Author’s Note: I wrote this piece after Miami’s debacle against Georgia Tech early in the season and was happy I did not have to publish it in the following weeks when Miami racked off three impressive wins in the row. The debacle against FIU proved that the 3-game winning streak was a mirage, as Miami suffered its worst loss in program history to a team that Miami’s backups should beat soundly. Dating back to 2007, Miami has lost four consecutive games at the site of the Orange Bowl, where it once won 58 in a row from 1985-1994 and 26 in a row from 1999-2003. This article was painful to write, but if Miami’s demise is to be understood, the true cause must be apprehended by all.
Miami Football As We Knew It, Died In 2005: The Question Is Why?
It is the morning of November 19, 2005 and the Miami Hurricanes are the consensus #3 ranked college football team in the nation. Miami fans are optimistic that they will get a shot at playing in yet another BCS National Championship game in the Rose Bowl later this season, as #1 USC has a tricky home game against the #16 Fresno State Bulldogs later tonight (and a rivalry game against UCLA next week). Miami is two weeks removed from a 27-7 road thrashing of the then no. 3 ranked Virginia Tech Hokies, who were no match for a staunch Miami defense featuring Jon Beason, Rocky Mcintosh, Kelly Jennings, Thomas Carroll, Orion Harris, Brandon Meriweather, Kenny Phillips, Calais Campbell, Baraka Atkins, and Bryan Pata.
Miami also has the most dynamic special-teamer of all-time in Devin Hester. The offense, headlined by Greg Olsen, seems to be firing on all cylinders after a 47-17 road blowout of Wake Forest the week prior, in which Kyle Wright tied the Miami record for passing TDs in a single game (sound familiar?).
Tonight, November 19, 2005, the Canes have a home game against a slightly above-average Georgia Tech team led by superstar WR Calvin Johnson that looks to be a relatively easy win the way Miami is playing. Upon entering the Orange Bowl, the crowd is buzzing with energy and excitement. Once the game begins, it is clear that Miami did not come to play and that this game will be a battle.
Miami would go on to lose the game against Georgia Tech 14-10, in an uninspired effort where Miami only amassed 237 total yards of offense. A mere symptom of problems behind the scenes, Miami Football finally broke on that forsaken night in November of 2005, but the signs of decline had been apparent to a discerning eye for years. The Canes would beat a mediocre Virginia team in a sloppy effort the following week, before heading to the Peach Bowl for a 40-3 thrashing at the hands of a very good LSU team.
Since the morning of November 19, 2005 Miami is 104-76 (.578), placing them behind Ohio and Toledo, but one spot ahead of GT if the end of 2005 and 2019 are excluded (database limitations). For reference, from 1999-2005, Miami was a best in nation 73-14 (.84), with a NC in 2001 and four consecutive top-5 finishes from 2000-03. From 1980-2005, Miami was a best-in-nation 255-57 (.82) and played for nine national championships (‘83, ‘85, ‘86, ‘87, ‘89, ‘91, ‘92, ‘01, ‘02), winning either 5 or 6 depending upon who one asks. Since the ascension of Donna Shalala to the office of president, the University of Miami has failed the fans, alumni, and other supporters of the Miami Football Program and the time is long since due for a reckoning. As Miami continues to hire and fire coaches, the root cause of failure has evaded the spotlight—until now.
Butch Davis and Miami’s Tumultuous Relationship Caused A Catastrophic Rift
The story of Miami’s decline began long before November 19, 2005. In all actuality, Miami began to decline as a football program the minute Butch Davis left campus and was replaced by his offensive coordinator, Larry Coker. Why Butch decided to leave Miami when he did is a topic for discussion. According to Butch, the Miami administration both micromanaged his program and failed to reward him for the outstanding job he did navigating NCAA probation and returning Miami to national prominence during 2000, when Miami went 11-1 and finished #2, winning the Sugar Bowl 37-20 over Florida.
Butch was an intense man who ran a tough and disciplined program, always keeping players in line, (at least outwardly) restoring Miami’s image which had been ruined by “player’s coach,” Dennis Erickson.
Butch’s story goes that after stringing him along with an unfair buyout clause that favored the school at his expense, Butch Davis decided to leave Miami for the Cleveland Browns mere days after National Signing Day. Butch insists to this day, that he felt wronged and unappreciated by the Miami administration. To Butch’s credit, he did turn down the Alabama Crimson Tide and the NFL’s Houston Texans before accepting the Cleveland’s Browns offer to become their head coach for the 2001 season.
Looking back however (especially after last night), I tend to not believe anything Butch Davis says. Last night’s “Panther Flop” was a classless abomination and any coach that will order bush league stunts like that, will surely do anything else in order to win. I doubt it is simply coincidence that controversy follows Davis everywhere he goes as John Blake, an assistant of Davis’s at UNC, was implicated in shady dealings at UNC cannot blame the Miami administration for not rehiring him after he left the way he did, contract dispute notwithstanding. If the Miami administration is to be granted a mulligan, it would be for allowing Butch Davis to bolt, considering there is certainly more to the story.
The point remains however: whatever the minutia, the Miami administration failed to retain the hottest coaching commodity of the 2001 offseason and he bolted out of town. Butch Davis should have been rewarded in the 2001 offseason with an extension to his liking on amicable terms for not only his accomplishment on the football field, but the national perception that he was running a respectable football program in a place historically plagued by on-field antics and off-field misbehavior.
Larry Coker Promoted to Head Coach Leads to a Gradual Decline
In the wake of Butch’s untimely departure, Miami panicked and made an extremely short-sided decision to promote Davis’s offensive coordinator, Larry Coker, to head coach. Falling just short of playing for the title in 2000 due to a BCS quirk, Miami hired Coker at the behest of players, who pleaded for Coker to retain continuity for a title run in 2001. A successful business or athletic program of any type, can never allow the inmates to run the asylum. In hiring Coker, that is just what Miami did.
In 2001, Miami had a loaded roster and was a program on a major upswing. I have little doubt Miami could have lured a top coach at that time. Davis’s young and intense defensive coordinator, Greg Schiano, had just been named Rutgers HC and would have been a far better choice than Coker. Nonetheless, Coker was hired and the Canes coasted to the 2001 national title with the greatest roster of all-time.
In 2002, the Canes began their slow decline as they struggled against Pittsburgh and Larry Fitzgerald at home and Rutgers on the road: a sign of things to come.
It was not simply that Larry Coker was a particularly bad head coach, but rather that his lackadaisical demeanor created a complacent and lethargic football culture and the Canes began to have frequent letdowns, mental breakdowns, and looked unprepared with a frequency that steadily increased from 2002 to 2006. I seriously doubt that any Canes fan believes the 2002 BCS Title Game and 2003 games vs WVU, VT, and Tennessee were the best effort that teams loaded with NFL stars in Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Jonathan Vilma, DJ Williams, Vince Wilfork, Kellen Winslow, Frank Gore (‘03, ‘04), Willis McGahee (‘02), Andre Johnson (‘02), Eric Winston, Vernon Carey, Chris Myers, Roscoe Parrish, and more could muster.
After finishing #2 in 2002, Miami went 11-2 and finished #5 in 2003, winning the Orange Bowl in a re-match against FSU. 2004 featured disappointing upset losses to UNC, Clemson, and VT at home in a de-facto ACC championship game, but Miami did rebound to beat Florida 27-10 in the 2004 Peach Bowl to finish #10—their last top ten finish to date.
The 2005 season was looking to be a great one as Miami rolled off eight consecutive wins after a close loss to FSU on Labor Day, but the wheels came of on November 19, 2005 against GT and were then buried beneath the Georgia Dome against LSU—never to be found to date.
During the Coker era there was a clear trend: as leaders like Vilma, Dorsey, Reed, Taylor, and others graduated, they were replaced by highly ranked players that did not have the same work ethic, grit, toughness, and discipline that was instilled by Davis’s program, which was run like a boot camp.
While tough, intelligent, and disciplined men like Ed Reed and Ken Dorsey ran the program in 2001, by 2005 the boys of the “Seventh Floor Crew” were running the show. Under Coker, the “country club” atmosphere that is worse than ever today began. I do not think it a coincidence that the recording of Miami’s most infamous rap song was released just three days before the proverbial death of Miami Football.
It is no surprise that under an apathetic and lethargic atmosphere where false bravado reigned, Nevin Shapiro was able to weasel his way into the program and flatter young and impressionable players with flashy impermissible benefits, further dragging Miami’s image—which the school had fought so hard to restore—through the mud. To solely blame Coker for Miami’s decline is disingenuous as Larry Coker did not hire himself. Rather, the administration and school must shoulder (at least partial) blame for both escalating tensions that ultimately drove Davis out of town, and then further exacerbating matters by hiring a chaperon who could not maintain order and discipline—on the field or off.
Lack of Investment Into Football Program Infrastructure
Besides hiring poor and unqualified coaches, the single greatest reason for Miami’s downfall was taking place while Miami was dominant in the early-2000s. For other big time programs, the early 2000s were an arms race to improve and expand football facilities. Miami, late to the party as always due to poor planning and foresight, did not renovate its Hecht athletic center until Al Golden’s tenure which began in 2011. The Hurricanes similarly were one of the last major P5 programs to build an indoor practice facility, which was just recently completed.
While investment into the program does not guarantee success, it is sacrilege for the school to neglect its football program, which transformed Miami from “Suntan U” into a premier global research university known worldwide by the iconic “U” logo that the football team began to wear in 1974. While funds from the football program built much of the University of Miami’s campus, the school does not reinvest as much of that as other ACC schools back into the program. Alonzo Highsmith once remarked that if teams at other schools had accomplished what the great Hurricanes teams of the 80s and early 90s did, those schools would have built statues—I cannot disagree.
Miami Leaves Its Home of 70 Years
While Miami does deserve credit for building a very nice on-campus basketball arena, moving from the Orange Bowl was a catastrophe for the football program. Burdine Stadium, originally built in 1937 by the city of Miami for the University of Miami, grew in capacity and significance over the years, eventually becoming the Old Horseshoe in Little Havana.
If official reports are to be trusted, Donna Shalala, Paul Dee, and the Miami brass, declined a $206 million renovation plan from the city of Miami for the Orange Bowl, citing concerns over “lack of funding” and the “video boards” and “luxury suites” at Dolphins’ stadium as reasons why moving made more sense than renovation of the OB. While luxury suites and air conditioning may lure a cocktail crowd and corporate sponsors, the West End Zone helped win big games which led to championships. It is no surprise—for those that attended—the Orange Bowl was home to both the longest NCAA and NFL home-winning streaks! While great teams won those games for certain, I am unsure if Miami would have taken off like it did without the home-field advantage that helped win the 1984 Orange Bowl Game which launched Miami onto the map.
The bottom line is that poor facilities (until now) and no true home stadium made recruiting an uphill battle for the generation of athletes that grew up while Miami was good (and were thus fans of the team and wanted to play for the Canes). Lack of investment into the program and the demolition of the Orange Bowl, coupled with poor coaching and a lack of vision and foresight within the program, were catastrophic—albeit self-inflicted—blows to a once proud program. Miami has been trying to climb out of irrelevance ever since, but has not achieved sustained success since 1999-2005.