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Best to Never Win a Championship: 1988 Miami Hurricanes

Did a brutal call at Notre Dame knock the ‘88 Canes from among the program’s elite?

Steve Walsh in the Catholics vs Convicts showdown in 1988
Getty Images

Is the 1988 University of Miami football team the most notorious “what if” tale in program history? In today’s installment of SB Nation’s: The Best Team To Never Win A Title, we rewind the clock 32 years and delve into head coach Jimmy Johnson’s final season in Coral Gables.

1988: The CliffsNotes version

Fresh off the 1987 National Championship and a runner-up finish in 1986, the ‘88 Hurricanes opened with a slap in the face via a No. 6 preseason ranking.

Despite Steve Walsh back under center back for his junior year, the voters knocked Miami from its perch atop the college football universe. With the departures of Michael Irvin and Brian Blades on the perimeter and Melvin Bratton and Warren Williams in the backfield, the national media’s reservations were somewhat justifiable.

The other side of the ball saw defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt seeking replacements for linebacker George Mira Jr and defensive end Daniel Stubbs up front, along with Bennie Blades in the secondary.

With all question marks hovering, the Canes still finished 11-1, with the only blemish a controversial October loss at Notre Dame — more on that in a minute — in the now infamous showdown forever dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts.”

Jimmy Johnson Defenses Win Championships

Coach Johnson laid the blueprint for a prototypical Miami defense. After five seasons in Coral Gables, he took his 4-3 attack to the Dallas Cowboys, where he engineered a dynasty that ruled the 1990s.

In 1988, the Hurricanes were second nationally in scoring defense - surrendering only 9.7 points a game. They shutout top-ranked FSU, limited No. 11 LSU to just a field goal during a night game in Baton Rouge, then did the same to No. 6 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

Personnel wise, defensive end Bill Hawkins was taken with the 21st pick in the ensuing NFL Draft. Junior Bernard “Tiger” Clark was arguably Miami’s finest linebacker of the 1980s.

Safety Bubba McDowell was a third-round selection (77th overall), Rod Carter went in the 10th round (252nd) and future Miami head coach Randy Shannon was an 11th round selection (280th).

A year later, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy was taken third overall; Clark, Jimmie Jones, Will Peguese and Greg Mark all went in the third round. Also drafted off the defense were Richard Newbill, Kenny Berry and Bobby Harden.

Additionally, Russell Maryland (first overall), Robert Bailey, Maurice Crum, Shane Curry and Roland Smith were sophomores on that 1988 squad - whose defensive depth bears a striking resemblance to the 2001 GOAT squad.

Last but not least, the 1988 Hurricanes featured the greatest kicker in school history, Carlos Huerta. As a redshirt-freshman, Huerta nailed a game-winning field goal to defeat Michigan in the Big House, just moments removed from his perfectly executed onside kick to set up the 29-yarder.

TEAM MVP - Steve Walsh: No Playmaker, No Problem

With heavy losses at the skill positions going in, Walsh led the Miami offense to nearly 35 points a night — good enough for ninth in the country. The Minnesota native finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, throwing for 3,115 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Despite skipping his senior season to enter the supplemental draft, Walsh left Miami tied with Vinny Testaverde for the most touchdown passes (48) in school history.

In a Nov. 26 victory over No. 8 Arkansas, Walsh broke the school record with 33 completions. In the previously mentioned loss in South Bend, he registered a career-high 424 passing yards.

Furthermore, one can’t discuss Walsh without bringing up the young men tasked with protecting the Hurricanes’ “quiet leader.” During the 1988 campaign, Walsh and the offensive line set an NCAA record by surrendering only four sacks.

Anchored by junior center Rod Holder, Miami’s veteran O-line were the unsung heroes of the ‘88 squad. Flanking Holder were guards Mike Sullivan and Bobby Garcia, while Darren Bruce and John O’Neill protected the edges.

Other offensive standouts included the backfield duo of senior fullback Cleveland Gary and speedster Leonard Conley, who combined for 956 rushing yards in 1988. But it was in the passing attack where they accounted for most of their damage.

Gary’s 57 grabs led the team and his 655 receiving yards were second - propelling him to 26th pick in the NFL Draft. As for Conley, the sophomore tallied 26 catches and 303 yards out of the backfield.

Receivers Dale Dawkins, Randall Hill, Andre Brown and tight end Rod Chudzinski entered 1988 with seven career receptions between them. At season’s end, Brown, a senior, led the team with eight touchdowns and finished second with 47 catches.

Dawkins hauled in 31 passes for 488 yards; “Chud” had 30 receptions, 388 yards and five scores, “Thrill” Hill caught 21 balls for 338 yards.

To put those numbers in perspective, Irvin had 44 catches, 715 yards and 6 TDs to lead the way in 1987. Brian Blades added 29 receptions for 394 yards.

The 1987 backfield of Melvin Bratton and Warren Williams was more productive on the ground, but through the air, they weren’t nearly as effective as Gary and Conley, who combined for 958 yards and 8 TDs.

BEST MOMENT - The Comeback: No. 1 Miami 31, No. 15 Michigan 30

In a season overflowing with unforgettable games and moments, the final 5-plus minutes in Ann Arbor defined the 1988 Miami Hurricanes.

Trailing 30-14 and driving with 5:23 left, Walsh hit Chudzinski in the flat and the sophomore tight end slipped a tackle to pull the Canes within eight on the 2-point conversion.

Following a critical defensive stop, Walsh found Gary over the middle and the fullback broke free down the sideline for 48-yards and a score.

The 2-point try was unsuccessful, but trailing 30-28 with 2:58 to play and three timeouts in his pocket, Johnson elected to roll the dice with an onside kick.

Despite Edgar Benes usually handling the kickoff duties, redshirt-freshman field goal-PAT specialist Carlos Huerta teed up the pigskin then proceeded to skid the football across the turf when a timely bounce allowed Harden to snag the kick and present the Miami offense with one final opportunity.

Completions to Brown and Gary quickly moved the Canes into the red zone, where they handed off three times before pinning the game on the leg of Huerta. With 43 seconds remaining, the Christopher Columbus grad split the uprights from 29 yards out to seal the 31-30 victory.

Early in the contest, Miami appeared to be in control at 14-6 until a pair of coverage breakdowns allowed the Wolverines add six late in the second quarter.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Hurricanes’ Darryl Spencer coughed up the football and Michigan tacked on another score for a 20-14 advantage at the break.

Miami eventually fell behind 30-14 before rattling off 17 points in the final 5:23.

Best Moment: Also Considered

The season-opening 31-0 win over No. 1 FSU was a popular and safe choice for “best moment” because nothing warms the heart like embarrassing a rival following their release of a goofy music video.

But after personally reaching out to a former Cane, the pendulum swung in favor of the Michigan game, which was played two weeks after the FSU win with Miami entering off a bye.

”That [Michigan] game revealed a lot of character,” said three-time National Championship-winning offensive lineman Kelvin Harris, a redshirt-freshman in 1988. “[Beating] FSU was big, but I would go with Michigan. It was after the FSU win, it was on the road, plus we needed a miraculous comeback to win.”

In third place: The 44-3 rout at LSU. I chose this one for personal reasons and a little bit of recency bias since LSU is currently on top. Anyhow, my uncle is an avid LSU fan and I was nine years old during the 1988 season. He invited me over to watch Miami “fold under the pressure of a night game in Death Valley.” If I remember correctly, the previous LSU home game was the “earthquake” game, where the crowd was so loud it (supposedly) registered on the Richter Scale.

Long story short: My uncle took me home at halftime of the Miami game and didn’t say a word the entire ride.

Where it Went Wrong - Catholics vs. Convicts: No. 4 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Miami 30

Must we revisit this?

Unfortunately, we must.

Gary’s fourth-quarter fumble that wasn’t a fumble? Or the referees forgetting the down and distance - believing it was 4th and goal, not 4th and 7? It’s all so frustrating.

Legend has it the officials apologized to Miami in the locker room after the game. They admitted it was a mistake to award the ball to Notre Dame at the 2-yard line, mistakenly believing it was 4th and goal and that Gary needed a touchdown to avoid a turnover. It was 4th-and-7 and Miami clearly picked up the first down. The TV camera even captured an irate Johnson clamoring for the “first down.”

But there’s no need to do this to our emotions.

If you want to torture yourself, here’s the clip. You be the judge.

As for the rest of the game, it was summed up best by Coach Johnson when he said you never leave the game in the hands of the officials at Notre Dame.

Despite the blown call, brain fart or whatever you want to call it, Miami overcame seven turnovers and still had a chance to win. But, as we’re all aware, Walsh’s 2-point pass fell incomplete.

Like the Michigan game, Miami needed a late rally, but this time they fell short. Trailing 31-21 in the fourth, a touchdown cut the deficit to 31-30 with 45 seconds left, when the 2-point try was unsuccessful.

Miami also fell behind 21-7 in the second but closed the half with 14-straight to even the score. The Irish outscored Miami 10-0 in the third and nursed its 31-21 lead well into the fourth.

To summarize: The Case for ‘88

No Miami team - outside of 2001 - was as dominant vs. ranked opponents as the 1988 team.

If the refs don’t botch the Notre Dame game, the 1988 Miami squad places among the all-time greats in program history and take their rightful place as the meat in a big ole 3-peat “sammich.”

Not many can claim a 31-0 beatdown on the No. 1 team in America, but the 1988 Canes can.

It’s also worth mentioning that after getting blasted by Miami, the Noles finished 11-1 and were Sugar Bowl Champions.

How many LSU teams have lost by 41 at home - much less one that’s ranked 11th and finished the year as Co-Champions of the SEC?

The 1988 Hurricanes braved the Big House and escaped with a win over 15th ranked Michigan - who went on to win the Rose Bowl, by the way.

The Big 8 (now Big 12) champion? Yes, Miami thumped them too, closing the year with a 23-3 victory over an 11-win Nebraska squad.

Did we mention the coaching staff under Johnson that season? Wannstedt and Butch Davis (DL coach) went on to find success as head coaches. Dave Campo (DB coach) led the Cowboys from 2000-02, Gary Stevens (OC) climbed to the NFL as the Dolphins OC from 1989-97 and Hubbard “Axe” Alexander (WR coach) joined Johnson in Dallas in 1989 - eventually winning three Super Bowls.

Even the lesser known coaches like Art Kehoe and Don Soldinger still became legendary names among Hurricane fans and were both inducted into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame.

The 1988 season also marked the first year the University of Miami and the Florida Gators didn’t square off in the Battle for the Seminole War Canoe. From 1938-1987, the two rivals met every season until Florida dropped the Canes from its schedule - that’s another topic for another day.

Are 1988 Hurricanes the best Miami team to never win a title? Perhaps. There have been a plethora of storied Canes teams never to win it all. Compared to 1987’s title team, the ‘88 squad increased its point production from 34.3 to 34.8 a game and decreased opponent’s scoring from 10.4 to 9.7 a game.

But at the end of the day, the 1988 Miami Hurricanes will go down as the team the Florida Gators ran from - and that’s good enough for me.