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What went wrong for the 1992 Miami Hurricanes?

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Dennis Erickson’s squad looked prime to repeat as national champions, but then Alabama happened.

1993 Sugar Bowl: Alabama Crimson Tide v Miami Hurricanes Photo by Collegiate Images via Getty Images

The 1992 Miami Hurricanes were coming off of a National Championship season in 1991, and were dominating college football. The ‘Canes were four-time national champions (1983, ‘87, ‘89, ‘91) and had been in contention in three other seasons (‘85, ‘86, ‘88). Hurricane Andrew blew through South Florida on August 24th of 1992 and displaced my family and our beloved Hurricanes.

Dennis Erickson’s Hurricanes were riding an 18 game winning streak heading to Iowa City, IA on September 5th of 1992. Miami’s last loss was in October of the 1990 season to then 6th ranked Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The ‘Canes lost 20-26 that day and then went on a streak of knocking off high profiled programs such as Texas, overrated Houston, Penn State, Florida State, and Nebraska.

The hype machine was thoroughly behind the ‘Canes, even after having to move into a hotel and practice off-campus in the wake of Andrew. Miami was the clear number one team in the country coming off a 22-0 trouncing of Nebraska in the 1992 Orange Bowl. Dennis Erickson’s record at Miami was 33-3 with two national championships in three seasons in Coral Gables.

Personnel

John Sacca

The Hurricanes were loaded at the skill positions but a few key pieces were missing throughout the season. All-American defensive end Rusty Medearis went down injured in the fourth quarter of the Arizona game and Miami had to shuffle the defensive line. Even more importantly was Miami had lost three-time national champion offensive linemen Leon Searcy and Kelvin Harris to the NFL Draft and starter Claude Jones to graduation. The ‘Canes were playing only one returning starter on the offensive line throughout much of the season due to injuries, too.

Don’t forget, Erickson and Art Kehoe were forced to convert tight end Carlos Etheredge to offensive tackle against Penn State. Some how the future NFL tight end moving to tackle worked out in a victory over Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions, but the best team in the country should never be forced into that position and that’s where we’ll be going later.

Who did return on the offense? Future Oregon Ducks head coach and All-BIG EAST lineman Mario Cristobal and high profile guard Rudy Barber. Quarterback (and future Heisman Trophy winning) quarterback Gino Torretta who threw for 3,000-plus yards and 20 touchdowns in ‘91. Of course he returned his top four receivers in Lamar Thomas (career 23 receiving touchdowns), Horace Copeland (career 17 yards per catch), Kevin Williams (3 punt returns for TD), and tight end Coleman Bell (career 14.4 yards per catch).

On defense, the losses of Hurlie Brown, Herbert James and All-American safety Darryl Williams were difficult but not impossible to replace. Miami had future NFL’er Ryan McNeil at cornerback and solid defensive back play from Paul White, Casey Greer and Terris Harris. The loss of defensive tackle depth from the departures of Anthony Hamlet and Eric Miller were felt, as well. But Miami did return defensive end Kevin Patrick and the greatest trio of linebackers in college football history. Jessie Armstead, Michael Barrow and Darrin Smith, aka the Bermuda Triangle, dominated the 1991 and 1992 college football seasons and all three had plenty of playing time over their four years on the field in Coral Gables.

Best Player for the 1992 season?

Senior linebacker Micheal Barrow. Micheal Barrow wasn’t just the leading tackler on the ‘Canes top rated defense in the country. Barrow was also the captain, the leader, and the humanitarian. Barrow’s efforts to help rebuild Homestead after Hurricane Andrew were legendary. Mike also moved his family into his college apartment and took care of his mother and brother during the rebuilding after the natural disaster rocked South Florida.

Whether it was his knock out shot on Tamarick Vanover, his 4th-and-one stop at Penn State, or the never ending cut bocks he fought off all season but especially against Iowa, FSU and Alabama- Barrow was the clear best player on a loaded Hurricanes roster. Mike Barrow ended the 1992 season as an All-American, All-BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year, and was 7th in the Heisman Trophy voting behind winner and teammate Gino Torretta.


Schedule

The ‘Canes schedule in 1992 was more challenging than 1991. Miami traveled to Iowa to open the season against the 23rd ranked Hawkeyes. Miami then hosted a building Arizona team and the Desert Swarm defense before the 3rd ranked Florida State Seminoles (Roman went into deep detail on this game here) came to the Orange Bowl a week after. Then Miami immediately headed to Beaver Stadium to face the 7th ranked Nittany Lions.

Four straight unranked games, including a trip to Blacksburg to face the Hokies, gave way to a Miami versus Syracuse showdown in the Carrier Dome. Miami held on for the fourth time in 1992 to beat the 8th ranked Orangemen in one of my favorite ‘Canes games in Miami history (read more about it here). The U then blew out San Diego State before the 1993 Sugar Bowl showdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide in a one versus two matchup on New Year’s Day of 1993.


What was the best moment of the 1992 season?

Disappointingly, the Miami Hurricanes were trounced by the Alabama Crimson Tide in a 1 versus 2 matchup in the ‘93 Sugar Bowl. As a ‘Canes fan growing up, it was hard to understand when Miami lost a game, and especially a bowl game. Dennis Erickson had started his Miami career with three wins and zero losses in bowls including the 1989 and 1991 national championship games (Washington who?). Because Miami didn’t win the title in 1992, the best moment comes back to the biggest rivalry.

Sure, there were great moments like Darren Krein’s interception return for a touchdown against Penn State (read about that here), Casey Greer stopping tight end Chris Gedney just short of history in the Carrier Dome (read about that here) and whatever happened against Arizona which cost Rusty Medearis his career and almost cost Miami their 11-0 regular season. Nah, it’s none of those. It all comes back down to the Seminoles. On the same steamy afternoon in Miami, FL that saw Mike Barrow layout Tamarick Vanover and Lamar Thomas explode past the FSU defense on a Torretta deep fade... Wide Right II happened in the Orange Bowl (read more about it here).

The Hurricanes were once again up by three or less on the Seminoles in a battle of top ranked teams. In 1991 Miami edge FSU by one point in Tallahassee on a missed field goal known was Wide Right I. In ‘92, this time in Downtown Miami, the ‘Canes prevailed 19-16 on another missed field goal known as Wide Right II. The moment gave us a reason to continue to push on through Hurricane Andrew’s devastation, and reason to believe Miami would become repeat champions for the first time in school history.


Miami 24 - Iowa 7

Remember, this game is only a couple of weeks after Hurricane Andrew and the initial information on the Pell Grant scandal that would eventually sink the program in 1997. Lamar Thomas is even discussed regarding that scandal and an indictment holding him out of practice. What happens when guys can’t be around for camp? You just don’t have the continuity on offense. It doesn’t help Mario Cristobal and other starting linemen are out against Iowa.

In the first half Miami was sloppy committing a ton of penalties, fumbling the football and having to punt four times and missing a field goal. The defense did its job, holding Iowa to a shutout in the first half. The Hurricanes are limited in their play calling as they can’t run against Iowa’s defense and they can’t throw 5 step concepts. Tirrell Greene at center was the only expected starter. Miami has had to rely on freshmen and sophomores on the line like the highly rated Zev Lumelski and Rudy Barber, Kipp Vickers and Alan Symonette.

Iowa continued to bring pressure on both the quarterback and the punter to try whatever they could to keep Miami off balance. Erickson’s attempted answer was to go to an empty set but Iowa kept attacking and Torretta would either throw a bad ball under pressure or get sacked. The ‘Canes attempted some outside zone type stretch plays with Larry Jones and they worked, but Erickson gets a bit impatient to throw swings, screens and four yard stretch plays.

In the 3rd quarter Miami starts moving the ball on hitches, sails and even a few runs but Gino throws an interception in the end zone. The defense stays absolutely dominant with Darren Krein playing a great game as well as Mike Barrow, Casey Greer, and Darrin Smith really picked up steam throughout the game.

Miami finished with 13 penalties for over 100 yards and a couple of turnovers in the game. Gino Torretta played well but not perfectly by any means behind the shaky offensive line. Miami doesn’t just struggle on offense to move the ball against Iowa; Miami only scores eight points against Arizona’s desert swarm, 19 against FSU and 17 against Penn State in a game where the running game and defense were prominent.

Miami did load up on scoring against TCU, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia before narrowly escaping against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome 16-10. Miami’s final regular season game was against San Diego State before the showdown with Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.


Miami 13 - Alabama 34

I remember sitting in my apartment next to the Miami Arena in downtown Miami watching this game with my family. It was New Year’s Day in 1993, and as two kids trapped in a one bedroom apartment we played a ton of Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES and logged hours of watching stuff like In Living Color and VHS bootlegs of Beverly Hills Cop while listening to En Vogue and “Rump Shaker.”

In 1992, the ‘Canes were more than just some team I liked, they were a symbol of who I was. Spending part of the year in the Jacksonville, FL area I was repping Miami day in and day out (and probably Alf, too). I was used to Miami winning. After all, Erickson’s ‘Canes were 44-3 leading up to the ‘93 Sugar Bowl so for the majority of my football cognitive lifetime Miami lost maybe once a year while playing an elite schedule of Florida, FSU, Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas, Nebraska, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Syracuse.

By the time Miami rolled into New Orleans, LA on January 1st the question marks were everywhere regarding Erickson’s offense and Torretta’s flaws. The Heisman Trophy winning quarterback was eventually only a 7th round draft choice and lasted just five season in the NFL. Teams had seen Erickson’s one back offense for their fourth season and while he started off his Miami career 3-0 in bowl games he finished up 0-3 before heading to the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL.

After watching the ‘93 Sugar Bowl you can see where Miami had hardly played a defense that good, if they even had (FSU ‘92 not quite up to FSU ‘93 standard). The Crimson Tide defense had seven of the eleven All-SEC defenders including the 5th and 6th overall picks in defensive linemen John Copeland and Eric Curry, and the 29th overall pick George Teague who harassed Miami all night in New Orleans, LA. Antonio London went in the 3rd round and linebacker Derrick Oden went in the 6th. Antonio Langham went 9th overall in the 1994 NFL Draft while Sam Shade was a 4th rounder in the ‘95 Draft.

Alabama decided to line up in a cover 0 look often and put all 11 defenders on the line of scrimmage. This forced Gino Torretta to check in and out of plays, and with four NFL defensive backs the ‘Canes wide receivers weren’t running as free as they did against lesser opponents. During the game, Keith Jackson brought up that Miami had defeated unranked opponents by 30 but ranked opponents by only three points on their way to an 11-0 regular season and Sugar Bowl bid.

Torretta was battered all season and the starting offensive line group only had two players from the Week 1 Iowa game to the Alabama game in January. But some of the play calling, scheme and even Torretta’s play didn’t benefit the ‘Canes either. Torretta spent the Sugar Bowl confused, rattled, and throwing off of his back foot. During the season you could see times where Gino relied solely on big plays- throwing deep fades on 3rd and short situations as opposed to routes that were easier to complete and that picked up 1st downs.

There was also the playmakers not making plays. While Kevin Williams did return a punt for a touchdown, Horace Copeland was quiet all game and Lamar Thomas fumbled twice including the infamous George Teague strip where he was not only caught from behind on what could’ve been a huge momentum swinging touchdown, but Teague strips the speedy wide receiver, too.

Throughout the season the offense struggled to run the football, to protect Torretta, and to show creativity. The same end around from the Iowa game was ran against Alabama. The Tide coaching staff had a month to prepare for the Hurricanes and knew Erickson would try an end around to Williams. Erickson’s reliance on top 100 recruiting lists and not on recruiting depth at key positions like offensive line and defensive interior line really hurt the ‘Canes over the long run. Erickson was still able to bring in a good running back like Danyell Ferguson, and future star linebackers like Ray Lewis but the lack of depth of big men added to bad quarterback play from Frank Costa and Ryan Collins sealed Erickson’s tenure as the Pell Grant scandal was swirling around.


So what went wrong and why?

Miami was still dominating recruiting at all positions in 1988 and 1989 and 1990. Legendary Hurricanes were brought in for Jimmy’s last class in 1989, including: Jessie Armstead, Wesley Carroll, Horace Copeland, Darrin Krein, Rusty Medearis, Kevin Patrick, Darryl Williams and Kevin Williams. Jimmy Johnson sure did know how to find speed all over the country.

However, the offensive line recruiting was big on “star rankings” (Tom Lemming Top 100 guys) but not on production (I wrote about OL recruiting that you can read more here) . It truly was a ‘your potential is going to get me fired’ situation, except Erickson and Kehoe were far from being fired. Where Jimmy Johnson hit on three future long-time starters in 1987, Erickson began to miss into the 90’s.

Erickson really just needed a recruiting guru. That was where Butch Davis excelled, he hired Pete Garcia to run his recruiting much like Nick Saban did with Geoff Collins at Alabama. Great recruiting specialists are necessary in order to build powerhouse programs. Michael Lombardi and Scott Pioli types but at the college level.

Where the 1989 class brought in guard Rudy Barber, the 1990 class signed only two listed offensive linemen in Zev Lumelski who did start, and Anthony Lewis (who?!). Tirrell Greene converted to the O-Line eventually and started at center. The 1991 class brought in three offensive linemen. Alan Symonette, a future starter; but also two guys I’ve never heard of. The 1992 class took a renewed focus on offensive line play with J Ina, KC Jones, and Ricky Perry but it was almost too little too late as the 1992 season was light on the roster and these true freshmen weren’t ready to be main players on a national title winning roster.

The recruiting gaps on the offensive line also carried over to the defensive tackle position by the 1994 season. I’m sure we’ll deep dive into 1994 before my COVID-19 teaching hiatus is over. If the Arizona game in 1992 was a sign that there was a weakness in the armor, the Sugar Bowl was the Miami Titanic hitting the iceberg. In ‘93 Miami finished 9-3 and were blanked by Arizona in the Fiesta bowl 29-0, before bouncing back in ‘94 to play the Cornhuskers for the national title in the 1995 Orange Bowl.


University of Miami Hurricanes Photos by Miami/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Why 1992 was the best ‘Canes team to not win the championship

The ‘92 Hurricanes were the best team to not win the national championship because of the adversity they overcame, both on the field and off of it. The ‘Canes homes were destroyed, and for Barrow- his entire city was destroyed. The players had to move, camp was held at another school, and the city was relying on Hurricanes football to bring them some joy and a healthy distraction from what was going on in South Florida. The schedule was daunting as well having to hit the road early to play Iowa, hosting FSU, but having to travel to Happy Valley to take on a top Penn State team, play a really good Orangemen team in the Carrier Dome, host an up and coming Arizona Wildcats squad and of course take on one of the best Alabama defenses every assembled.

Then there was the talent. Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Gino Torretta took an absolute beating all season behind a terrible offensive line and just kept getting back up to fight another day. His resiliency are why he won the award and has remained a favorite in the hearts of ‘Canes. Then there was a guy like Etheredge who moved positions and still made an NFL roster as a tight end. Of course we all loved Lamar Thomas, Horace Copeland, and Kevin Williams, too.

On defense The Bermuda Triangle was the finest trio of linebackers ever at Miami, and that’s saying something since other squads had Dan Morgan, Winston Moss, and Ray Lewis on them. The defensive line had some all-time ‘Canes greats in Rusty Medearis, Darren Krein, Warren Sapp, and Kevin Patrick who were all All-Americans or All-BIG EAST over their careers. Of course you also had All-American Ryan McNeil at cornerback and a guy that throughout watching the 1992 season I felt was very underrated was Casey Greer at safety. Greer made a ton of tackles working down in the box against the run, had a clutch interception in the ‘93 Sugar Bowl, and the game saving tackle against Syracuse.

In the end though, it’s Hurricane Andrew and the program’s resiliency during such a difficult time that makes them the best team to not come home with the trophy.