“Miami players are all over the field, they’re going to be penalized for it,” Jackson says. “But ‘So what?’ I’m sure is their attitude.”
It was November 16, 1991, in Tallahassee, Florida, one of the last afternoons of the Miami dynasty. There were scandals in progress and scandals waiting to be unveiled, scandals involving purveyors of sexually explicit rap lyrics and bounty payments and the manipulation of Pell Grant funds; by ’91, the program was on the cusp of deteriorating from a revolutionary force into an anarchic state, thereby fulfilling all the racially tinged prophecies of sports columnists who viewed the Miami Hurricanes as a metaphor for the coarsening of American culture throughout the ’80s.1 Howard Schnellenberger and his dynamic mustache had departed for the professional ranks, giving way to the elegant coiffure of Jimmy Johnson, who departed for the professional ranks, giving way to Dennis Erickson, a passive leader2 who was simply not equipped to maintain control of a program that had been built on a foundational attitude of So what? (Erickson, too, would soon depart for the professional ranks.)
By 1991, one might argue, there was no realistic way to control a program that had been designed to subvert the system itself.3 The Hurricanes had already slapped old-fashioned notions of sportsmanship in the face during the previous year’s Cotton Bowl: Amid a 46-3 rout of Texas, they racked up more than 200 yards in penalties. 1991, school officials insisted, would be the year Miami “cleaned itself up,” conforming to the anti-celebration rules the NCAA instituted after the Cotton Bowl. And yet those Hurricanes were still boisterous and wild and kind of great, and what had Florida State done at that point but co-opted Miami’s institutional bluster in order to lure the same base of recruits?
This game — which would come to be known, in the annals of Florida football, as Wide Right I4 — would clear a path to Miami’s fourth national championship in nine years. And the first thing you notice when you watch the highlights of Wide Right I is the ferocity; the number of hits that would be flagged today as excessive and dangerous is near astronomical. The second thing you notice is that time has not dimmed the recognition that this was incredibly advanced football.
There were, as Dick Enberg noted in his introduction to one Miami game, “high-tech pro-style offenses” and players on both sides who were “destined for NFL glory.” In fact, the FSU-Miami clashes of that era were the first time I can recall watching a college game that felt utterly professional: The execution, the speed, the talent level. And I lamented this at the time; I remember thinking that the state of Florida was blurring the line between college and pro so completely that in another 20 years we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
But now I look back, and I see the choreography and showmanship, and I watch Miami’s players swarming that field in the final seconds in a purposeful subversion of the NCAA’s wishes, and I wonder if this particular Game of the Century was just so utterly progressive that we can only fully appreciate it in retrospect.
I can pinpoint the very moment that the Miami football program became a true threat to the established social order of college football, because I was trick-or-treating. It was Halloween of 1981; I don’t recall my costume, but I’m guessing it had something to do with football, because it usually did.5 We were hustling from door to door, thrusting our outstretched pillowcases at the waists of neighbors toting bowls of Hershey’s miniatures, and in the process we would continually ask the score. No one needed to be told what score; it was a Saturday night in State College, Pennsylvania, and the Penn State Nittany Lions were ranked no. 1 in the country, playing on the road at Miami. In any other circumstance, I would have been home watching the game; it was a case of football versus candy, and in that moment, I’m ashamed to admit that I chose Mr. Goodbar.
History tells me there were 32,000 people in the Orange Bowl that night, amid a driving rainstorm. The home team’s quarterback was Jim Kelly, a junior from a small Pennsylvania town; Joe Paterno had once attempted to recruit him as a linebacker, which, in retrospect, might have been a mistake. The Hurricanes had gone 42-67 throughout the 1970s, and they’d never finished better than 6-5 in the decade. Then in came Schnellenberger, who was only 47 in 1981 but already looked like a veteran of the Spanish-American War. The night before the game, speaking to Sports Illustrated‘s William Nack, Schnellenberger said, “I took this job with the idea of building a national champion.” He said he hoped Miami’s athletic program would someday compare with those of Southern Cal and Notre Dame and Penn State; he said if Miami could win this game, the country would know the Hurricanes were for real.
Miami won 17-14, and I probably don’t need to tell you the rest of the story. You can catch Billy Corben’s 30 for 30 film (the most enjoyable exercise in ’80s-based propaganda I’d seen since the original Red Dawn), or you can read Bruce Feldman’s ‘Cane Mutiny; I’ve written extensively about the ’87 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami, and I’ve noted the retroactive absurdity of both Miami being labeled as “evil” simply because they engaged in military-style theatrics, and the retroactive discomfort of a squad whose defensive coordinator turned out to be one of the most notorious pedophiles in modern history being labeled as “the good guys.”
That Miami is the most compelling college football dynasty of the late 20th century is not in dispute here; and I say this as someone who grew up in central Pennsylvania, the nexus of self-righteous Hurricane hatred. One could argue — as others have — that in winning the way they did, the Hurricanes broke down racial stereotypes, and that they inexorably altered the stylistic elements of college football, and that they may have even helped the city of Miami to heal itself amid a decade of turmoil.
But I actually wonder if it goes beyond that. I wonder if the mere presence of a galvanizing force like Miami compelled college football’s staid power brokers to wake up to their own hypocrisies. And I wonder if the Miami Hurricanes are, in some small measure, the reason why we finally have a playoff system.
And now that I’ve said that, let me say this: I’m not sure if Miami deserved to win the national championship in 1991. Unless I somehow missed it, Corben’s documentary doesn’t even bother to mention Washington, which also finished 12-0 in 1991, but — having won the Pac-10 — was then contractually obligated to play in the Rose Bowl against the Big Ten champion (which happened to be a Michigan team ranked fourth in the country; the Huskies won, 34-14). Never mind that the Hurricanes chose to play on their home field in the Orange Bowl against an 11th-ranked Nebraska team (Miami won 22-0) rather than go up against no. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl; I think there was a perception back then that still endures today — and will probably endure forever, in the wake of Corben’s film — which is that Miami, given its aura, would not, and could not, have possibly lost to Washington.
Never mind that from 1983 to 1991 the Hurricanes were only 2-3 in bowl games played outside the Orange Bowl. That ’91 Miami–Florida State game was so loaded with future professionals, so laden with talent, that it was essentially perceived as a national championship game of its own. Therefore, the Huskies’ claim to the title — they won the coaches’ poll, and Miami won the AP poll — feels less historically relevant.
But what if it’s the other way around? What if, by 1991, a Miami program that had been regarded with occasionally unfair ethical disdain by the media was actually just a tiny bit overrated?
As James Vautravers points out on his TipTop25 website, both Miami and Washington played four ranked opponents and one “nearly ranked” opponent that season. Washington won by an average of 31.7 points per game; Miami won by an average of 19.3. Washington played only one close game, a 24-17 win at no. 8 California; Miami played two in addition to the Florida State game — a 26-20 win over Penn State and a 19-14 win over a 4-7 Boston College team.
“Washington clearly outperformed Miami against a very similar strength of schedule,” Vautravers writes.
Had the “media bias” actually turned in Miami’s favor by then? Had they just gotten lucky and chosen the easy route in the bowl game? Were they coasting along more on aura than on talent?
There’s no question that the Hurricanes caught a break when that field goal attempt sailed wide right,6 but there is also no question that luck has historically played a major role in determining college football’s national champion. The year before, 1990, Colorado proved to be perhaps the luckiest national champion of all time, most notably during a game against Missouri in which the fundamental rules of the sport were altered in their favor.
The Buffaloes shared a national title with Georgia Tech in ’90, which meant that Miami-Washington marked the second straight year with co–national champions, which led to a frenzy of media-driven angst, spearheaded by Austin Murphy’s fantastical speculation in Sports Illustrated about what might have actually happened during a Miami-Washington game. So maybe these two unresolvable seasons — along with the consolidation of conferences and the soaring influence of television — were what led college football to form the flawed “Bowl Coalition” the next season, which would eventually become the flawed Bowl Championship Series, which would eventually lead us straight into a four-team playoff starting next season. But I still think there was something else going on here, something that had to do with the team that was driving the narrative.
The rules didn’t apply to them,” Le Batard once said of the Hurricanes. “They were not of the NCAA. It did not apply to them … It was a complete disconnect.”
And that was the thing about Wide Right I: It felt disconnected from college football as we’d known it up to that point. I mean, watch this catch by Miami’s Coleman Bell, and then realize that Bell was a tight end with little to no experience; check out Florida State’s depth chart at quarterback, which included, at that moment, both a future Super Bowl champion and a future NBA point guard as backups.7
“It was a real pro-atmosphere game,” one Florida State player said, in a short documentary commemorating the game’s 20th anniversary.
These kinds of things happen all the time now in the SEC, but back then, this collision of talent felt almost like a purposeful perversion of the amateur ideal, and it made it almost impossible to reconcile these kinds of teams with the notion that college football was a purely altruistic pursuit. And if it wasn’t what it had long pretended to be — if the evidence was right there in front of us, dancing in the end zone — then why shouldn’t there at least be an end-of-season resolution?
The power brokers had to do something, had to find a way to acknowledge that the product on the field had undergone a radical change without actually undergoing the fundamental change of bulldozing the system itself. So they created the Bowl Coalition, and in year one it worked — Alabama destroyed Miami in the Sugar Bowl, thereby marking the end of the Hurricanes’ reign of terror — and in year two it worked again, and in year three, with Penn State still locked into the Rose Bowl, it didn’t work at all. It was half of a solution, just like the BCS. But it was progress. And here we are, 20 years later, advancing toward a playoff while legal challenges to the outmoded system of amateurism that Miami once subverted progress through the courts.
Would all of this be possible without the Hurricanes and without games like Wide Right I? Maybe. But if nothing else, Miami’s utter disregard for the existing structure of the sport — their culminating shouts of “So what?” at the power brokers who made the rules — helped us realize that maybe things could be better than they were.