Darryl Williams remembers the insomnia.
“Couldn’t sleep all week,” he said. “We felt jittery, twitchy.”
Kevin Patrick remembers the intensity.
“We’d say each game was important, but we treated that one very differently,” he said. “It was mano a mano; for all the marbles.”
Gino Torretta remembers the buildup.
“My freshman year, they had a rap video starring Deion Sanders, and Jimmy Johnson brought Hector “Macho” Camacho in to inspire our team,” he said. “I ran out through the smoke in the Orange Bowl and the place was rumbling and I thought, ‘Holy Cow! This is what college football is all about!’”
Leon Searcy remembers the stakes.
“With us being the egotistical, arrogant Miami players that we were, we’d check off all the teams on the schedule — ‘OK, we’ll beat them’ — but we’d always circle the game in Tallahassee,” Searcy said. “We looked at Florida State as our mirror image. We felt we made them into a power because of the butt-whippings we gave them. But we respected them.
“In 1991, it couldn’t have been any bigger. They were No. 1, we were No. 2 and the winner would springboard into the national championship game while the loser would watch.”
Twenty-five years later, the University of Miami and Florida State football teams are not at the peak of the sport, but their annual rivalry still brings out the best in the players and fervor in the fans. The nation still expects a wild nail-biter and ABC concurs, televising the Hard Rock Stadium tilt with an 8 p.m. primetime slot — unless the after-affects of Hurricane Matthew are worse than expected.
A 25th reunion celebration for UM’s 1991 national championship team will coincide with the 61st edition of a series rich in history that parallels the trials and triumphs of both programs.
“We’re supposed to run through the smoke and onto the field at halftime but I’m not doing any running on these bad knees — maybe a fast stroll instead,” said Searcy, 46, the offensive lineman who played 11 years in the NFL.
The presence of Searcy, Torretta, Williams (Patrick will be busy coaching Texas Tech’s defensive line vs. Kansas State) and a couple dozen of their teammates from the glory years will give the 2016 Hurricanes a snapshot of the legacy they are trying to revive.
The current players should take it upon themselves, if they haven’t already, to learn from their predecessors. Don’t take the wisdom of one’s elders for granted. What made UM great? What gave UM such distinctive personality? They know. They remember.
Quarterback Torretta, the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner, lost only two games as a starter. Searcy played on three national championship teams and was drafted No. 11. Williams was an All-American at safety, a Pro Bowler for the Seattle Seahawks and now coaches defensive backs at St. Thomas Aquinas High.
The undefeated 1991 team, coached by Dennis Erickson, beat FSU 17-16 in the Wide Right I game, crushed Nebraska 22-0 in the Jan. 1 Orange Bowl and split the title with Washington, which won the coaches’ poll.
No. 10-ranked UM (4-0, 1-0) enters the game with a defense highly rated in aggression stats such as tackles for loss and sacks. Against Georgia Tech, the defense scored off two forced fumbles. Quarterback Brad Kaaya could unveil some twists in the offense.
Florida State (3-2, 0-2) fell to No. 23 after losing to North Carolina a few weeks after being embarrassed 63-20 by Louisville. The Seminoles rely on dangerous Dalvin Cook, but their defense has allowed 35.4 points per game. They’ve beaten UM six times in a row.
Which team is for real?
The 1991 champs saw their decade of dominance replaced recently by a decade of disappointment. They see promising signs under new coach Mark Richt, but agree that the FSU test and three that follow will be revealing. They’re not ready to draw comparisons to their era.
“Fans like to say the U is back but it’s too early for that,” Searcy said. “I like the defense because UM was built on the premise of a dominating defense and ‘meet me at the quarterback.’ Let’s see how they do against the FSU and North Carolina lines.”
Searcy said he’s no longer as puzzled as he was during Al Golden’s tenure.
“The team was under-coached,” he said. “We were getting amazing athletes, but under-performing, not winning any ACC titles.”
Said Williams: “I didn’t think the old defensive scheme fit the undersized kids they had. Now they’re getting a lot of guys around the ball and making plays instead of waiting.”
Patrick said UM’s turnaround is “all hype and nothing to brag about until we win the big games.”
“My biggest issue was the lethargic play. The pride and nastiness was missing,” he said. “At least we’re getting the energy back.”
Torretta said the 1991 linebacking trio of Jessie Armstead, Darrin Smith and Micheal Barrow should give this team’s three freshmen something to aspire to. He’s pleased to see Kaaya adapting to “a new language in Richt’s quarterback-friendly game plans.”
“I learned so much about how to play big games in the games against FSU,” Torretta said. “The winner had the inside track to the national championship.”
That may not be true in 2016, but Torretta sees one good omen — the return to UM’s old uniforms.