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Unbeaten, undisputed champion

Miami basks in glory after routing Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002


LOS ANGELES -- Larry Coker couldn't quite comprehend all the hardware that sat in front of him.

The first-year Miami coach was still glowing Friday morning after the Hurricanes won the national championship with a 37-14 victory over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. Now it was time for the recognition.

He received national championship trophies from the Associated Press, ESPN/USA Today, the Football Writers Association of America and the MacArthur Bowl. "I don't know what all these trophies are for, but apparently there's no split championship," Coker quipped.

Indeed, the Hurricanes took care of any controversy with a stunning and dominating victory over the Cornhuskers, finishing as the nation's only undefeated team and denying second-ranked Oregon (11-1) the opportunity to perhaps share the title.

Coker, of course, was in a jovial mood. He joked about how he should retire on top with a 12-0 record; and how after becoming the first rookie coach to go undefeated and winning a national title since Michigan's Bennie Oosterbaan in 1948, perhaps someone should look up the last time a second-year coach won back-to-back championships.

He even made fun of himself for two career moves, moving to Oklahoma in 1990 just as the Sooners were about to be placed on probation, and doing the same thing at Miami in 1995, when the Hurricanes were about to be placed on probation.

But to those affiliated with the program, it was no laughing matter. A proud program that stunned the college football world with national championships in 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991 was in the depths of depression just a few short years ago. Sports Illustrated suggested in a cover story that the school drop football.

The Hurricanes lost 31 scholarships over three seasons after being placed on probation following the 1995 season for, among other things, a Pell Grant scandal, a drug-test scandal, a pay-for-play scheme and other violations that occurred under then coach Dennis Erickson.

Butch Davis was brought in to clean up the mess and restore the Hurricanes to greatness. A season later, he brought in Coker, a career assistant, from Ohio State to be offensive coordinator.

"I felt like Miami would have a chance to come out of it because of the great players in South Florida," Coker said. "There's something about the Miami Hurricanes, there is national appeal. And the ability to recruit quarterbacks from all over the country.

"I can't say enough about Coach Davis' leadership at that time. It would have been very easy to make excuses for not doing well while we were on probation. We were short in numbers. But he never let us do that. And we were able to come through it a lot faster than maybe I thought."

During the dark days, however, it had to seem anything but quick. There was a 5-6 season in 1997, Miami's worst since 1979. Among the games that year was a 47-0 defeat to Florida State.

UM bounced back to finish 9-3 and win a bowl game in 1998, but its defense ranked 66th in the country, yielding 374 yards and 24.8 points a game. The 'Canes allowed 20 passing touchdowns, a school record, and were last in the Big East in passing defense.

Still reeling from the scholarship sanctions, there was hope in 1999, but UM lost three straight to Penn State, East Carolina and Florida State and finished 9-4.

To that point, Davis was 0-10 against FSU and Virginia Tech.

Even Coker had his low moments. After a loss at Washington last season, fans called for his dismissal as offensive coordinator.

Since then, Miami is 22-0. "I don't think it's really sunk in yet," UM receiver Andre Johnson said. "I woke up and said, "Wow, I just won the national championship.' I don't think it'll sink in until we get home."

The victory was especially sweet for the eight players who were part of the program in 1997. Among them: St. Petersburg's Markese Fitzgerald, who caused a fumble, and safety James Lewis, who returned an interception for a touchdown. They endured probation to win a championship.

Now the program has its sights set on more. UM's five national championships are three behind all-time leader Notre Dame. "We expect year in and year out to compete at a national level," Coker said. "We may have players going to the NFL, but our coaches have done a great job. We just expected to be solid now, year in and year out.

"We expect to win at Miami. I know some schools that would love to be in our situation."

RATINGS DROP: The one-sided Rose Bowl was not a hit with TV viewers, and ratings for the four-game Bowl Championship Series dropped 22.5 percent from last season to their lowest point. Miami's victory drew a 13.8 national rating for ABC Sports. Last year's BCS title game drew 17.8 (Oklahoma beat Florida State). Each rating point represents a little more than 1-million TV households.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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