To fully fathom the weight of the Miami Hurricanes making it back to the Orange Bowl game for the first time in 14 years, one must cast back decades earlier. That is when the swagger was born. When the seed that became the Turnover Chain was planted. When everything Canes football fans long for again was first realized.
Because one pass was tipped, so was the domino that led to the dynasty.
It was the night South Florida sports history was made. It was 34 years ago. The stadium no longer exists, but the moment, the memory — the significance of it — always will.
The mighty No. 1-ranked and heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers trailed the fifth-ranked Cinderella Miami Hurricanes 31-30 in the final minute but were lined up to try a winning two-point play. One snap, a handful of seconds, would determine if the hometown Orange Bowl Stadium would erupt to celebrate UM’s first national championship.
Coach Howard Schnellenberger already was planning for what was next, in case it wasn’t the bedlam of cheering.
“If they make it we have 30 seconds and Bernie Kosar to get the lead back,” Schnellenberger recalled this week.
UM had called timeout, and as the defensive huddle broke, a strong safety named Kenny Calhoun still was carrying the burden of partly blaming himself for the touchdown that had drawn Nebraska within one.
“I said a prayer before the play,” Calhoun, now 54, told us this week. “’Lord help me. Put me in a position …’”
The defensive play was called “55 Double Dog Trio.” It would leave Calhoun to cover the secondary receiver, Jeff Smith, if the ball did not go to star Irving Fryar.
The quarterback rolled right. Smith — and Calhoun — would be the target.
“I saw the flight of the ball heading my way and I just sprinted into position and dove and batted the ball away with my right hand and a couple of fingers.”
Biggest single play ever in Miami sports? I might go all in with it.
Calhoun rose from the ground as teammates and noise engulfed him.
The Miami Hurricanes followed the 1983-season title with national crowns in 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001.
“The crowd was electric. They were powerful,” he says. “It was amazing to me. Overwhelming. It was everything you ever wanted.”
And what was Calhoun feeling at that very moment? He chuckles.
“Relief,” he says. Except it comes out: “Ree-LIEF!“
A couple of generations ago TV’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In had a recurring skit called “The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate.”
That was that play, and Calhoun’s role in it, and the impact of it on what Canes football would become, on that night of Jan. 2, 1984.
The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate.
What if Schnellenberger’s defensive chief Tom Olivadotti had called the wrong play? What if Calhoun had been a half a beat late and felt the air of the ball as it flew just beyond his reach and into the arms of that Nebraska receiver?
Instead: “We were destined,” as Calhoun put it. “The city was destined.”
That national championship likely saved football from a UM administration that had considered doing away with it. The U would follow that 1983-season title with national crowns in 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001. Like the first one, the ’87 and ’91 championships also were won in the backyard Orange Bowl.
I think we were all sort of raised on the Orange Bowl game.
Manny Diaz, UM’s Miami-born defensive coordinator
So there is symbolic weight at play here as No. 10-ranked Miami (10-2) prepares to face No. 6 Wisconsin (12-1) on Saturday night at 8 in the 84th Orange Bowl game.
The history of this bowl allows it to stand tall even when the OB is not hosting a College Football Playoff game every third year. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president when this game was founded, as a tourism tool coming out of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy attended an Orange Bowl. Bear Bryant won one. Joe Namath was an MVP here.
“I think we were all sort of raised on the Orange Bowl game,” says UM’s Miami-born defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, son of the former Miami mayor.
They razed the dilapidated namesake stadium to rubble in 2008 and the home is Hard Rock Stadium now, but, no matter. It’s still the Orange Bowl game, where the ascension to national power began for the Canes, and the return to this hometown bowl for the first time since the 2003 season is yet another indication the Canes are well-aimed on the road to “back” under second-year coach Mark Richt.
This season marks UM’s first with 10-plus wins since ’03 and a win over the Badgers (Miami is a 6 1/2-point underdog) also would make it the first time in 14 years the Canes ended a season ranked in the top 10. Miami’s 2018 recruiting class also is top 10-ranked. What would capping it with an Orange Bowl win mean?
“Hope for next year,” said Canes linebacker Zach McCloud. “We’ve seen a bigger stage now, and we know where we can aim and where we can go.”
The decisive Atlantic Coast Conference championship-game loss to Clemson reminded Miami how far it has to go but did not erase the progress made.
“There’s just another level we have to get to,” says linebacker Shaq Quarterman.
A postscript as Miami prepares to play in its 10th Orange Bowl game, 34 years after the one that made UM football matter nationally:
Richt, with very little fanfare, along with his wife Katharyn founded an annual networking collaborative that aligns businesses and potential careers with former Canes players looking for an opportunity. One of the first ex-players to take advantage happened to be a grateful Kenny Calhoun, who because of Richt’s initiative is now the Orlando-area customer relations manager for Miami-based Lennar Corporation, a major home builder.
Calhoun, whose fingertip deflection pointed the way toward a dynasty, plans a small watch party at his house in Winter Park Saturday night. He’ll be wearing a Turnover Chain T-shirt.
Howard Schnellenberger, his name so associated in Miami with ’83, is himself now 83, and an ambassador at FAU, whose football program he founded from scratch. He and his wife, Beverlee, will have been married 59 years this coming spring. Thirty-four years ago, she wore a floor-length mink coat in the team’s victory parade.
Schnellenberger, who should be in the College Football Hall of Fame, has in his football life learned from coaches including Paul “Bear” Bryant, Don Shula, George Allen and Blanton Collier. “It was like going to work when Rembrandt was painting,” he says of his mentors. He helped Bryant win four national titles at Alabama, and was with Shula for both Dolphins Super Bowl triumphs including the Perfect Season.
So ask him about that subsequent 1983 national championship that changed UM football and about its place in his long career. He doesn’t hesitate long.
“The most important thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” he says.