Disputed Call May Have Cost Miami Its Ranking as No. 1

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Times Staff Writer

A storm of controversy has kicked up around the University of Miami football team, whose reigning national champions may have lost their No. 1 ranking because of a call that one official reportedly admitted was wrong after Saturday’s 31-30 defeat at Notre Dame.

The loss not only ended Miami’s 36-game regular-season winning streak and knocked the Hurricanes out of the No. 1 spot in the college football polls after 6 weeks, but it also might never have happened, were it not for a confusing chain of events in the fourth quarter that gave Notre Dame the ball.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 19, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 19, 1988 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 3 Column 2 Sports Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Miami has won two national football championships, under Coach Howard Schnellenberger in 1983 and under Jimmy Johnson last season. That figure was incorrectly reported in Tuesday’s editions, as was the score of Miami’s victory last season over Notre Dame, which was 24-0.

Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson refused to blame the officials, even though he said they had made an error, and one unidentified official was quoted as saying the call had been blown.


“We all make mistakes,” Johnson said. “We all have to live with them.”

The controversial ruling occurred with 7 minutes left in the game. Notre Dame led, 31-24, but Miami had the ball on 4th and 7 at the Irish 11-yard line.

Miami quarterback Steve Walsh pumped twice and threw a pass to running back Cleveland Gary, who caught the ball just inside the 5. He was quickly hit, and he fell at the 1-yard line, where he lost control of the ball as he ended up at the goal line.

Notre Dame’s Michael Stonebreaker recovered the ball at the 3 and the Irish took over, but not before a great deal of confusion among the officials, apparently about what call should be made.

Walsh and Johnson both said officials told them that Notre Dame was getting the ball on downs, even though Gary needed only to reach the 4 for a first down and had done that.

Johnson said it was difficult to find out what the officials were deciding on the field.

“I was trying to get their attention to tell them, but there was so much confusion,” Johnson said. “I just wish they would have discussed it.

“It obviously wasn’t a fumble,” he said. “The end zone replay was very clear. Cleveland Gary caught the ball and was hit falling into the end zone. The only question was whether his knee went down at the 1 before the ball got across the plane of the goal line. The ball came out after it hit the ground.


“That’s the first time I’ve ever been involved with a call that was ever so critical, so important. Instead of (Miami) receiving a touchdown, the other team got the ball.”

An unnamed official who worked the game admitted that the call had been wrong, according to a report in the Miami News. The newspaper said the official is from the Collegiate Independent Football Officials Assn. and asked not to be identified because the officials group does not permit them to make comments on their calls.

“There was confusion as to whether there was a fumble or not, but there was also a great question about giving Notre Dame the football over on downs,” the News quoted the official as saying. “That’s why they got the football. There was no fumble. The ruling was the ball went over on downs. We were wrong in doing it, but the truth is we just had a very bad day.”

The official play-by-play sheet, however, said the ball went over to Notre Dame on a fumble recovery by Stonebreaker. No mention was made of Notre Dame getting the ball on downs, and officials interviewed by pool reporters after the game said no such thing happened, regardless of what Johnson and Walsh say they were told.

Johnson maintained he had been told that the ball had mistakenly gone over on downs. “The officials failed to recognize it wasn’t a first and goal to go situation,” he said.

Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz, who lost, 24-3, to Miami last year, had no trouble believing his good fortune. He would not quibble with the officials’ ruling, whatever it was.


“We’ve had a lot of calls go against us,” Holtz said. “It was a fumble.”

Johnson’s teams at Miami are three-time national champions--in 1983, ’84 and ‘87--and his team had successfully defended its No. 1 ranking since earning it by defeating Florida State in the opening game of the season.

If Miami had kept the football and scored after Gary’s catch, the Hurricanes probably would still be No. 1, but Johnson refused to blame the decision by the officials for the defeat.

“We just didn’t play very well,” he said. “Our poor play cost us the ballgame. I told the team that we should never have gotten to the point where we needed that call to win. I’ve calmed down about it now.

“Obviously I was upset at the time, but there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s just part of this business.”