The year is 1979. A small private university in South Florida is on the verge of cutting its underperforming football program.
Enter coach Howard Schnellenberger and the birth of that unmistakable phenomenon we like to call Hurricane swagger.
It took Schnellenberger just five years to turn the Hurricanes completely around.
On Friday, the University of Miami will honor the 1983 National Champions with a ceremony at halftime of its 8 p.m. game against Florida Atlantic University.
Formerly the offensive coordinator for the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins under coach Don Shula, in 1979 Schnellenberger took the helm of a pitiful Miami football program that needed guidance.
“I recognized it had been a lot worse for a long period of time than it actually should have been. It was a graveyard of coaches for 13 years,” Schnellenberger said. “But when I finally got up enough courage to look into it, I could see that they had all of the most important resources you need to win a championship: a grand stadium, and they had that in the Orange Bowl, a great schedule with Florida, Florida State, Penn State and a lot of other great football teams, and the capacity to recruit players.”
During the tumultuous decade that preceded his tenure, Schnellenberger noted that six coaches and seven athletic directors “came and went” from UM.
But he built upon the pre-existing foundation and brought his own knowledge and vision to strengthen the pillars upon which the University and its athletic program were built.
And then Schnellenberger made a bold prediction, setting an unthinkable benchmark.
“We came aboard and made the announcement that we would win the national championship in five years,” he said. “I did that because there was such a lack of confidence there and … I had to lay out a plan that would inspire them.”
In doing so, the goal was “attract the coaches, attract the players, attract the fans and work our way up to the fifth year of my existence.”
Making it to the top
Schnellenberger followed through.
The Hurricanes lost their first game in 1983, but then rattled off 10 straight wins to earn a trip to the 1984 Orange Bowl. Miami’s 31-30 win over Nebraska is often called the most exciting game in college football history.
Freshman quarterback and future NFL great Bernie Kosar got the Canes off to a 17-0 start with two touchdown passes to tight end Glenn Dennison, adding a field goal from kicker Jeff Davis.
Then there was Nebraska’s famous “Fumblerooski” trick play and Miami running back Albert Bentley’s touchdown run, ultimately the game-winning score.
“Honestly, for probably the next week or so, it was like waking up in the morning and trying to make sure it wasn’t a dream, that we really did it,” Bentley said. “And even now, I look back on my entire football career, including eight years in the NFL, and that to me was the most exciting win of my life.”
Three decades later, most longtime Canes fans will still get goose bumps when they recall Kenny Calhoun’s pass deflection in the final seconds that secured the national title.
The Orange Bowl nail-biter was the culmination of Miami’s long, uphill climb. It also marked the beginning of a football dynasty.
“That’s the reason why I coined a phrase that has been with me since 1979. To believe is to be strong,” said Schnellenberger, whose confidence never wavered, even after the opening loss to Florida. “So we sell the message, if we believe we can come together and work like we can do it, and it shall come to pass.”
And there was never any doubt among Miami players.
“We believed we had the opportunity to compete for a national championship because we played all the major teams around the nation,” Calhoun said. “We weren’t in a league at the time, or a conference, so we played teams from everywhere, and we felt that was an edge to get to the national championship.”
Back to the future
The 2013 Hurricanes, which are favored to win the ACC Coastal Division, can draw a lot of parallels with their 1980s counterparts.
Schnellenberger likes what he sees from third-year coach Al Golden, saying he is “pretty enthralled” with him.
“I think he’s got the idea of recruiting local kids down. The team has speed, a quarterback that can make it in the National Football League easily, receivers and running backs and a wildcard defense,” Schnellenberger said.
Golden once asked the former coach to speak to the Canes and provide some perspective about what came before them.
“I gave them a history lesson, and I told them if they can reach those heights, what it would do for the student body and the faculty and the staff and the alumni and those football fans all over South Florida,” Schnellenberger said. “And how much of an impact that makes not just on the niversity, but on the community.”
When Miami takes the field under the lights at Sun Life Stadium, the members of that 1983 championship team will be buzzing with excitement and anticipation just like their glory days at the Orange Bowl.
“It’s always good to see your brothers, your teammates, your friends, your classmates from time gone by,” he said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to get together.”
“I’m excited about seeing those guys,” he said of the more than 50 teammates expected to attend Friday’s season opener. “That game, that national championship, it bonded us all for life.”