school (and the state’s "Big 3") first ever national championship. None of that would have been possible if not for Kosar’s calm and collected final drive and Davis’ redemption in Tallahassee.
1987: #3 Miami 26, #4 FSU 25
Steve Walsh used to throw up before each game. Probably thinking of games like this was a big reason why.
Walsh, still escaping the shadows of the great Vinny Testaverde, had led the Canes to a strong start to the 1987 season, with blowout wins over Florida and at #10 Arkansas. The 51-7 victory in Little Rock was the one where Walsh felt he gained the respect of the team. Leading 5 early touchdown drives en route to a 38-0 halftime lead will tend to do that.
The matchup with Florida State would provide a new kind of challenge for the relatively untested Walsh. After taking an early 3-0 lead in Tallahassee, FSU pounded Miami with the run (finishing with 225 yards on the day to Miami’s 52) on the way to a 19-3 lead. But Walsh never wavered. He found Melvin Bratton for a 49-yard touchdown, and the successful 2-point conversion brought Miami to 19-11. Reading blitz, he signaled a change to Irvin, with whom he connected to bring the score to 19-17. A completion to Warren Williams tied the game at 19. Then, on the 27-yard line late in the 4th quarter, Walsh again audibled and looked Irvin’s way. He put a ball into the soft spot of FSU’s cover 2, hitting Irvin in the pocket along the sideline between corner and safety. The FSU safety took a bad angle, and Irvin was off for 73 yards and a touchdown. Leading 26-19 with 2 minutes and change to go, Miami’s defense couldn’t stop FSU QB Danny McManus from driving down the field 75 yards in less than 2 minutes time and connecting with Ronald Lewis in the corner of the end zone.
Rather than go for the tie and remain in national championship consideration with Miami, Bowden tried to have his cake and eat it too. He allowed the FSU offense to talk him into going for 2, and the decision proved ruinous. McManus’ badly underthrown pass was easily knocked down by Bubba McDowell (who earlier had made an incredible play in running down FSU RB Sammie Smith from far behind), and Miami escaped with an improbable 26-25 win that left an emotional Walsh drained and in awe of what his team had just accomplished.
1988: #6 Miami 31, #1 FSU 0
"We are the Seminoles of Florida State,
Some say we’re good, some say we’re great,
Our goal is simple, best in the land,
Rockin’ to the beat of the marching chief band."
Yes, this was the chorus to the 1988 preseason "Seminole Rap". If you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest you go to youtube right now and watch it. Funny stuff.
Anyways, tough to know if Florida State was serious with that crap. Considering they were ranked #1 in the preseason, I’m gonna guess so. Although the redneck-y lineman’s inclusion as a rapper increased the humor factor such that it's hard to tell for certain.
Who didn’t find it funny was Miami, the Noles first opponent. Miami completely destroyed the Noles on national television, outgaining FSU 450-242. Sammie Smith totaled 6 (SIX!) yards on 10 carries. Starter Chip Ferguson threw two picks, Peter Tom Willis through two more, and even Casey Weldon got into the act by throwing one.
The nation was introduced to halfback Leonard Conley, who took over for the 1987 team’ s leading rusher Warren Williams, and Cleveland Gary, who did a fine job replacing the versatile Melvin Bratton. The highlight of the game might have been when Gary dragged all-universe defensive back Deion Sanders into the end zone for an early 10-0 lead. Given the weight of the gold jewelry Deion carried around his neck, you’d have figure he could have handled a heavy load like Gary.
Or maybe not. Morale of the story: be the best before you make a video about bragging to be the best.
1989: #9 Florida State 24, #2 Miami 10
Miami brought a new coach, quarterback, and a top-notch defense up to Tallahassee for an October showdown with the Noles. Miami entered the game allowing only 191 yards per game, on the strength of the superior front line of Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, and Greg Mark. Florida State nearly doubled that total, tallying 353 total yards. Dexter Carter led the way for FSU, gaining 142 yards on 22 carries to pace the FSU ground game.
Miami was without the services of Craig Erickson, who was injured in a 26-20 win over Michigan State earlier in the year. In his stead, freshman QB Gino Torretta played well, leading an offense that scored 104 combined points the previous 2 weeks. It would be a nightmarish performance in Tallahassee, which started early. Torretta’s first pass was picked off by LeRoy Butler, and one play later, FSU grabbed the lead 7-0. Miami would come back to tie the game on a 77-yard drive ending in an 8-yard TD catch by Randal Hill. Miami wouldn’t find the end zone again.
Florida State linebacker Kirk Carruthers was a one man wrecking crew, picking off two passes, recovering a fumble, and forcing another. Miami turned the ball over 6 times.
After falling from #2 to #7, Miami would win out the rest of the way, including a 27-10 win over then #1 Notre Dame in a rematch from the controversial 1988 31-30 Irish win in South Bend. Erickson converted a 3rd and 43 pass to Randal Hill for 44 yards that proved to be the highlight of the game and the season. After a 33-25 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, Miami was voted #1 over Notre Dame in both polls, giving the Canes their second national championship in three seasons.