The 1995 Miami Hurricanes were fresh off the 1995 Orange Bowl game which they lost 24-17 to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Miami was looking at a new head football coach in Butch Davis after Dennis Erickson departed for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Davis came back to Miami, where he served as an assistant coach for Jimmy Johnson from 1984-1988, from the Dallas Cowboys and two Super Bowl rings.
With the ‘Canes going on probation Butch Davis’ role was to be a strict disciplinarian and clean up the image of The U. Davis struggled from 1995-1999 and had a breakout 11-1 season in 2000 which saw him leave for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
With the 1995 team coming off of a national championship game loss, there was plenty of talent in Coral Gables on the Greentree practice fields. Future NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis was at middle linebacker for Davis, and he was flanked by NFL players in Twan Russell and James Burgess. On the defensive line were two NFL 1st round picks in Kenny Holmes (29 career sacks at Miami) and Kenard Lang and the defensive backfield was loaded with Carlos Jones, Tremaine Mack, and Earl Little.
The offense had three quarterbacks that received playing time in Ryan Collins, Scott Covington and Ryan Clement. Clement was the clear starter throwing seven touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Danyell Ferguson was the tailback as Larry Coker moved Miami from the one-back offense into a pro style attack. Ferguson was Miami’s first 1,000 yard rusher since OJ Anderson all the way back in 1978. The receiving corps was young but fast with Jammi German (17.8 yards per catch) leading the pack and Magic Benton (24.8 yards per catch) and future first round pick Yatil Green (19 yards per catch) out wide. The offensive line featured future All-American K.C. Jones at center.
Miami had lost a ton of starters off of the 1994 team including quarterback Frank Costa, running back James Stewart, wide receivers Chris T. Jones, A.C. Tellison, and Jonathan Harris as well as defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Patrick Riley, and defensive backs C.J. Richardson and Malcolm X. Pearson. The 1995 Hurricanes had new starters all over the field and it looked as though Davis and Coker weren’t sure which players were good or bad with the amount of shuffling going on throughout the Week 1 contest against the Bruins.
In 1995 Miami was still a member of the BIG EAST and played an extremely soft schedule that featured only three ranked opponents (UCLA, FSU, Syracuse). Davis’ Miami squad dropped the season opener to UCLA at the Rose Bowl and actually lost three of their first four games of the season. The ‘Canes beat FAMU before losing to the Hokies in Blacksburg and the Seminoles in Tallahassee. Larry Coker’s offense managed to put up a measly 32 points combined in the three losses on the season.
The season did end with a bright spot, however, as Miami beat 22nd ranked Syracuse at home 35-24 giving the season a positive ending. The ‘Canes had been given a bowl ban following NCAA sanctions that nearly ended the Miami football program.
Miami 8 - UCLA 31
The 1995 UCLA team was coming off of a 5-6 record in 1994, and finished 7-5 in 1995. Freshman QB Cade McNown became the starter with tailback Karim Abdul-Jabbar, the future Miami Dolphin, rushing for 1,571 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. Miami was lacking quality depth on the defensive line and it was obvious in the lack of rotation, which is something The U made famous, in the 80’s and early 90’s.
Jabbar carried the load for UCLA with 29 rushes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. He ran behind Jonathan Ogden who did as much blocking upright as he did on his belly using vicious moving cut blocks against Ray Lewis and the other Miami linebackers. UCLA QB Ryan Fien was actually knocked out with a concussion but eventually came back in.
Larry Coker’s offense struggled mightily to establish the run as he attempted to run power from four or five different looks. Coker’s biggest play calling issue was his lack of power play-action on 1st down to keep the UCLA defense honest. He was also hampered by the pedestrian play of Ryan Collins. Collins failed to hit receivers on deep balls and had to live with hitches to German and Green.
Something very obvious was how poorly Miami was coached on special teams. Just look at the SP+ rankings from 2019. LSU held the 12th best kicking game in college football. It’s not the only factor for winning but going back to the great Miami teams you’ll always remember Carlos Huerta, Randal Hill, Kevin Williams, and Robert Bailey. Think about FSU leaving those national titles on the table with missed field goals.
Returner Tony Gaiter made questionable decisions on kick offs, Earl Little muffed a punt return, and the ‘Canes were gassed on coverage and gave up a few big returns, too. Remember, depth wasn’t an issue yet because Miami didn’t lose their scholarships until the 1996 recruiting season. The 1995 Hurricanes were at full strength. There were also penalties that plagued Miami both on offense and on defense.
One of the biggest signs that Butch Davis wasn’t ready to be a head coach was his decision to take a timeout at the end of the third quarter with two seconds on the game clock. Davis easily could’ve waited out the two seconds but on 4th and one he panicked, something his head coaching tenure would be known for at Miami.
In the book The Program: Lessons from Military Special Operations for Creating and Sustaining High Performing Leaders and Teams one of the lessons is that when you’re in the heat of battle on any battlefield a true leader will remain calm and actually lower their pace and volume, not raise it. Too bad this book didn’t exist in 1995.
In the end, Miami was beaten down by UCLA and looked like anything but a team coming off of a near 5th national title in just over a decade.
Syracuse 24 - Miami 35
Week 11 saw Miami at home in the Orange Bowl taking on the Syracuse Orangemen (now Orange). Syracuse held a 22nd ranking in the polls and had future NFL starters in Donovan McNabb, Rob Konrad, and Marvin Harrison. Paul Pasqualoni’s Syracuse teams were known for their great quarterback play, tough running fullbacks, and always having a track star at wide receiver. McNabb wasn’t the first All-BIG EAST type quarterback up north, before McNabb was Marvin Graves. Harrison wound up with an NFL Hall of Fame career but Qadry Ismail was a burner a few years before Harrison got on campus.
When Syracuse and Miami met in November of 1995 the ‘Canes were 7-3 and the Orangemen were 8-2. Over the 1995 season ‘Cuse freshman QB Donovan McNabb threw for nearly 2,000 yards with 16 touchdowns and another 261 yards and two scores on the ground. Fullback Rob Konrad added 433 yards on the ground with seven touchdowns and Marvin Harrison caught 56 balls for 1,131 yards (20 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns as the senior leader. Future Jacksonville Jaguars safety Donovin Darius was in the defensive backfield.
Miami starts off really slow and Syracuse comes out hot. Miami’s defense was getting gashed by McNabb and Konrad throughout the first quarter and were down 10-0. Danyell Ferguson was hot and the fullbacks were doing a great job on the outside stretch / zone type play Coker was dialing up more against ‘Cuse than against UCLA. Ferguson flashed his one cut and go ability and had he not gotten injured I bet he would’ve been really good for the Denver Broncos in the Alex Gibbs zone.
Ferguson runs for 163 yards with two touchdowns on the day but Miami was down 17-7 at one point. Then the announcers bring up SEGA CD and Miami starts to turn it on. The big play of the game was on 4th and goal from the +2 yard line. Davis decided to go for it and Coker dialed up a zone toss with the fullback leading for Ferguson. That play made it 17-14 but gave Miami a mental edge.
It’s still 24-14 at the half and then Miami shuts down the Syracuse offense completely. Coker mixes zone and naked boot with Clement who hits his tight ends. Miami scores to come within three points. Syracuse has to punt and then helps Miami with 45 yards of penalties on the ensuing drive. Miami scores to go come within three.
Honestly what kills Syracuse is a mixture of that penalty riddled drive, the Kenny Holmes interception, and the blocked field goal. Ferguson keeps Miami going and eventually Dyral McMillan comes in with the halfback pass to shoot the Orangemen down.
Even with the injuries to KC Jones, Collins, and a slew of other players Miami hangs in there on pure NFL talent. The ‘Canes were less penalized than against UCLA, converted more 3rd downs and Clement did enough of what Collins couldn’t to come out with a much different outcome than in Week 1.
So what went wrong?
There was a mixture of a lot of things that went wrong for Miami heading into 1995. Butch Davis wanted to install the Dallas Cowboys offense but didn’t have Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacheck, or a Pro Bowl quality offensive line. Butch was obviously a novice head coach and made some confusing decisions like punting from his opponents 35 yard line, calling unnecessary timeouts, and not working with Larry Coker on predictable play calling. Also the penalties and kicking game woes got better but there were still glaring issues in Week 11 from Week 1.
I’m not sure how so many players were injured with knee, ankle and shoulder injuries but that sounds like tempo and style of practice and the type of strength and conditioning program being used. What does an NFL defensive assistant know about a college strength program? Not a whole lot. So Butch’s strengths were obviously talent evaluation where his weaknesses were game day decisions and S&C.
Miami still had full scholarships and a roster of guys that played for a national championship in 1992 and 1994 and later in the NFL. Sometimes changing too much at once can be a detriment. Eventually Butch Davis put it together finishing the 2000 season 11-1 and he must regret having left for the Browns that off-season. The 96, 97 and 98 seasons were painful as a Hurricanes fan but the 99 and 2000 seasons weren’t too bad in Coral Gables. Was the 95 season a disappointment? Yes. As was the ‘96 season that followed.
Miami could have benefitted from using a more modern offensive scheme for the 1995 season. With a weaker offensive line but having three running backs and fast wide receivers Miami would’ve benefitted from being cutting edge instead of status quo on offense. You can dip back into my piece on Miami as a football laggard for more information on that. Davis, like Dan Enos, did his offensive line and QB’s no favors with his style of play and it showed against FSU, Virginia Tech and UCLA.