It was only five years earlier when a gruff, pipe-smoking football coach did the unthinkable – take a step down in ranks from NFL football to the college game and accept the challenge of turning around a moribund collegiate football program that lingered near the bottom of college football in attendance and had become a laughing stock of the sport. The facilities were subpar – to put it mildly, the fan base was mired in apathy, and there was scuttlebutt of the program even being dropped.
Then everything changed. In walked Howard Schnellenberger in 1979, and before a single down was played, the grizzly coach of few words made an unforgettable and improbable declaration – that the University of Miami would win the national championship in five years. The laughter quickly disappeared, as native Pennsylvanian Jim Kelly led the Hurricanes to an improbable 26-10 win over a talent-laden Penn State team in Happy Valley. It was Kelly’s first career start.
Miami would finish 5-6 that year, but would follow with 9-3, 9-2, and 7-4 seasons from 1980 through 1982. The Canes would start off 1983 with a tough loss in Gainesville 28-3, but would rip off 10 straight wins, including converting a last second field goal to win in Tallahassee. At 10-1, Miami would be facing a Big Red Machine of an opponent in the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Featuring Turner Gill at quarterback, joined by Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozer, Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler, and All-America WR Irving Fryar, the Huskers obliterated their competition, willing all but two games by three touchdowns or more.
It was a tall task for the Canes. But, they had the advantage of experience, motivation, and respect on their sideline, attached to his pipe. Schnellenberger was one game away from proving his once-laughable prophecy true, and had the element of surprise to pull it off.
Miami had implemented a pro-style passing offense, and Kosar was excelling. His main target was tight end Glenn Dennison, who set Miami records for catches in a season (51) and career (105).
Despite Nebraska having the offensive accolades, Kosar and Dennison delivered the first blows in the 1984 Orange Bowl, and delivered a lead for the Canes they would never relinquish. With a defender flanking him, Dennison cut a sharp out pattern to the sideline just past the end zone pylon, going to the ground and snaring a 2-yard touchdown just off the turf for a 7-0 lead.
With Miami threatening again later in the first half, Dennison found separation in Cover 2 behind the linebacker on a seam route, beating the safety to the goal line after the catch and putting the Canes up by a shocking 17-0 tally.
But Nebraska would fight back. Trailing 31-24 in the waning moments of the game, and following a drop of a wide open, sure touchdown by Irving Fryar, the Huskers faced fourth-and-eight. A championship and undefeated season was on the line. The Huskers’ 22-game winning streak was a dropped pass or seven-yard run from being snapped. And as Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne rested his hands on his knees, QB Gill walked up to the line of scrimmage and took the snap from the Miami 24-yard line.
With Rozier watching from the sideline with a sprained ankle, Gill optioned right and, just as he was being leveled around right end, got off a pitch to backup running back Jeff Smith, who outraced the defense to the pylon. 31-30. And the offense was staying on the field.
As the raucous and partisan Orange Bowl crowd nervously implored the Canes to make one final stop, Gill took the snap, as necks craned from both sidelines above overworked heart valves and trembling knees, straining to see the play that would determine the hopes and dreams of both teams.
Gill rolled to the right and fired. The ball sailed through the air toward the waiting hands of the hero of the moment, RB Smith, who had already amassed 99 rushing yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. But before the ball could arrive in Smith’s hands, anointing him an unsung hero and likely game MVP, and Nebraska an undefeated national champion, a finger reached out and tipped the ball. The pigskin deflected off course and hit the turf with a thud.
DB Kenny Calhoun had rewritten the script with the tip of his finger. Dirt-stained white jerseys with raised arms holding white helmets sprinted like mad across the field, realizing what they were on the precipice of accomplishing – they would be the national champions of college football.
Even though Schnellenberger would shock everyone by leaving for the USFL in the offseason, a sleeping giant had awakened in Miami. Four championships in eight years cemented Miami’s legacy as the undisputed team of the 80s.
And it all comes back to a proclamation proven true at the last possible moment – thanks, in large part, to a fingertip.