- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

“We were the Cinderella team, and it fired us up. Being a Cinderella to such a powerhouse got everybody on the team fired up.”

Ken Calhoun, Jan. 2, 1984

Being fired up was fine, but the important thing was that the University of Miami free safety got his hand up that night in the Orange Bowl.

Some people were calling the top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers the best college team of all time. Nonetheless, they needed a rally in the final minutes to cut the upstart Miami Hurricanes’ lead to one point with 48 seconds to play.

Now as Nebraska huddled before the conversion attempt, the sellout crowd and a national TV audience held its breath, at least figuratively. Almost certainly the Huskers’ conservative coach, Tom Osborne, would dictate a conversion kick that would tie the fifth-ranked Hurricanes and likely assure the national championship.

Or would he?

Forget it.

Nebraska broke out of the huddle, jogged to the line of scrimmage and lined up behind quarterback Turner Gill in an offensive formation. In fitting climax to what some pollsters later called the greatest college game of the century, Gill ran to his right and flipped a pass to running back Jeff Smith in the end zone. But Calhoun, playing a hunch and abandoning his coverage of star wide receiver Irving Fryar to pick up Smith, deflected the ball as most onlookers at Miami’s home stadium roared their approval.

Final score: Miami 31, Nebraska 30. Earlier, Georgia had upset No.2 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, No.3 Auburn had nearly lost to Michigan in the Sugar, and UCLA had stunned No.4 Illinois in the Rose. So when the final polls came out in that pre-Bowl Championship Series era, Miami had its first national championship.

That fact was especially astounding considering that less than a decade earlier, there had been talk that Miami might drop football because of rising costs and dwindling interest. But then mustachioed, deep-voiced, drawling Howard Schnellenberger succeeded Lou Saban as coach and molded teams than went 25-9 from 1980 to 1982. Suddenly, the almighty Dolphins had a viable football alternative in town.

When Florida thrashed the Hurricanes 28-3 in the 1983 opener, it seemed Schnellenberger had guessed wrong in selecting Bernie Kosar over fellow freshman Vinny Testaverde as his quarterback. But then Miami won its next 10 games, including a 17-16 decision over Florida State in the regular-season finale.

If the Seminoles were a big hurdle, Nebraska seemed like a mountain. The Huskers were 12-0 during the season with Gill, Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Mike Rozier and Fryar leading an offense that ravaged Minnesota for 84 points, Iowa State for 72 and averaged 52. As the Orange Bowl began, Nebraska was an 11-point favorite.

Yet everything that night and that season came down to Calhoun’s hand.

Trailing unbelievably at 31-17 as the fourth period started, Nebraska surged back. Smith capped a 76-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard run to make it 31-24. After Miami’s Jeff Davis missed a field goal, the Huskers took over at their 26 with 1:47 left and drove 74 yards in six plays with Smith scoring from the 24.

Now came the big decision, and according to Nebraska assistant coach Frank Solich, it was never in doubt.

“That two-point [conversion], which we had practiced very well, looked like it was in slow motion,” Solich recalled 18 years later. “I thought for an instant that Turner was going to be able to get it in there. But then I saw [Calhoun’s] hand come up …”

Gill — and probably all of his teammates — thought Osborne made the right decision.

“We had a goal going into the season to be 13-0, not necessarily 12-0-1,” the quarterback said. “We wanted to go for the win. … And even though it turned out wrong, I’m glad I had the opportunity.”

Before the decisive play, Schnellenberger conferred with defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti and learned the Hurricanes would line up in something called the Double-Dog Trio, meaning three defensive backs would cover the expected three receivers. Said Schnellenberger afterward: “If they had run to the weak side, we would have been in trouble.”

But the Huskers didn’t.

“We sneaked the I-back [Smith] into the flat,” Gill said. “We were sure it would work.”

And it well might have if not for Calhoun deciding to pick up Smith.

“Fryar had dropped a touchdown earlier, and I didn’t feel like they would go back to him, so I just let him release,” Calhoun said. “I read Turner Gill’s eyes, got in the passing lane, used my right hand and got a lot of the ball.”

Schnellenberger, exercising a coach’s prerogative to demand perfection, didn’t think Calhoun made a great play because “if that had been played right, we should have intercepted it. As it is, he barely got there to knock it away.”

Picky, picky, picky.

That game was the first and most significant collision between schools that now have won or shared 10 national championships. Miami added clear-cut titles under three subsequent coaches — Jimmy Johnson in 1987, Dennis Erickson in 1989 and 1991 and Larry Coker in 2001 — but the first under Howard Schnellenberger was the best.

A few months later, Schnellenberger shocked the football establishment by resigning to become president, general manager, coach and just about everything else of the USFL’s Washington Federals, who were supposed to move to Miami but never did. Later he coached at Oklahoma, Louisville and Florida Atlantic, but there would never be another season quite like 1983 — for him or anybody else.

“It we had come up second best against Nebraska, it wouldn’t have been the same,” Schnellenberger once insisted. “People would have said we gave them a great game, played gutsy and all that, then they would have forgotten about us.”

But the way it turned out, no way.

The headline on Sports Illustrated’s cover a few days later put it perfectly: “Miracle in Miami.”

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