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Seniors savor Miami's ups, recall downs

When the class of 2000 signed on, the football program was hurting. No more.

By JOE FRISARO

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 23, 2000


CORAL GABLES -- They lived through the turmoil, and now they hope to experience the triumph.

A win over Boston College on Saturday at the Orange Bowl would give the Miami Hurricanes (9-1) their first outright Big East championship since 1994. For the seniors, it would be a fitting regular-season finale after enduring years of frustrations.

"I'll wear this ring," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "I already have one (Big East) ring. But I don't wear it. It's in a drawer somewhere."

Lewis, one of 17 seniors in Miami's class of 2000, was a redshirt freshman in 1996 when Miami shared the conference title with Virginia Tech, which went to the Orange Bowl. His role was scout team player.

"I didn't really contribute," said Lewis, from Sulphur Springs, Texas. "This year I'll wear that ring with pride. We've worked hard. We've fought through so much."

Ideally, the seniors would like a shot at the national championship. But they know that scenario lies with the Bowl Championship Series computer and subjective rankings. It's out of the players' control.

"I'm not going to say it's not frustrating," Lewis said of the BCS. "It's all part of life. Not everything works out for you."

Dealing with adversity is nothing new for the seniors. They enrolled during one of the lowest points in the program's history. NCAA probation allowed UM to award a combined 24 scholarships to its 1996 and 1997 recruiting classes. In addition, the Hurricanes were limited to 80 scholarships each season from 1995-97. A full allotment is 85.

UM finished 5-6 in 1997, Miami's first losing season since 1979.

At the time, critics said Miami's program was dying. Talk radio shows fielded calls from people saying Central Florida, which had star quarterback Daunte Culpepper, was a more promising program.

"That was the lowest point," said senior receiver Santana Moss, then a freshman. "Just the losing, I wasn't used to it. I came out of high school (Miami Carol City), and we had just won a state championship."

Showing resolve, the players rebounded and went 9-3 in 1998 and 9-4 in 1999.

Coach Butch Davis credits the dedication of the class of 2000 for holding the program together.

"Saturday is the last game for a group of seniors that this university owes a great deal of gratitude to," Davis said. "These guys have been remarkable role models for this program."

Davis singled out several seniors: Lewis, Moss, linebacker Dan Morgan, safety Al Blades, running back James Jackson, receiver Reggie Wayne, cornerback Leonard Myers and defensive end Quincy Hipps from Tampa.

All the seniors are on pace to graduate either in May or the summer.

"When they decided to come here, it probably wasn't the most popular decision they made," Davis said. "It might not have been their best offer."

Lewis accepted a scholarship a week after orally committing to Michigan. Had the defensive tackle, a projected first-round draft pick, attended Michigan, he already would have been part of a national championship team. But Lewis had a change of heart because he grew up a die-hard Hurricanes fan.

As a defensive lineman, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of past UM greats Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland and Warren Sapp.

"They've been instrumental not only on the field, in helping us win ballgames," Davis said of the seniors. "But they've been instrumental in recruiting players."

Recruits regularly attend home games, often mingling with the players in the locker room.

"I tell them, "If you come here, you're going to have a chance to get to the NFL, because NFL scouts always come here to watch and critique our players,' " Lewis said.

Sophomore running back Clinton Portis credits the seniors for keeping the team focused after the loss at Washington to start this season.

"They never let anyone get down," Portis said. "They kept saying, "Let's take care of the Big East.' "

Unlike the Hurricanes of the Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson years, the current Hurricanes are winning without unsportsmanlike antics. Davis has cleaned up the negativity that created so many headlines and caused school administrators so many headaches.

"You don't want to be a dirty player," senior receiver Andre King said. "I hated when Miami played Notre Dame and they were saying, "The Catholics vs. The Convicts.' You don't want to have that type of image. They're always going to remember you as being a convict when you're just a regular player."

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