Sometimes Steve Walsh finds himself standing in front of the team photo hanging in his Kenner, La., home. It is the 1986 University of Miami football team and, frankly, it is amazing.
“I look at that picture, and I think about what kind of team we were,” says Walsh, now a quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. “There were a variety of races, from a lot of different places. I was from St. Paul (Minn.) and there were six, seven kids from the Chicago area, another six, seven from New England, a few from California and a whole bunch from Florida.
“I look at that picture and wonder: What if? What if we beat Tennessee in the ’86 Sugar Bowl? What if we beat Penn State in the ’87 Fiesta Bowl? We could have been the greatest team in college history.”
As it is, that Miami team will have to settle for being the greatest college team in professional history. Thirty-four of the 91 players on the 1987 Fiesta Bowl roster eventually were drafted by NFL teams. Twenty-eight players played in the NFL.
Yes, Miami would have won back-to-back national titles if it hadn’t lost to Tennessee, 35-7, in 1986 and to Penn State, 14-10, in 1987. Still, the Hurricanes have managed to win four titles: 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991. A victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl New Year’s Day will give the Miami program five in 10 years, a staggering achievement.
And yet, another success is likely to be met by . . . by what?
“Apathy,” says Dallas Cowboy wide receiver Michael Irvin, who was a junior on the 1986 team. “If you put all those same accolades on a Notre Dame or a Penn State, man, that’s all you’d see and hear.
“But people look at Miami, and because of what they think we stand for, they get tired of seeing us win. We just don’t get the respect we should.”
Even when Miami won the national championship in 1983, the Hurricanes didn’t exactly inspire hatred. The line of demarcation was Nov. 30, 1985. That was when Miami gave Irish Coach Gerry Faust a brutal send-off in his final game at Notre Dame. The Hurricanes beat the Irish, 58-7, at the Orange Bowl and many, including announcer Ara Parseghian--the celebrated Notre Dame coach--said Coach Jimmy Johnson was running up the score.
No one bothered to note that the reserves played the bulk of the fourth quarter. Or that a late blocked punt came with only 10 Hurricanes on the field.
And then there was a series of off-field incidents, brushes with the law that generated enormous publicity. When a dozen or so Hurricanes got off the plane at the ’87 Fiesta Bowl wearing combat fatigues, the evil image was crystalized.
“It was good vs. evil, and we were evil,” says Rich Dalrymple, a member of Miami’s sports information department from 1984-89 and now the Cowboys’ director of public relations. “Maybe that scared people a little. I think the fatigues emphasized our players’ brash enthusiasm, that they weren’t afraid to express themselves.”
And though the image left middle America a little queasy, it was a boon to recruiting. Johnson, building on the base of Lou Saban and Howard Schnellenberger, told high school stars they could be themselves--and win a national title. And they did. Every Miami player who stayed in the program four years since 1980 has a championship ring.
Johnson’s offensive and defensive schemes demanded speed. It was the secret to his 1980s teams at Oklahoma State and remains the key factor in his present success with the Dallas Cowboys.
“Speed is the single most important ingredient for a football team,” Johnson says. “A lot of my kids come from inner-city backgrounds. I think that’s one of the reasons Miami doesn’t get a lot of respect, because your average football fan might not relate to that.
“One thing Miami does stand for, though, is excellence. They believe they are the best. And that’s come from a lot of winning over the years.”
Johnson, for example, was 44-4 his final four years there (1985-88), before leaving for the Cowboys. Dennis Erickson has gone Johnson one better, a 44-3 record in four seasons at Miami. More importantly, he has won all three of his bowl games, which is one of the reasons he recently signed a new seven-year contract.
There will be future Miami teams oozing with talent, but none are likely to approach the 1986 version for sheer ability and depth.
Here’s a look at five of those gifted players:
For 11 games in 1986, Testaverde was superb. The 6-foot-5, 214-pound quarterback from Elmont, N.Y., completed 175 of 276 passes for 2,557 yards and 26 touchdowns. Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar or Walsh were never better than Testaverde in a Miami uniform.
Testaverde won the 1986 Heisman Trophy by the second-widest margin ever (2,213 points to 672 for Paul Palmer of Temple). Later, he was the first pick of the 1987 NFL draft. In between there was one small problem: Penn State.
In retrospect, the Fiesta Bowl, played Jan. 2, 1987, foreshadowed Testaverde’s professional career. Coach Joe Paterno’s defense left him dazed and confused. Testaverde had thrown nine interceptions in 11 previous games, but with the national championship on the line, second-ranked Penn State intercepted him five times.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Testaverde to a six-year, $8.2 million contract, but that proved to be the highlight of his six years in the NFL. At Miami, Testaverde was surrounded by great talent; his best three receivers all became high draft picks. But he couldn’t do it alone at Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers’ average record in those six seasons has been about 5-11. Testaverde’s career statistics are fairly grim: 1,102 completions, 2,119 attempts (52%), 14,592 yards, 76 touchdowns and 111 interceptions. Only Vince Evans, 37, of the Raiders has a lower NFL career quarterback rating than Testaverde, 29.
Still, in the 12 games Testaverde has missed since the start of the 1988 season, the Bucs are 0-12.
Perhaps that is why Testaverde, who is discussing another long-term contract with the Bucs, is optimistic about the future. While people wonder if Tampa Bay head coach Sam Wyche will trade for his Bengals quarterback, Boomer Esiason, Testaverde talks tough.
“If I’m here, whoever comes in is going to have their work cut out for them to get the starting job,” Testaverde says. “I don’t think I’ll lose my starting job.”
It was Brown’s idea to wear combat fatigues at the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. It was the fun-loving kind of guy he was off the field. On it, he was a terrifying 6-2, 285-pound defensive tackle. In 1986, he was a first-team All-America and a finalist for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.
In four years at Miami, Brown made 183 tackles, including 21 sacks and 19 for losses. The Philadelphia Eagles made him the ninth overall pick in the 1987 draft. In 1991, he was one of the premier defensive players in the NFL, getting nine sacks and starting in the Pro Bowl. In 1992, he was gone.
It was a gray afternoon June 25, when Brown wheeled his forest green ’91 Corvette down Hale Avenue in Brooksville, Fla. He had just discussed with a friend the details for a fish fry he wanted to throw in his hometown. Brown hit the accelerator, hard. The road was damp from a morning rain and the car spun out of control. It hit a palm tree, flipped, then hit another palm tree. Brown, 27, and his 12-year-old nephew Augusta died instantly.
Five hours later, Eagles teammate Reggie White told a crowd of 45,000 at a Billy Graham gathering, “I came here tonight to give my personal testimony. But I’m going to have to alter that. My best friend, Jerome Brown, died tonight.”
Tears rolled down his cheek. “He was a great person,” said White after he composed himself. “The man was one of the greatest people I ever met in my life.”
The Eagles, who wore patches with “J.B. 99" this season, still are taking the loss hard. Locker No.99 at Veterans Stadium is a shrine: nine pairs of athletic shoes are lined up on the floor, 10 T-shirts are on hangers, his massive jersey fills the stall.
“Sometimes it hurts when I walk by,” says linebacker Seth Joyner, who was Brown’s closest friend. “Sometimes I think he’s still there.”
Make no mistake, Brown is still a factor in the NFL. The Eagles (10-5) play each game for him. In Seattle, Cortez Kennedy, who followed Brown at Miami, changed his number from 96 to 99.
“It’s absolutely scary,” says Russell Maryland of the Dallas Cowboys, another dominant defensive tackle from Miami who was close to Brown. “There are times when Cortez does these little things that only Jerome did. Somehow, Jerome is in his body.”
In 1987, Walsh did what Testaverde couldn’t do. He won a national championship as starting quarterback. Miami was 12-0 that year and Walsh completed 176 of 298 passes for 2,249 yards and 19 touchdowns. He threw two touchdown passes and one interception in a 20-14 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma. He was a sophomore, just turned 21.
The next year, Walsh threw 29 touchdown passes, the most in Miami history, as Miami went 11-1. His arm wasn’t particularly strong, but his mind was sharp. Walsh was a first-team All-American and fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Though Walsh had one year of eligibility left, he graduated in the spring of 1989 and made himself available in the NFL’s supplemental draft. In three years he had thrown 49 touchdown passes, tying the school record Testaverde set in four years.
Johnson, who had left Miami to coach the Cowboys, chose Walsh in the 1989 supplemental draft. Johnson already had Troy Aikman as his quarterback of the future but knew that Walsh would generate intense trade interest. Walsh started five games his rookie season--including the only victory in the Cowboys’ 1-15 season--but when New Orleans offered draft choices that eventually would turn into four potential starters, Johnson made the deal Sept. 25, 1990.
“That was my opportunity,” Walsh says. “I played fairly well. Looking back, I could have played better, but we got to the playoffs.”
It was the second time in franchise history the Saints reached the playoffs, but they lost 16-6 at Chicago. When Bobby Hebert returned in 1991 after a yearlong holdout, Walsh was back on the bench, despite an impressive exhibition season.
He’s still there. The Saints (11-4) have one of the best teams in football, but Walsh hasn’t thrown a pass this season.
“It’s frustrating,” says Walsh, 26. “It hurts. But I just saw a feature on Jim Plunkett. He was drafted by the Patriots and things didn’t go too well there. He went to the 49ers and things got worse. He lost all his confidence. Years later, the Raiders picked him up and he won the Super Bowl. That was interesting for me to watch. I feel my star is on the rise. It’s just a matter of the right situation. That situation is probably not in New Orleans.”
He was a bruising 6-1, 235-pound fullback with unnatural acceleration. In 1986, Highsmith led Miami in rushing with 105 carries and 442 yards. Unlike most of his teammates, Highsmith played well in the Fiesta Bowl, gaining 119 yards on 18 carries.
Perhaps thinking of Earl Campbell, the Houston Oilers made Highsmith the third pick of the 1987 draft. But injuries never allowed Highsmith to make a run at Campbell’s records.
He had two serviceable years in 1988 and 1989, gaining 997 yards, but he destroyed the cartilage in his left knee. Two operations did little to correct the problem.
Even so, Johnson traded for Highsmith in 1990, figuring his former fullback at 75 percent was better than most at 100 percent. Highsmith wound up at Tampa Bay the next year, but the knee continued to deteriorate. He started the first five games this year, but the coaches said he wasn’t consistent. Two of every seven blocks were of highlight-film quality. The other five? Not even close.
The Buccaneers waived Highsmith at midseason. He had another operation. Today the knee feels so good, Highsmith, 27, is talking about a comeback.
If it doesn’t happen, Highsmith says he’ll be OK. He saved his money. He’s in the restaurant business with former Houston teammates Bubba McDowell and Sean Jones.
“No,” he says, “I’ve got no regrets. I’ve had a great life. When you see what happens to Mike Utley or Dennis Byrd (who were paralyzed by spine injuries), you feel blessed. I can leave this game with my head held high. I got hurt, but hey, some guys get killed in car crashes, right?”
Of all those marvelous players in 1986, Irvin had the most sparkle. Maybe it was because he was used to rising above the crowd; growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he was one of 17 children.
Irvin caught 53 of Testaverde’s passes for 868 yards and a school-record 11 touchdowns. Irvin wasn’t particularly fast, but he was a master at maneuvering his 6-2, 200-pound body into position for a catch.
He was the second Miami player taken in the 1988 draft, eight spots after defensive back Bennie Blades went to Detroit as the third overall choice. In a strange stroke of fate, Dallas Coach Tom Landry drafted Irvin, only to lose his job to Johnson the next year.
Johnson never thought Irvin would be a big-time player. He spent his first three Dallas years slowed by injury and averaging only 26 catches a season.
And then Irvin broke through in 1991 with 93 catches for 1,523 yards. No one--not even 49ers star Jerry Rice--produced more yards. As the Cowboys’ offense has become more balanced, Irvin’s statistics have suffered. Still, he has 73 catches for 1,350 yards (second in the NFL to Sterling Sharpe’s 1,416) through 15 games and is a Pro Bowl player for the second year in a row.
Perhaps more than any other Miami player, Irvin remembers his roots. He talks with Miami senior wide receiver Lamar Thomas every week.
“We have a unity thing,” Irvin says. “We say to the kids, ‘Man, you’ve got to remember this thing is bigger than you or I. You’re out there for a whole lot of people. It’s up to you all to make all the plays.’
“We talk to the players, even the guys we think might become Miami players. If we get the chance, you better believe a lot of us will be down on the sidelines in New Orleans on New Year’s. We’re going to watch them smack around Alabama.
“Got to keep the tradition alive.”