New swaggerless Miami back on top

Listen to the big talk in college football.

You can hear it from the Nebraska Cornhuskers, surprise winners of the BCS championship game lottery, desperately trying to act like they belong in the Rose Bowl.

Coach Frank Solich, with a straight face, said his one-loss team got where they are with "no lucky bounces."

You can hear the talk from Oregon (10-1) and Colorado (10-2), who were left out of the title game because of computer rankings and certainly have reason to be upset. "It's hard to be gracious at this moment," said Colorado Coach Gary Barnett, shortly after his team was passed up for the championship in the Rose Bowl and wound up in the lesser Fiesta Bowl.

His opponent in that game, Mike Bellotti of Oregon, likened the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings, which determined the matchups, to a "bad disease."

But what about the Miami Hurricanes, No. 1-ranked and undefeated, the favorites to win in Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 3?

Not a peep.

These are the new 'Canes, the ones who do their talking on the field. They don't have the swagger of the Miami teams we're used to seeing. They don't wear camouflage; they don't do elaborate dances in the end zone. And they don't make weekly appearances in the local police blotter.

Could they actually be good guys?

"People say the swagger is back, but it's not," says Jim Martz, the team's unofficial historian. "These are not the same old Hurricanes. Their character has really changed."

While few outsiders have noticed, the Miami football team has completed a transformation that has taken it from the depths of athletic impropriety to respectability - at least by the modest standards of big-time college sports.

Miami's comeback over the past five years is perhaps more dramatic than that of any other major college football team that has been punished with serious NCAA sanctions. Most of the "seniors" on this year's team are expected to graduate - or already have and are taking graduate courses. Furthermore, in the most recent statistics provided by the NCAA, from the freshman class of '94-'95, Miami football has a respectable 57 percent graduation rate, compared with 50 percent at Nebraska during the same period.

On the field, the 'Canes aren't exactly mamma's boys - but they aren't thugs either. It's hardly the Miami football program people are used to. In the '80s, the 'Canes played with bravado and success under coaches Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson, winning national championships in '83 and '87 - and rubbing it in everyone's face. That tradition continued under Coach Dennis Erickson, who won it all in '89 and '91 and compiled a 63-9 record while at Coral Gables.

'Half a death penalty' from the NCAA

The 'Canes thrived on a black-and-blue image that was characterized by taunting opponents on the field and brushes with the law off the field. When Miami played Notre Dame in 1987, the game was billed "Catholics vs. Convicts."

In 1995, however, the NCAA caught up with the Miami football program, and slapped it with sanctions that Coach Butch Davis later called "half of the death penalty." The team was busted for recruiting violations, misappropriation of scholarship money, and drug violations.

Its punishment was the forfeiture of its 1995 bowl game and the loss of 31 football scholarships over a three-year period.

The slide began the following year, when Miami dropped out of national championship contention and ended up in the Carquest Bowl. By 1997, it hit rock bottom: a losing record and a humiliating 47-0 defeat by rival Florida State. But the Hurricanes, under Coach Davis and recruiting coordinator Pete Garcia, redoubled their efforts. They began to recruit players with strong characters, knowing that, with fewer numbers, they couldn't afford to waste scholarships on head cases.

Even though the team was in a slump, talent was still willing to go to Miami in the hope that Davis would turn things around. "What helped them was their reputation [for sending players to the NFL] and the great amount of talent in the state of Florida," Martz says. "They had some really good recruiting finds."

During those years Miami attracted strong players who didn't initially count against their recruiting numbers, including walk-on quarterback Kenny Kelly and Santana Moss, a wide receiver who went to the university on a track scholarship.

Coming full circle: back at No. 1

According to one source familiar with Miami's recruiting practices, about 40 percent of the athletes it accepted before the sanctions would not have met the new upgraded standards.

The circle neared completion last year, when the 'Canes completed a 10-1 season and made a run at the national championship. Miami had to settle for the consolation Sugar Bowl, as dictated by the BCS rankings. There it beat Florida, 37-20.

In some ways, Miami was in a similar position last year to that in which Colorado and Oregon find themselves this year: left out. Many thought they were good enough to play for the championship, but the BCS numbers did not add up for them.

"I have a certain amount of empathy [for Colorado and Oregon]," first-year Miami coach Larry Coker said recently. "But we lost a game last season, and that put us where we were. That was the system we were under."

This year, Miami controls its own fate. And, while it is markedly different from the Jimmy Johnson teams of the late '80s, it does have a few things in common with its legendary predecessors: It has an excellent balance between offense and defense, a strong quarterback (Ken Dorsey), confidence - and it wins games.

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