Backup offensive lineman Brad Kunz was already wearing his national championship T-shirt and hat as the final minutes melted off the clock during Miami's 37-14 Rose Bowl win over Nebraska.
The redshirt freshman was celebrating with teammates. The victory capped a perfect 2001-02 season.
Kunz, who grew up in Illinois dreaming of someday playing in the Rose Bowl, got his chance when starting tackle Joaquin Gonzalez told him to put on his helmet.
"You're going in for me," Gonzalez said. "I'm going to carry coach Coker off the field."
As Kunz realized his Rose Bowl dream, Gonzalez and a few other teammates scooped head coach Larry Coker up onto their shoulders. Coker had just become the first rookie coach to win an NCAA title, and it was the players' way of saying thank you for leading them on the championship ride.
For the Hurricanes, it was the pinnacle of a journey in which they climbed out of the depths of probation and reasserted themselves as a national power, winning the school's fifth national crown.
From that high point, the program began a slow descent, beginning with a national championship game loss to Ohio State the next season, Coker's firing after a 7-5 season in 2006, and his predecessor, Randy Shannon's firing after a 7-5 campaign last year.
The Hurricanes took an even more severe hit recently when former booster Nevin Shapiro alleged that he gave dozens of players illegal benefits starting in 2002, shortly after the Rose Bowl victory. Now, the future is uncertain. The Miami football program might be entering the darkest period in its history.
Occasionally throughout this season, with more news about the Nevin Shapiro scandal sure to surface, we're going to give fans a break from the mud and the muck and the cheating with a series of stories about a happier time – the 2001 national championship season.
A Miami Hurricanes team some claim is the greatest in college football history.
Art Kehoe has seen them all.
The high-energy offensive line coach was an assistant at the University of Miami for all five national championship teams over the past three decades. So when Kehoe throws his weight behind the 2001 edition as the best of all Hurricanes collections, the endorsement carries great significance.
In fact, Kehoe takes it a step further, insisting that team belongs in the discussion of greatest college football teams ever.
Right there with Nebraska's juggernauts from 1971 and 1995 and USC's 1972 behemoth.
Right there with the Bear's best teams at Alabama and anything Oklahoma was able to conjure under Bud Wilkinson in the '50s or Barry Switzer in the '70s and '80s.
Right there with the great post-war teams from Army, Notre Dame and Michigan in the 1940s.
"There's no doubt in my mind," Kehoe says. "I would like to play anybody, any time, anywhere with that team. Just a terrific football team."
While Kehoe is admittedly biased toward his beloved "U," his argument that the '01 squad is one of the greatest in NCAA history gets plenty of support.
Noting that Miami outscored opponents 512-117 during its title run, Yahoo! Sports mentioned just three teams in last year's listing of the best college football seasons ever – '95 Nebraska, '01 Miami and '72 USC, in that order.
Veteran college football analyst Beano Cook, in an online ranking for ESPN four years ago, placed the 2001 Hurricanes fifth. ESPN.com, in a separate list, also put the '01 'Canes fifth, with '95 Nebraska being the only other team after 1974 that made the list.
During a Monday Night Football telecast last season, former NFL coach Jon Gruden heaped praise on that team, recalling that it ultimately produced 17 first-round NFL draft picks. He called that 2001 team the best ever.
"My take is clear," CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman says. "I think that 2001 [Miami] team is probably in the top five, and I would wage a strong argument that they're No. 1.
"Based on what I know and what I've seen, that 2001 team is probably the best team that's ever donned uniforms at the collegiate level."
Tillman was a running back on the 1985 Oklahoma team that won Switzer's final national title in the Orange Bowl. He rattles off the names of former teammates like Keith Jackson, Brian Bosworth, Rick Bryan and Marcus Dupree.
But when Tillman scans that Miami roster, even he is left gasping.
"There's something about the collection of talent on that Miami team that was absolutely astounding," Tillman says.
Six members of the 2001 team were named first-team All-Americans.
Quarterback Ken Dorsey finished third in the Heisman Trophy race. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie finished eighth and won the Outland Trophy for the nation's top lineman.
Future NFL stars like Frank Gore, Antrel Rolle, Kellen Winslow, Willis McGahee and the late Sean Taylor were backups in 2001.
Seventeen members of the 2001 Hurricanes were eventually drafted in the NFL's first round, including five in 2002. Overall, 39 members of that roster were selected in the NFL draft, and they probably would have had one more if linebacker Chris Campbell hadn't been killed in a car accident after his senior season. That's almost enough players to comprise an entire, 44-man NFL roster.
"It's ridiculous," Tillman says. "They kept marching them out there."
The depth of talent was so great, many have compared it to the stockpiling Bear Bryant did at Alabama in the '70s before the 85-scholarship limit was put in place.
ESPN's John Congemi, a former University of Pittsburgh quarterback who played against some of Joe Paterno's great Penn State teams in the '80s, served as the TV analyst for a number of Miami's Big East games in that era. He saw up close the raw athletic ability Butch Davis was able to recruit to Coral Gables and that former offensive coordinator Larry Coker was able to stoke to national-championship heights in the first year after Davis bolted for the NFL.
Congemi recalls going out to UM practice and hearing wide-eyed assistant coaches rave about one little-used reserve or another.
"The coaches would say, 'Wait 'til you see Frank Gore,' " Congemi recalls. "And I would say to myself, what do you need Frank Gore for when you've got Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee?"
"They were so dominant in what they did. So athletic, so physical. A quick-strike team with so many ways to hurt you. Just an imposing team. There are so many guys populating NFL rosters, still to this day, off that team."
Even so, the '01 'Canes nearly stumbled a couple of times on their championship path.
There was an early November tussle at unranked Boston College, where it took a final-minute interception return for a touchdown to secure an 18-7 win.
Three weeks later, Virginia Tech came within a late two-point conversion of forcing overtime in a 26-24 Miami win at Blacksburg.
Some historians also might point to the fact that none of Miami's 2001 regular-season opponents were ranked higher than 12th at the time they played the Hurricanes. Or that every other Big East team had at least three losses that year, including lightweights West Virginia, Temple and Rutgers, who went a combined 3-18 against league competition.
Even the 37-14 blowout of fourth-ranked Nebraska in the Rose Bowl comes with its share of warts. Those Cornhuskers were suspect at best, backing into that opportunity after getting embarrassed 62-36 at Colorado and failing to reach the Big 12 Conference title game.
There's also the question of how much NFL excellence should count in our assessment of that Miami team. Shouldn't Ed Reed's Pro Bowl appearances or Andre Johnson's 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the NFL be kept separate from what they actually achieved as collegians?
Tillman says he's had this same discussion many times with former CBS colleague Craig James. He says James, the former Southern Methodist running back, stands with him in putting the '01 Hurricanes up there with any team that's ever played the game.
"Hey, they'd have beaten anybody that year, wouldn't have mattered what conference they were in," Congemi says. "Throw 'em in the SEC, they would have slapped them around, too. That 2001 Miami team, they could have played Florida at noon and gone over to beat Florida State at 4:30. They were just that good."
Kehoe says the thing that solidifies the 2001 Miami team as college football's best ever is an intangible. During their near wire-to-wire run as the No. 1 team in the country, they went about business with a quiet swagger, in contrast to some of Miami's more boastful prior champions.
"They had leadership and toughness and work ethic," Kehoe says. "Good offense, good defense, the whole nine yards. We were in a couple tough battles and we pulled it out. Across the board, even on the second teams, we had backups that were terrific and guys were fighting to keep their jobs."
Even those disappointing performances against Boston College and Virginia Tech were sandwiched around consecutive home blowouts of ranked teams from Syracuse and Washington by a combined 124-7. That back-to-back handiwork set an NCAA record for margin of victory against consecutive ranked teams.
"There was a supreme confidence about them," Congemi says, "from the way they warmed up to the way they carried themselves. It was a different confidence than other teams had."
And don't forget, the 2000 and 2002 teams were each just a play or two away from being 12-0, as well. If Miami had gone 36-0 during that three-year stretch we'd undoubtedly coronate them as the greatest team ever.
The truth is, as with all such discussions, it's impossible to say who would win between 2001 Miami and other great teams. Even players from the 2001 squad, who say they believe they were the best ever, admit it's tough to prove.
"It's hard to do that," said Jarrett Payton, son of former NFL running back great Walter Payton. Jarrett Payton said trying to compare college football teams of different generations was like trying to compare his father, who played in the 1980s, to Jim Brown from the 1960s. "How do you go back and take, say like, an old Nebraska team and compare it against us. It's two different eras."
Down in Coral Gables, there's at least one man who wouldn't mind hopping in a time machine to find out what might happen.
"It's hard to say until they play," Kehoe says. "But that  team did it on the field and dominated. That team was scary. They were so confident and so together.
"It was beautiful to watch."
Staff writers Stephanie Kuzydym and Todd M. Adams contributed to this email@example.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times