Greg Cote

Miami Hurricanes keep chasing the past. We visit the player who started those glory days | Opinion

Former Miami Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger, celebrating the team’s 1983 national championship in one of the most iconic photographs in South Florida sports history.
Former Miami Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger, celebrating the team’s 1983 national championship in one of the most iconic photographs in South Florida sports history. Miami Herald file photo

He was on the phone from his car Friday, reached while on the job as the Orlando-area customer relations director for Lennar Corporation, the Miami-based home builder.

He has another title, by the way. He’ll have it for life.

He is the man who changed Miami Hurricanes football history.

It could have been someone else, sure. Anybody else, really. But it wasn’t.

It was Kenny Calhoun who started all this, by ending the game that crowned UM’s first national football championship and flung open the door to a dynasty.

It was Calhoun who dove in the end zone of the old Orange Bowl Stadium that night and with the two middle fingers of his right hand deflected the win-or-lose two-point conversion pass.

Canes 31, Nebraska 30, Jan. 2, 1984.

Calhoun owns, in perpetuity, what most of us never have: A claim to fame.

“An awesome, awesome feeling,” he said of what he did 36 years earlier. You could hear him smiling.

Everything Hurricanes football is trying to be again appeared in a list this week.

Everything first-year head coach Manny Diaz is trying to recreate was there in that list to remind him just how high he must climb, how far he must go.

The 5-4 Canes host 5-3 Louisville on Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium, and except to the teams and their fans, there is nothing special about the occasion.

There have been bigger games around here. The ones with maximum stakes. The ones you remember decades later, because they made history.

That is the bar set for Diaz and current players trying to live up to the past.

If you ever doubted Miami’s place in the pantheon of this sport (because it’s been awhile), you got a reminder this week as ESPN rolled out its 150 Greatest Games in College Football History, as part of a season-long celebration of the sport’s 150th year.

Astoundingly, four of the top six games involve the Hurricanes, who place 11 games in all on the list. All 11 are in the top 84, meaning 13.1 percent of the greatest games ever have involved the Canes.

The Mount Rushmore of UM games should not surprise:

(*) No. 2 overall: The No. 5-ranked Canes defeat heavily favored No. 1 Nebraska on Calhoun’s last-minute play tio win the 1983-season championship.

(*) No. 4: No. 10 Boston College beat No. 12 host Miami 47-45 on November 23, 1984 in the famous “Hail Flutie” game.

(*) No. 5: No. 2 Penn State defeats favored No. 1 UM 14-10 in the Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 1987 to (temporarily) deny Miami its second championship.

(*) And No. 6: No. 4 Notre Dame beats visiting No. 1 UM 31-30 on October 15, 1988 in the infamous “Catholics vs. Convicts” game.

I happened to cover all four games. Snapshot memories:

UM’s stunning first championship crowns the ‘83 season, and Beverlee Schnellenberger, the coach’s wife, dressed suitably for the queen to the new king of college football, is wearing a floor-length mink coat as Howard speaks to the media after the game.

Doug Flutie’s miracle heave mints the little quarterback’s unlikely legend, ending Jimmy Johnson’s first UM season with consecutive heartbreak losses of 42-40, 47-45 and 39-37.

The Fiesta Bowl loss to end the ‘86 season was absolutely crushing. Those Canes were the best team I have ever seen, full of future NFL stars. Johnson was as inconsolable after that game as any coach I have ever known.

The loss in South Bend in ‘88 was full of on-field violence and ugliness from the stands, as police lined the rear of UM’s bench to deter fans from pelting the Canes with debris.

Visit Top 150 to find the entire list including the seven other lower-ranked Canes games that made it.

Notably, alas, the most recent Miami presence on that list occurred in a title game loss on Jan 3, 2003, which I suppose would be as good a date as any for when the glory days died.

That strong perfume of pedigree, of used-to-be, is what allows this program to still enjoy far more stature than it has lately earned. The most recent of five UM national championships came in 2001 -- around when several of the younger current Canes were born -- and yet every hint of latter-day progress is hungrily devoured as a desperately hopeful indication The U is (finally) back.

Meantime, the memories never go away. They are frozen in time, readily available as sustenance. As a carrot stick.

Before UM, Schnellenberger helped Bear Bryant win four championships at Alabama and helped Don Shula win two Super Bowls with the Dolphins, but Schnellenberger calls that ‘83 Canes championshuip “the most important thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Calhoun, who ultimately made it happen from a defensive formation they called 55 Double Dog Trio, says he never plays ‘what if.’

“I don’t think what if I didn’t do it,” he said. “I think about [how] I got it done through the grace of God. We were Cinderella. This wasn’t suppose to happen.”

Calhoun’s play that finished the “Miracle In Miami” was voted No. 5 in ESPN’s ranking of college football’s greatest individual plays.

Just one problem there, though.

“They called me Kevin!” he said, not finding it funny.

Somebody at ESPN might not know who you are, Kenny. But Canes fans, do. College football history does.

Greg Cote is a Miami Herald sports columnist who in 2018 was named top 10 in column writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Greg also appears regularly on the Dan LeBatard Show With Stugotz on ESPN Radio and ESPNews.