Editor's note: The following is an exceprt from 'CANE MUTINY by Bruce Feldman. Reprinted by arrangement with New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Bruce Feldman, 2004.
Lamar Thomas grew up the way most people did in Gainesville, Florida -- as a die-hard Gator fan. Thomas, a fast-talking dimple-cheeked sort, was an all-state shooting guard and wideout. He had his heart set on playing both sports for the University of Florida. But a buddy of his, Gator basketball star Vernon "Mad Max" Maxwell, tipped Thomas off that the NCAA was on to UF, and that the Gators program was about to get rocked by an investigation. Thomas wasn't sure what his next move would be, especially after the Gators fired Mike Heimerdinger, the coach who had been recruiting him and had been in his house just a week earlier. He considered visiting Georgia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina and Miami.
The six-foot-three, 170-pound Thomas, though had his doubts about visiting UM. Actually, he said he crossed the 'Canes off his list and cancelled a visit so he could check out North Carolina (the Tar Heels were playing NC State in hoops). Then, a few hours after he told UM coaches his plans, his phone rang. The voice on the other end had a deep rumbling sound, the kind that made all the words seem to blue together. The caller was Michael Irvin, the 'Canes' standout junior receiver. "Man, izzzallllzetuppp," Irvin hollered into the phone. "You gonna go out and hang with me -- and I'm gonna show you what Miami iszzzalllllabouuuttt." Thomas was intrigued. He nixed the trip to Carolina and came to Coral Gables, and was indeed floored by the way Irvin owned South Florida. "Wherever we went, people knew him and yelled out 'Playmaker!'" marveled Thomas.
Irvin drove Thomas around, got smiles from all the pretty girls and nods from all the suits, and then turned to him and said, "So, do you wanna be the next Michael Irvin?" Thomas, who fancied himself as a bit of an extrovert too, liked the sound of that. But he still told Irvin he was on the fence about UM. "Let me tell you something," Irvin continued, "I'm on NBC, CBS, ESPN and PBS. Every station. Every Saturday. You come here, you're going to be on them, too." Irvin now was speaking Thomas' language.
The UM game Thomas saw was against his hometown Gators. It was a rout. The Canes rolled 31-4 and Irvin made the game's sickest highlight, turning a simple quick out into a sixty-five-yard jaunt after he juked Gator DB Dwayne Glover and left him grasping at air. From that moment on, Thomas believed he had to be a 'Cane. Irvin promised him he'd teach Thomas everything he knew. Irvin, however, wouldn't be at UM by the time Thomas arrived on campus. He had opted to leave early for the NFL draft. Still, Irvin stood by his pledge. He called Thomas, "I told you I would teach you and I will." And he kept calling and calling and calling. "He'd talk to me a hundred times during the year, but it was primarily just to talk about himself," Thomas said. "I would just listen. I was in awe of him. On the field, he was just a studmuffin. He'd start off and say, 'Good game, young buck. Keep trying to catch me.' Then he would go on for about an hour and talk about himself. 'You see how I did Darrell Green Sunday? They say he runs a fo'-two. I run maybe a fo'-five, but when I put this big, fine body on him, he can't get ahh-roooound me! He runnin' Mike Speed.'
"I enjoyed it because I knew he'd call every week and I knew I had to do something spectacular to keep up with the wide receiver tradition." Irvin gave Thomas tips on how to better disguise his routes so he could set up defensive backs, how to maneuver in traffic and how to read defensive backs' body language. He also reminded Thomas on "how to be a 'Cane." Irvin would leave messages on Thomas's answering machine, encouraging, "I'm watching. Do something!" Thomas always did.
Irvin was an ideal spokesman for the program -- even if UM President Tad Foote may not have seen it that way. Irvin grew up in a family of 17 children in Fort Lauderdale. His father, a preacher, died a year before Irvin caught his first pass at St. Thomas Aquinas High. Irvin dedicated his football career to his father's memory. He was big for a receiver, at six-foot-three, but hardly fast. In fact, he may have been the slowest of the UM receivers, but he was relentless. No one outworked him. He attacked passes like a power forward going for a rebound, rustling for position, using his shoulders and butt to carve out space. He earned all-American honors and graduated with a business management degree in four years. After he announced his decision to enter the NFL Draft, Irvin boasted, "Hey, I'm like Kentucky Fried Chicken. I do one thing, and I do it right" about his ability to catch. Nobody loved being a 'Cane more.
|“||I want you to take my position because if you take it, we'll be a better team, and if not, when I leave you'll be smart enough to get it done. That's what 'A 'Cane Thing' means. No matter what happens. I want the best players on the field. It ain't an ego thing or about 'I'm this,' or 'I'm that.' ”|
|— Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon|
Irvin's mentorship of Thomas isn't uncommon at UM. Around the program, they have an expression to explain, or at least answer, how things happen at UM --whether it's about a miraculous comeback, a bit of eye-popping bravado or how a team can lose one star and replace him with an unknown who turns out to be even better: "It's a Cane thing . . . you wouldn't understand."
A "'Cane thing" is about the closest you can get to summing up what has made the program a football phenomenon. It's about mentoring and it's about mind games. Belief and bravado. But the biggest reasons why most people don't understand is because it's about swagger and selflessness too. Jessie Armstead, a standout linebacker for Miami in the early '90s, made the manta mainsteam when he got some 'Cane Thing t-shirts made up for his teammates. The spirit, though started well before the shirts did. It's the thing, even more than sheer talent, that has separated Miami from everyone else, explains UM defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, a former star linebacker for the 'Canes in the mid-eighties. "If it's me and you playing the same position and I'm the older guy and you've got talent, I'm gonna teach you what I know to try and beat me out," Shannon said. "I want you to take my position because if you take it, we'll be a better team, and if not, when I leave you'll be smart enough to get it done. That's what 'A 'Cane Thing' means. No matter what happens. I want the best players on the field. It ain't an ego thing or about 'I'm this,' or 'I'm that.'"
Almost as important, the "'Cane Thing" doesn't end when the star player leaves campus and starts wearing an NFL uniform.
Jerome Brown had been in the NFL for two seasons playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, when his buddies down in Miami started telling him about a guy they were touting as "the next Jerome." Cortez Kennedy, like Brown, grew up in a small country town. Kennedy was from Wilson, Arkansas (population 900). He was big, boisterous and had a menacing scowl. He could also do amazing things for a man his size, like burst through the A-gap before the guard could get out of his stance, or chase down ball carries from behind. Kennedy also had some class clown in him, same as Brown. He was another gentle giant and he was charismatic. Kennedy earned honorable mention all-American honors at Northwest Mississippi Junior College in '87 and broke the hearts of Razorbacks fans all over the state when he decided to sign with Miami and Jimmy Johnson instead of his home-state team. But when he arrived in Miami in August of 1988, he weighed 319 pounds, thirty-nine more than his playing weight. Johnson put him on the scout team and ordered him to lose nineteen pounds. Kennedy struggled in the South Florida heat, and his new 'Cane teammates dubbed him "Two-Play Tez."
"He'd kill you for two plays, then take the next twenty off," said Shannon, who was a senior during Kennedy's first season at UM. "He had the talent and he was a good person mentally. He just couldn't sustain it. He'd get past one drill, then be halfway through the second and flop down. He'd say, 'I can't make it.' We'd have to hold him up and say, 'Don't you quit on us!'"
It wouldn't have been hard for Kennedy to have gotten lost in the transition when Johnson bolted for the NFL and Dennis Erickson came in from the Pacific Northwest. Erickson flirted with the idea of redshirting Kennedy, but Shannon, who got drafted by Johnson's Dallas Cowboys that spring, made sure that wasn't going to happen. He moved into Kennedy's apartment and put him through boot camp. Up at the crack of dawn to run three miles. At noon, he had him lifting weights. At five thirty, he ran him some more. Shannon insisted that Kennedy adhere to a low-fat diet. All he would let him eat were subs and salads. Shannon wouldn't allow Kennedy to eat after seven p.m. either, and he slept on the sofa to make sure Kennedy didn't raid the refrigerator at night. "I put a padlock on the fridge and I took away his [car] keys so he couldn't leave," Shannon said. "The only way he could go out was if I went with him."
In late June, when Shannon left Miami for Cowboys training camp, Russell Maryland, a rock-solid junior defensive tackle nicknamed "the Conscience," took over as Kennedy's drill sergeant. Maryland got his nickname because he nagged teammates about their grades and their practice habits. Maryland himself had been quite a reclamation project. He was a self-described "fat kid from Chicago" who eventually remade himself into a two-time all-American. He weighed 330 pounds as a senior at Whitney Young High School, and he was more highly regarded as a student than as an athlete. Only one college recruited him for football, 1-AA Indiana State. Maryland did, however, have the grades to get into the Ivy League and was considering trying that route in the spring of 1986 when by a twist of fate, Hubbard Alexander came to town. Alexander, Miami's receivers coach, was one of Johnson's ace recruiters. He came to the Windy City to try and sign another defensive tackle, Mel Agee, only at the last second Agee backed out and chose to sign with Illinois. Alexander re-checked his list of D-line candidates in the Chicagoland area and noticed the only one who hadn't signed a letter of intent was Maryland. Once at UM, Maryland's dogged work ethic in the classroom showed up on the field. He dropped thirty pounds his first year at Miami. His mentor was Jerome Brown. Maryland was an honor student too, majoring in-what else? --psychology. He prodded Kennedy. "If I can lose the weight, so can you."
But the real driving force behind Kennedy became Brown. Big Jerome had never laid eyes on Kennedy till the spring of '89 when the Eagles defensive tackle barged into the UM weight room and yelled, "Where's the kid who's supposed to be like me?"
Brown eye-balled him for a moment, broke out the big white smile, and then wrapped his arms around Kennedy's broad back. "You come with me," he told Kennedy.
Brown showed Kennedy how to read an offensive lineman based on his body lean. He also taught him how to use his hands better and how to navigate a double team. When the '89 season rolled around, Kennedy weighed 285. He led all Hurricane linemen with ninety-two tackles (twenty-two for losses), had 7.5 sacks, and was named all-American while helping Miami win the national championship.
Brown and Kennedy grew so close that Jerome's mother used to refer to Tez as Jerome's twin brother. When Brown bought a white BMW 750iL, so did Kennedy. When Brown bought a Corvette ZR-1, so did Kennedy.
Whenever Kennedy sacked a quarterback, he busted out the Tez dance, a double-pump pelvic thrust he learned from Brown. Every Monday night during the season they'd dial each other up and compare stats.
On June 25, 1992, the day before Kennedy was supposed to fly to Miami to meet Brown before they went on a cruise together, Brown, driving with his twelve-year-old nephew, Augusta, lost control of his Corvette and smashed into a power pole - both driver and passenger were killed. For the remainder of his football career, Kennedy wore number 99 to honor his fallen brother.
The closest parallel you can find to a legacy steeped in such tradition are the fraternities on most college campuses. The Greek system offers brotherhood that is forged through hazing rituals and links through its IDs, such as tattoos and brands. These body markings are born out of the excruciating burning processes that create them. (In the case of the brands that you often see from black fraternities, the frats' logos are seared across biceps at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.) Among the Canes, especially from Johnson's teams in the '80s, joining frats wasn't acceptable. "We are our own fraternity," said Bratton. Some UM players have further adopted this concept by getting tattoos of the UM logo, a logo they all believe defines them and is a tribute to how they play the game.
One day Bratton and his best friend cornerback Tolbert Bain were walking across campus and spotted freshman wide receiver Doyle Aaron in line for one of the fraternities. Even though Bratton was the big talker of the two, it was Bain who went off. "You don't do that here," Bain told Aaron. "That's a no-no. It would be hard on us walking by seeing some little wimp talking trash to you. You play for the Hurricanes, the greatest show on turf. We are our own fraternity. Why you wanna be in a fraternity anyhow? You go through enough for the two and a half hours at practice. Then you're gonna put up with some bullshit. 'Go find me a rock?!?' 'Go get me this or get find me that.' What kind of bullshit is that?"
"Being a 'Cane is more than a fraternity because in a fraternity you have to pay dues," former UM defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "Being a 'Cane, you have to give part of yourself. Each one of us has a special bond with each other."
"We are so close, we're brothers. A real family," said former UM linebacker Ray Lewis. "It's about the blood, sweat and tears, and your brother has been right there with you through all of it. That's why you have that trust.
"My mentality was always like that, and when I got to UM, I was like 'Wow, you mean to tell me there's a place like this where guys trust and believe in each other, on and off the field? Man, there is nothing like it and how that makes you feel or what it can do for you."
Players joke the only thing a 'Cane fears is an injury. Because they believe that if they go down and just miss one game, they might never get their job back. Irvin tells a story about tailback Warren Williams, who had hurt his leg during two-a-days in 1985. Irvin's message to his fallen teammate? "Heal fast. If you miss two practices, you might not get your job back," he said. Irvin was right. Miami was so loaded at running back with Bratton and Highsmith and Darryl Oliver, Williams didn't get to be a feature back again until he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers. "It's true," said Bratton. "If you got hurt at Miami, your ass might not ever touch the field again so you were scared to get hurt and leave the field. Jimmy (Johnson) had this rule: You don't practice by Wednesday, you won't start on Saturday, and you did not want that to happen." The strength of Miami depth regularly surfaced - Bernard Clark filling in for middle linebacker George Mira Jr., and winning Orange Bowl MVP honors, or the 1992 Orange Bowl, when starting fullback Stephen McGuire missed the game with an injury and his understudy freshman Larry Jones came from nowhere to run for 144 yards and won MVP honors in the national title-winning game over Nebraska. But it was also the cocksure attitude of those guys waiting behind the curtain. Like the time in 1987 when Purdue quarterback Jeff George, an all-everything recruit, seeing a vacancy after Vinny Testaverde left, wanted to transfer to Miami. UM offensive coordinator Gary Stevens told George, "If you come here, you might play." The message? George's rep and fabled arm strength were worth nothing. (George opted to transfer to Illinois instead.) "I didn't think he'd ever play here anyway," UM QB Steve Walsh said of George. "For him to change his mind (about coming to Miami) showed he didn't have much confidence in himself."
Those dues that Sapp spoke of can come at a heavy price, especially when dealing with insecure teenage boys and young men struggling to find their way on a college team. Egos can get crushed. So can dreams. Wide receiver Tony Page came to UM from Lawton, Oklahoma where he was he state's long jump and sprint champion. He wasn't bashful about telling his new teammates about his track exploits. So one day before practice, another receiver, Brian Blades called Page, aka. "Mr. Oklahoma Sprint Champ" out and challenged him to a race. The whole team gathered around and Blades torched Page. "If you came here as a 'top-ranked' guy, you got challenged," said Highsmith. "And the truth is, Miami ruined a lot of the 'big-time' kids. You just can't be sensitive at Miami. They'll beat it out of you." One player, Mick Barsala, a linebacker from California, bolted after he didn't like the haircut his new teammates gave him. Head shaving -- or comically botched head shaving -- was part of the 'Canes freshman orientation, something that had started under Schnellenberger. (Before transferring to Cal, Barsala protested about the process to the administration. UM's athletic director at the time, Dave Maggard responded by outlawing the practice. The 'Canes' response to that? The freshmen themselves decided to uphold the tradition by shaving their own heads to show their commitment.)
The bond can do wonders in terms of success breeding success. It explains why the 'Canes always seem to have the essential ingredient that's always labeled as chemistry. "The main reason Miami stays at the top is that the players are always competing against the past, and the past is standing right there on the sideline, watching them with pride and high expectations," said Maurice Crum, a Miami linebacker in the late eighties.
At most Miami games, the 'Canes sideline looks like a players reunion. Most old 'Canes, if their NFL teams have the week off, return for UM's game to show their support. Bain said their presence can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing. He points to the 1988 Orange Bowl against top-ranked Oklahoma. Part of the Sooners game-plan was to split all-American tight end Keith Jackson out wide to neutralize Bain's effort's in helping contain OU's running game. The Sooners' first series, OU kept running to Bain's side and gaining yards. "I just couldn't get off him," Bain said. "At Miami, in the huddle, you had to be accountable for yourself. I get back in the huddle and all the boys are looking at me. I said 'My bad,' They don't say nothing. They would just look [making an irate stare]. We get off the field and I'm like '****!'
"[Former UM linebacker] Winston Moss used to be my roommate and he had moved on to the League [the NFL]. He leaned over to me and goes 'You're playing too far off him.' I was five yards off. Winston goes 'Walk up on his head and when the ball is snapped, engage him and find the football. Just play football.' They came back out and ran the triple option my way and this time-bam! -- I slammed the running back. That was the end of that. They never ran that again and we won. That kind of thing happens a lot at Miami."
The old 'Cane-'Cane relationship can create a gray area for coaches. It certainly did for Erickson's staff. The potential for chaos, what with players getting coaching from men who aren't actually their coaches, was a concern.
"I think it could've been a problem," said Sonny Lubick, Erickson's defensive coordinator at Miami. "But we learned to work with it and it was all very constructive. A lot of the time the players would listen to their ex-teammates before they'd listen to us."
The time though, where Miami got its biggest edge over everyone else is smack dab in the middle of South Florida's summer swelter. Back in the 1980s and even deep into the nineties, most colleges were empty at summertime. Players were more like regular students. They left campuses for a few months, re-charged their batteries, got flimsy summer jobs and played the role of small-town hero coming home. Not at Miami, though. There was no such thing as an "off-season." Since Miami was running a high-powered passing attack, they could fine tune their routes in seven-on-seven drills (featuring all the "skill" players-minus only the linemen.) At option or wishbone-based programs, it's hard to replicate such a scheme without contact or linemen working in unison. Better still, Miami players could battle. Same as in games, only because of NCAA regulations, coaches aren't permitted to supervise. But Miami developed something that might've been an even better teaching tool: Old 'Canes returning home from their NFL teams to train side-by-side with the youngbloods. Tips are shared. Bonds are strengthened. Spirits are challenged. Robert Bailey, a Miami cornerback who spent a decade in the NFL, said, "[Former all-American wide receiver] Eddie Brown came back and ran every single drill with us, and I remember challenging myself to stay up with him and I could not. He won every time. His work ethic left a lasting impression on me."
"The offseason regimen was, and still is, I believe, unlike any other," Clark adds. "The workouts were 'voluntary-mandatory,' that was our saying. They were brutal. You're already competing in July against the best before you even line up against your opponent. If you beat those guys all summer you felt you could beat anybody." Winning every head-to-head battle wasn't essential. "All you gotta do is beat him one time. That's does it," said Bratton. "Because you ain't gonna beat him too many times. Winston Moss was one year ahead of me and he had gone off to the NFL and made All-Rookie [for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] and I beat him one time, and everybody was like 'Whooo!' I looked at him and said 'You're the best in the NFL?!?' I spiked the ball in his face and said, 'Man, I know I can play on Sundays.'"
Not that the younger guys didn't hear their share of trash from the older 'Canes. Linebacker Darrin Smith came to Miami in 1989. A few days after the Miami native moved into suite 36A, his phone rang. When he picked the receiver, Smith heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. "Who Dis?" the voice barked.
"What do you mean?" Smith answered. "Who's this?"
"I asked you first," the voice growled, "Who is this?"
Finally, Smith relented. "This is Darrin Smith. Now who is this?"
"This is Michael Irvin, and you're in my room," said the voice said.
The voice actually was Irvin, who like many of the old 'Canes took to calling their old numbers to find out who had taken over their old digs -- and to make sure the legacy was in good hands. The old 'Canes become godfathers to the young guys, as Smith said Irvin became to him or as Brown became to Kennedy. "Having former players call you is like having a big brother," Armstead said. "It's like a big family. At Miami, nobody is jealous of anybody." Irvin and Smith hit it off that day after the rocky phone introduction. A few weeks later, Irvin returned to UM and crashed in Smith's suite.
With Irvin stoking the fire, Lamar Thomas not only became the epitome of the fist-pumping, butt-wiggling, let-me-get-this helmet-off-so America-can-see-how pretty-I-am 'Cane; he also smashed the 'Canes' career receiving record, a record that was held by Irvin himself. Irvin congratulated him by sending him a lithograph of himself. It came with a note that read, "If you ever forget what a great receiver looks like, just look at my picture."
Thomas said UM brought something out in him that he didn't know was in there. "Once I found out I was going to Miami, a lot of things changed for me," Thomas said. "My confidence changed. It just happened. Wherever I walked, I carried that swagger that I picked up on my visit. Whenever I thought about being a Hurricane, it was 'I'm the best, and if you wanna be aroun' me, you gotta be zummmbah-dee!'" Thomas, like Irvin, was the fuse for his team's combustible psyche. Only under Dennis Erickson, a more laissez faire type top dog than Johnson and Schnellenberger, the fuse didn't seem to have as far to burn to reach the dynamite pack.
Erickson had come to Miami from Pullman, Washington, and if he didn't realize the difference in climate, he only needed to watch his new team perform in the 1989 opener at Wisconsin. The 'Canes romped 51-3. They also celebrated after plays, not just touchdowns, by dancing and head-butting each other. After UM receiver Randal "Thrill" Hill caught a four-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to make the score 34-3, he bowed to the Badger crowd. The Chicago Tribune described Miami as having players "you wouldn't want your local motorcycle gang to be associated with." Two weeks later, the 'Canes took their show on the road and blasted Missouri 38-7 in a game that saw UM safety Bobby Harden, on his way to the end zone, shaking the football in front of the faces of the entire Tigers sideline after he intercepted a pass. Late in the game, another Miami DB, Kenny Berry KO'd Missouri's star tight end, Tim Bruton, who lay motionless on the field with trainers tending to him. Meanwhile, Berry did his version of the Ickey Shuffle. After the game, Erickson said, "I never liked taunting, I never will, and I'm going to do whatever I can to eliminate what could even appear to be taunting." For the most part the 'Canes toned it down the rest of the '89 season. In the Sugar Bowl, they beat an overmatched Alabama team 33-25 to win the program's third national title.
The Canes entered 1990 ranked preseason number one. They visited number sixteen Brigham Young in Utah and came out flat. There was no dancing. No styling. No hip-shaking. And there was no energy. Cougar QB Ty Detmer picked them apart. Miami fell 28-21. Irvin, like Bratton and many of his old 'Canes brethren, were irate. They believed the problem was the 'Canes were being shackled by Erickson's buttoned-up edict. They needed to be dancing and show-boating and, yes, taunting and intimidating. Irvin dialed up Thomas to let him know the deal. "This ain't right," Irvin told Thomas. "Somebody makes a big play and you guys don't do anything?" Other 'Canes received phone calls from the old 'Canes, imploring them to be "like the old Miami."
The next week, on the road at Cal in a nationally televised game, the 'Canes danced all over the Golden Bears in a 52-24 blowout. Hill exulted, thrusting his palms to the sky after each of his first six receptions, while linebackers Micheal Barrow and Jessie Armstead, after a sack, broke into a pelvic-pumping choreographed number that would've made Madonna squirm. The message was sent: The 'Canes needed to be the 'Canes. Foote told Erickson he was embarrassed by the team's actions. On the flight home, Jankovich tore into Armstead about his X-rated sack dance. Erickson declared that, from this point forward, he would bench those for the remainder of a game if "they celebrate in an embarrassing way."
|“||We played by the rules -- the Miami rules. Everybody only saw Saturdays, but no one knows how hard we go at it during the week. We hate each other, fought each other on the practice field, but then on Saturday, we come together and it's playland. ”|
|— Former UM player Lamar Thomas|
Erickson's decree cut at the core to what many thought was Hurricane football-the swagger that had boiled over into a flamboyant house party in shoulder pads. This was, after all, a big reason why most of these players chose to become Hurricanes. "I visited Notre Dame, Michigan, Pittsburgh and Florida, and it seems like they were playing football with ties on, Barrow said. "At Miami, the guys were dancing and stuff. It's a place where you can shine as an individual. There is no comparison."
Critics, many the same ones who cheered when Miami was upset by Penn State in the '87 Fiesta Bowl, said the Canes were making a mockery of the sport. AD Paul Dee, again, described the program as "misunderstood," which is perhaps the best way to look at it. Clearly, the "offenders" didn't subscribe to some of the same ideals as those chastising them. There was a divide along cultural and economic lines. "People complain about me celebrating after a four-yard catch," Hill told the Miami Herald. "I look at it like this: If you were poor and you didn't have a car and God blessed you with a Yugo, wouldn't you be happy with that Yugo? Why not be happy with everything you get on the field?"
"The rules didn't apply to them," Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard said. "They were not of the NCAA. It did not apply to them. The NCAA sportsmanship was not their sportsmanship. It was a complete disconnect. They were this group of kids who brought the street near the library. They weren't from Coral Gables and they weren't going to fit in there. And they brought whatever it was they were to Coral Gables."
"We played by the rules -- the Miami rules," said Thomas. "Everybody only saw Saturdays, but no one knows how hard we go at it during the week. We hate each other, fought each other on the practice field, but then on Saturday, we come together and it's playland."
The bottled-up Canes struggled with their composure. Notre Dame beat them 29-20 in a game billed as the "Final Conflict" since Irish brass felt the series was no longer a healthy thing. Against Kansas, the Canes traded punches with Jayhawk players a half hour before kickoff after both teams got tangled up near the entrance to Miami's locker room as Miami broke its' pre-game huddle. Kansas coach Glen Mason called the incident "part of the intimidation factor I don't like in college football." Erickson took the blame. Miami won 34-0. Then, in the regular-season finale, the 'Canes eeked out a win at San Diego State and were baited into a bench-clearing brawl that lasted five minutes. As UM, ranked fourth in the polls, prepared for a Cotton Bowl meeting against No. 3 Texas, the media had fun with the image of Erickson's "kinder, gentler" 'Canes-especially since it was the Longhorns doing all the trash talking.
Texas, thinking it had an outside shot at the title, was hyping itself on a "Shock the Nation Tour." UT offensive tackle Stan Thomas did most of the yapping, talking about how he was going to take away the Outland Trophy that Miami defensive tackle Russell Maryland had won. He predicted a 28-10 Texas victory. Later Thomas likened attending a barbeque with the 'Canes to being in prison. "Typical gangsters," Thomas called them. "I can't wait to play those guys. I hope the first play lasts five minutes because I'm going to hit everybody." The 'Canes' response? Nothing. They just smiled politely for the media and tried on the white hat. Behind closed doors, however, gasoline had been heaved on the fire. Highsmith, Irvin and a host of other old 'Canes were in Dallas and let the team know they didn't approve of these kinder, gentler Hurricanes. A few days before the game, the team had a players-only meeting. They decided no more Mr. Nice Guy. Players even began rehearsing their dance moves. Before kickoff, Erickson told the 'Canes to have fun, and then he walked out of the locker room. The 'Canes then reconvened and pledged to really have fun. "We fell in the poll one week when we didn't play," said UM cornerback Robert Bailey. "We all said, 'We're going to show the entire nation, show all the doubters that we're back. Let's give them the bad image they all want to see. The people watching on TV want to see the bad Hurricanes.'"
And that's exactly what they saw. Miami mugged the Longhorns, annihilating them 46-3. The 'Canes were flagged sixteen times for 202 yards, that included nine unsportsmanlike or personal-foul penalities. The only thing they didn't get whistled for was a double dribble violation.
Bailey, who had boasted to teammates before the game that he was gonna knock someone out on the opening kickoff, did. He punctuated the lights-out hit on Longhorn returnman Chris Samuels by doing the Nestea Plunge. The Hurricanes iced the game early in the third quarter on a forty-eight-yard touchdown pass to Thrill Hill, who roared past UT's Willie Mack Garza on a fly pattern and sprinted straight up the Cotton Bowl tunnel after scoring. Then Hill returned from the tunnel, shooting at the Longhorns with a pair of imaginary pistols. "It was an expression," Hill said, "to show I could take it all the way if I wanted. If the gate had been open, I probably would have gone on out."
Miami sacked Texas' sophomore QB Peter Gardere eight times. Maryland, working often against Stan Thomas, sacked him three times in the first half alone. After the game, the normally soft-spoken Maryland said he hoped the Longhorns had learned a lesson. "To shut up," he said. "If you're going to talk a lot of stuff like we do, you've got to be able to back it up. If you're going to be somebody, be them. Don't be half-steppin'.
"But they weren't ready for that. They were saying, 'These boys are crazy.' They're right, we are."
"Texas didn't respect us, and that doesn't happen with the Hurricanes," UM center Darren Handy told the Miami Herald. "So we had to go out and get that respect back. & We came out and said, 'Whatever it takes.' We didn't want to get two hundred yards in penalties, but we said, 'We're going to showcase. We're going to dance, talk trash in their face,' we just didn't care. We were going to do whatever it took to intimidate them, get them out of their game, and get that respect back. "It might be embarrassing to the university and the coaches, but it's not to the players. We enjoy it. It's like a show. People from Texas came to see Miami's swarming defense, high-scoring offense and what new dances we had come up with. We gave them their money's worth."
Sonny Lubick, the 'Canes defensive coordinator, said the coaching staff tried to tone the team down, but was flummoxed by the whole situation. "We tried to clean it up," he said. "The kids weren't bad. That was just their way, and that's the way they play. I don't know how to explain it. Maybe it's a Florida thing. I just don't know.
"I know a lot of people had their opinions about Miami, saying, 'Man, these guys are out of control.' But we saw from them from a different viewpoint. These were some good kids. Russell Maryland is one of the best people I've ever known. We watched these kids working and practicing in ninety-degree heat with ninety percent humidity. They were disciplined, but I can imagine how it looked from the outside."
Not pretty. Like someone spray-painted over a Norman Rockwell. Again, the media was outraged. So were many in the rest of the college football establishment. Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh called the 'Canes Cotton Bowl performance "the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in college sports."
Will McDonough, the Boston Globe's football columnist compared the 'Canes to a bunch of thugs running loose on gang rape. "The day of reckoning was inevitable," McDonough wrote forty-eight hours after the game. "This has been in the making for close to two decades. Sooner or later, the street would take over, and it did in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas Tuesday, when the University of Miami players delivered college football's version of wilding. & At Boston College this morning, they should be asking: Do we really want to be in the same conference with these people and expose our players to this garbage year after year? Is this college football? Is this what we want to bring into our stadium?
"Thankfully, the vast majority of college football is not like Oklahoma or Miami."
"This is a grubby bunch, this Miami menagerie, about as far from the college ideal as a tire iron is from an ear swab," wrote Bernie Lincicome in the Chicago Tribune. "And this is the best college football team in the nation. & I am not without some gratitude for Miami collecting dangerous young thugs and giving them a place to be angry. Better in Coral Gables than on public transportation."
The criticism only galvanized the team even more. To them, all those who sit in their sport coats, watching from above in their glassed-in, air-conditioned sky boxes, were just a bunch of whiny hypocrites. Who was bringing in all those millions to the school? The 'Canes. Who was making the TV ratings pop? The 'Canes. But were they seeing any of the windfall? "Not a dime," said Mike Sullivan, who was UM's starting offensive guard and an MBA student at the time. "I don't see anyone refunding that $3.2 million we brought in this year," he told the Herald.
During the off-season the NCAA sent a videotape to member schools defining unacceptable conduct on the field. Of the thirty-seven examples cited in the tape, the first dozen featured Miami players. Anyone infringing would be slapped with a fifteen-yard penalty. The rule's definition: "The use of language, gestures or acts that provoke ill will, or incite spectators, or incite an opponent, or are demeaning to the game, shall be penalized." In laymen's terms, it became known as "the Miami rule."
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at email@example.com.